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The Road Out: A Teacher’s Odyssey in Poor America by Deborah Hicks

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Can one teacher truly make a difference in her students’ lives when everything is working against them? Can a love for literature and learning save the most vulnerable of youth from a life of poverty? The Road Out is a gripping account of one teacher’s journey of hope and discovery with her students–girls growing up poor in a neighborhood that was once home to white Appalachian workers, and is now a ghetto. Deborah Hicks, set out to give one group of girls something she never had: a first-rate education, and a chance to live their dreams. A contemporary tragedy is brought to life as she leads us deep into the worlds of Adriana, Blair, Mariah, Elizabeth, Shannon, Jessica, and Alicia seven girls coming of age in poverty.
This is a moving story about girls who have lost their childhoods, but who face the street’s torments with courage and resiliency. “I want out,” says 10-year-old Blair, a tiny but tough girl who is extremely poor and yet deeply imaginative and precocious. Hicks tries to convey to her students a sense of the power of fiction and of sisterhood to get them through the toughest years of adolescence. But by the time they’re sixteen, eight years after the start of the class, the girls are experiencing the collision of their youthful dreams with the pitfalls of growing up in chaotic single-parent families amid the deteriorating cityscape. Yet even as they face disappointments and sometimes despair, these girls cling to their desire for a better future. The author’s own life story–from a poorly educated girl in a small mountain town to a Harvard-educated writer, teacher, and social advocate–infuses this chronicle with a message of hope.

“I was one of those girls reading books the librarians hesitated to let me carry away, but taking from those books the resilience and strength necessary to change my life. Reading The Road Out, I was taken back to my own teenage years in the best way possible. From a place where hope seems almost impossible, we find more than hope–we find inspiration. Read this book, it is a cure for what I sometimes think is the only unforgivable sin–despair.”–Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina

The Road Out is vital and enriching. I think it’s an important book that should be required reading for every American who’s concerned with education of the poorest and most forgotten in our society. The stories [in this book] filled me with outrage and sorrow. But there’s hope here, as well, and with more teachers like Deborah Hicks, perhaps that ray of hope will grow to a beam…and then to a flood.” —Stephen King 

“This stunning book will open your eyes and break your heart. Reminiscent of Robert Coles’ magisterial Children of Crisis, The Road Out is the best book I’ve read on the inner lives of working-class girls.”–Mike Rose, author of Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education

Review

“When I was a young girl growing up in a sleepy Appalachian paper mill town, I had a lot of dreams for a girl with limited opportunity. Probably the biggest of all my dreams was just to get away from where I was.”

This is the opening testament of the author who set on a road to do that very same thing for a group of unfortunate girls that reside in conditions more darker and truer than fiction, this dilemma is a common and increasing reality of our modern age.

She goes on to write in her introduction.

“My own life journey, from a poorly educated girl in a small mountain town to a Harvard educated writer, teacher, and social advocate is one message of hope. But then so are the stories of seven determined girls who were every bit as gifted and promising as I once was. Each different, but all steadfast in their desire for a better life than the one they had inherited. These daughters and granddaughters of southern Appalachian workers have grit and resolve, but they need much more if they are to succeed in our new unforgiving economy. The stories that follow provide a chronicle of one teacher’s odyssey in poor America, and of the pitfalls and possibilities that arose along a road carved out of simple materials: literature, reading and stories of childhood dreams.”

I fitting account of the tragedy and triumph that resides in these pages touching and awe inspiring. A teacher, a heroine, equipped with a pencil, a sword of victory.
With hope and belief in oneself on a journey, a road on out to a greater good, the pen could be mightier against the sword/destroyers of dreams.
A true story to read, that may inspire many.
We need more teachers like this to instil a love for the written word, I know from first hand experience, I left school at 16 born of immigrant parents, of a illiterate mother, how it sadness me to see how my mother lost out in life without being able to read words and sentences, to joy at beautiful prose, to be enlightened and aware of many things in our glorious world of written words.

Every Monday after school during the regular school year, and every day during summer school this teacher met with her students to read and talk about books and to write stories of their own.
Literature proved to me a more powerful teaching tool than anything that this teacher could use.
What she learned was that they wanted to read of horrors and the supernatural as she explains here.

“The parts of the story jammed against one another: a young girl, Stephen King, horror. This want what I had in mind when I had created my literature class for girls.”

She goes on to tell what she had learned of this..

“In their improbable way, I was learning, that horror stories offered hope. Hapless heroines could outwit sinister spirits and crazies. Even stories of Rose Madder could find the inner strength to defeat the horrifying monster that Norman had become. Spirits such as Blair’s Ghost Rose could speak out in angry voices, letting others know how trapped and alone they felt. I too was trying to create hope around the only form of transcendence I knew: an education rich in literature and reading.”

And also in this paragraph.

“The young girls in my reading class were not alone. Horror fiction had become rampant in popular culture, so much so that parents and teachers had begun to voice concern about images of maiming and psychopathic mayhem flooding the popular book and movie market. These movies- Final Destination, The House of 1,000 corpses, Slash, 13 Ghosts-were geared to a ravenous audience of horror fans, many of them still in their teens. Such trends had led to a flurry of writing about the subject by literary and film critics, cultural scholars, and even psychoanalysts.
One explanation offered for the feeling that my girls experienced when reading scary books is the notion of a psychic safety valve. Fans of horror and ghost stories can experience a thrilling read, and yet know that in the end they will be safe. This can be cathartic-like screaming bloody murder on a roller coaster ride, then walking off with tears of laughter streaming down your face.
But this wasn’t the only explanation for the strange appeal of horror. Every reader of fiction searches for the threads that can connect her life to the landscape she inherits. And these threads of connections need not be real-or not something you can see or touch in the everyday world. Fiction’s special appeal is that it can take us out of this world and help us connect with what can only be seen through the imagination’s inner eye. Part of the beauty of ghost stories was that they were not real. Crazy, weird, and Elizabeth’s favourite word, boring-this is how my students felt about reading a realistic novel.
Elizabeth wasn’t yet ready for novel about a girl who was “just like her.” Could I bring myself to enjoy the kind of book that she loved?”

An awe inspiring story on a woman and seven girls battle against the odds.
These girls she taught had come from poor families, broken, and problem riddled.
Some girls had parents in jail or dead, addicted to drugs, alcohol, or who were violent abusers.
They, under this mentoring, had hope instilled but ultimately their surroundings, their home lives still had a tragic and out of their hands part in their fates.
Think in a more pleasant tone of the great Matilda, from that Roald Dahl story, and how she was helped by her kind and committed teacher against a bad teacher and bad parenting. A great teacher does wonders, a soul that one would look back on with pleasant memories and happiness on how they did it right!
A change needs to come about, to save our youth, we all need to act and help in the greater cause and message that lies in this unmissable read for 2013.

 “What is it about Stephen King’s books that you really enjoy?” I asked.
“The parts when scary things happen,” said Blair. “And I like to read long books.” Rose Madder was 420 pages long.
This story of one precocious young girl, her Stephen King book, and a hopelessly idealistic teacher helps to shed light on a big dilemma. How can education open doors for girls such as Blair, the daughter of poor whites, and a girl with dreams as big as any girl in America? Her small but important life story is part of a larger American narrative. She is the young heir to a labor history, a slice of our national life that is disappearing. The courageous southern migrants who fled Appalachian poverty had come to Midwest cities in search of manufacturing jobs and a better future for their children. Now young Blair had inherited a forgotten landscape, tormented by job loss and a growing street-drug problem. Dropout rates were high too, reflecting an inter-generational history-the earlier workers of Blair’s neighborhood could find jobs without high school diploma-but also a sense of detachment from school. What Blair most needed was a first-rate education that would allow her to create a new kind of future, leading her away from the streets and their torments and toward he life her Grandma Lilly envisioned for her.
But when I set out to become an educational agent for hope and change for Blair, I discovered that the single thing that could have made the biggest difference in her life-public education-was itself part of the problem. In spite of the intentions of individuals at Blair’s school, who were as hardworking as they were big-hearted, she was caught up in the same two-tiered system of schooling I had lived through. Its like John Dawson, an Appalachian migrant who moved to inner-city Chicago in the 1950s, remarked: “A poor kid don’t get the same teachin’ that a rich kid gets.” 




Reviewed by Lou Pendergrast on 13 February 2013