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.
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The Road Out
A Teacher's Odyssey in Poor America
By Deborah Hicks
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2013 Deborah Hicks
All rights reserved.
Ghost Rose Speaks
For Blair Rainey, things began to change in the winter when she was nine years old. This was the time in her life when Blair began to find herself on the pages of her book.
Before then, she had listened and watched as her half sister, a girl in her teens, read aloud. Then things began to come together in a strange new mix: the scary movies Blair loved to watch on television; the book she was starting to read herself; the human drama in her family's social center, a front-facing bedroom. Blair loved to read there, sitting up in bed. Lying next to her was her Grandma Lilly, a heavyset woman with a bad hip and gray, braided hair pulled back tightly to reveal a weary face. For years, her grandma had struggled to hold things together with the thin trickle of funds from Social Security and child support. Blair had slept next to her grandma since she was an underweight newborn, tiny enough at first to fit in a shoebox. But she was growing up. Now everyone in her family knew that Blair was the smart girl who was going to make it out. On gray afternoons that winter, the world in her grandma's bedroom moved to its own rhythms. The television set blared drama and talk shows. A small, scrawny terrier danced in circles for attention. Blair's grandma lay in bed, answering the phone and barking out orders to her grandkids. The bedroom, with its view of the streets outside, smelled of pets and baby pee and musty warmth.
From outside, sounds from the streets drifted in. The crazies were out there, including Blair's mother, a sad and angry ex-addict. "Get your ASS off the sidewalk!" she would scream at some unlucky soul walking by. There was the lady who walked around all the time talking to the billboards. One day she was walking by, and she looked at the chain link fence and said hi to it. Then there was Kooky Old Joe, who had served in World War II. Kooky Joe said that a bomb had gone off right by his ear, and he went around talking to everything too. The streets outside were ugly and crazy and weird, Blair would think to herself, as she sank deeper and deeper into her book.
Blair was born in Lower Price Hill, a neighborhood of just over one thousand on Cincinnati's west side. Close by were the brown, slow-moving waters of the Ohio River. Her grandmother's people, migrants from Appalachia, had once crossed the river on their journey north from eastern Kentucky. They were part of one of the largest population shifts in America's history. Between 1940 and 1970, over three million Appalachian people packed their belongings and left the mountains, hoping to find work and a better future for their children in midwestern cities. They moved into neighborhoods close to old-industry centers, in cities such as Chicago, Dayton, Akron, and Cincinnati. As Janice Sheppard of Williamson, West Virginia, described her journey in the 1950s: "I sold everything we had within two days, made arrangements, and then on the day I decided to leave I had just enough clothes for [my] nine kids." She put everything she could in the trunk of a car and headed north.
The migrants from the southern mountains were typically poor; few were landowning farmers. But up north, men and women could at least find work in warehouses and on the shop floor. In their new urban homelands, the southerners formed close-knit urban villages with ties to their rural points of origin in Kentucky and West Virginia. A stretch of highway, such as old Highway 25 in Kentucky, linked particular counties in Appalachia with particular city communities to the north.
In the summers, Blair visited her one relative who still lived in Kentucky, an aunt in Hazard. Down there, Blair got pushed in a creek by her two half brothers, who were wild and always looking for fun and trouble. She let the family dog off its chain. Sometimes she dreamed of living on a farm with two kids of her own, her dogs, and a horse. But the world that Blair knew in Cincinnati was the concrete universe of the streets. It was better for her inside, especially in late winter, when the purple-gray shadows of dusk came early to the neighborhood.
In March, curtains of early spring wind and rain brought odors from a nearby creek, now a putrid dark green from industrial sewage dumped into its waters—and into the air that Blair breathed. Her asthma kicked up then; out came the inhaler. As the spring afternoons warmed, children and young mothers with baby strollers spilled out from cramped rooms in rental units, onto narrow side streets lined with cigarette butts and trash. Older adults with weathered faces sat on stoops or in rainbow-colored folding chairs, enjoying a smoke. Grown men, most of them white, worked on cars. Their faces often had tired, stressed-out expressions. The factory and warehouse jobs that once beckoned workers from poor counties in Kentucky and West Virginia had begun leaving the neighborhood in the 1980s. The old-industry side of the neighborhood, near where Blair lived, was a ghost town. Warehouse windows were boarded up or gaping. Shards of glass were ground into sidewalks that had once known the human warmth of workers going to and from their jobs.
Then summer came. Blair attended my literature and creative writing class for girls over the summer; she had already been part of my afterschool class during the school year. From my work with her over that year—and the year before, when I volunteered in her classroom—I had learned a tough lesson for a naïve teacher: unless I drove Blair, now ten years old, to summer class myself, sleep often took priority over educational opportunity. And so on the morning of June 25, 2002, I set out for Blair's house.
It was early still, a teacher's start to the day. The light outside was soft, with a pale-gray cloud cover that would lift by midmorning. It would be a hot day. I drove across one of the many bridges connecting Kentucky, where I lived near the river's edge, to downtown Cincinnati. The sights were familiar from each morning's drive. First there was the busy downtown area, with Starbucks on one corner and high rise banks on the right. Businesspeople in their two-piece suits and secretaries in their heels had begun to walk briskly on the sidewalks. Five stoplights further and I made a left turn, heading west. The road widened and the larger buildings disappeared. Then the road crossed a viaduct, with some old train tracks visible below and, scarcely visible from the road, the polluted creek where earlier generations had taken cool dips to escape the summer heat. Moments later the first of the old brick warehouses appeared to the right. I had arrived in the girls' neighborhood.
Finally there was the intersection—the community's geographic and emotional center. I came to a stop at the light. A few locals wandered into the Paradise Café for coffee and a smoke as I waited. A woman with a tired face and heavyset hips lit up a cigarette while she waited at the bus stop outside. It was an intersection that tended to give outsiders an uneasy feeling. As seventeenyear—old Bill Ferris, who grew up in the neighborhood, said to a reporter in the 1980s: "You're standing there on the corner by the light, and you hear all these doors locking—click, click, click-like you're going to come and pull them out of their cars and rob them."
The light changed. I turned right onto Perry Avenue, the two-lane road where Blair lived. Most of the houses on her stretch of street were of modest size and in need of repairs to their clapboard frames. Her part of the neighborhood had been dubbed Little Appalachia for its resemblance to rural hamlets in West Virginia or Kentucky. The two-story wood-frame homes sat close together, their yards spilling over with bicycle parts, discarded car tires, wrappers and cigarette butts, and young bodies at play.
Grandma Lilly had bought their home years before. She had labored to completely pay off the house in only six years. Now, at least, her grandchildren would have a roof over their heads if anything ever happened to her. But Grandma Lilly's precarious health and the thin trickle of Social Security benefits didn't create the conditions for upkeep on an older two-story house. From the front, it appeared to sag, the front-facing porch weighing heavily on wooden beams. The house stood across from a tall yellow billboard with black lettering that shouted its message: WE BUY UGLY HOUSES.
Most mornings it was an ordeal to get Blair into my car and to the special reading and writing class I had created for her and five other girls. I walked to the side door, past two barking chows straining against their heavy chains, and up the concrete porch that was missing its handrail. From inside came a sleepy young adult voice: "Who is it?" The voice belonged to Blair's older half sister, still in her teens but already working the night shift at Taco Bell. Once inside, I found most of the household still in bed. Blair's toddler niece lay curled up next to Grandma Lilly in the front bedroom, where up to four generations slept on a given night. On one of the cardboard boxes stacked next to a dresser sat Blair, sleep-deprived and growling a feeble protest. She was a night person. But once she got to my reading class, Blair usually perked up. One of the reasons was that in the summers my class always began with breakfast.
By eight that morning, I sat with Blair, still looking crusty-eyed and cranky, and five more of my students at a makeshift breakfast table—the kind of round work table you could find in any public elementary school in America. Next to me sat Miss Susan, an instructional assistant at the school who often joined the girls and me for breakfast on summer mornings. On the table, covered with a cheap paper tablecloth, were the food offerings I had brought in this morning: blueberry muffins and raspberry jam, granola, yogurt, orange juice, and a bowl of hardboiled eggs. I always fussed over my students, southern style, at our summer breakfasts, and Blair brought out my motherly instincts. She was a picky eater, and I nudged a couple of YoBaby fruit-flavored yogurts in her direction. Blair had taken home a point-and-shoot camera of mine to photograph some of the darker reaches of her house, including the attic. She was creating photographic images to go with a story she was writing.
"I live in a cave," said Blair, the crumbs from a blueberry muffin at the sides of her mouth. "And my house is hell."
"I've been to hell and your house ain't it," shot back Miss Susan, speaking quickly and glancing sideways at Blair. Her words were as much about delivery as content. Audience was important, and she aimed her remark at all of us around the table. Her lips parted in the faintest of smiles, revealing the gap from her two missing front teeth.
Blair snickered at Miss Susan's in-your-face reply. These mornings felt to her more like being with family than sitting through one of the dreaded summer school classes held in other parts of the school building, for the unlucky students who couldn't pass their end-of-year tests. She knew that here she could get in someone's face as well as Miss Susan—or anyone else she encountered on the little section of street she was allowed to roam—could. Blair's tiny frame made her look like a little girl, but the motor mouth on her was something altogether different. For a girl who came into the world as an underweight baby with drugs in her system, the physical world had to be subdued by verbal wit, intelligence, and bravery.
Miss Susan plopped a banana down on the table in front of me. She looked older than a woman in her late forties. Money was short, and Miss Susan had to work two jobs to make ends meet. Her black hair was pinned back, revealing the tired lines on her face. There were shadows under her steel gray eyes, though those same eyes betrayed a youthful, sassy feeling. She was a proud woman who could beat the shit out of anyone who messed with her.
"Eat this, it's good for you," she said in a voice made husky from smoking her Newport Lights.
"Did you work late last night?" I asked. Miss Susan worked her night job at United Dairy Farmers, serving up ice cream cones and floats. Some nights she didn't finish cleaning up until after one in the morning.
She nodded and muttered soberly, "Mmmmm."
"Miss Deborah, you know where I worked for ten years?" said Blair. "In hell."
"She's a little demon with two horns comin' out of her head," said Elizabeth.
"She's goin' down—God, I HATE to see her go that way!" said baby-faced Alicia, who sat next to Elizabeth.
"I'm a smart-mouth and evil bitch!" said Blair. She picked at the corner of her blueberry muffin carelessly, as though eating it were the last thing on her mind.
"And my attic is like Rose Red," she said, thinking once again of the house that she was photographing. Blair let the fingers of her right hand rest for a moment on the book she had brought from home. On its cover was an image of a bull and the title Rose Madder. On the inside page were accolades from reviews. "A work filled with terror from the very first page," read one. "Disturbing, haunting ... King paints a vivid nightmare," read another.
"Rose Red!" said Adriana, her half-closed eyes coming alive with the thought. "I wanna read Rose Red—actually I wanna see the movie again because I like it when the ghost lady, she pulls that dude's mom into the closet."
Blair could picture in her head her own mother, who had been in and out of the household all summer, trying to hold things together after her latest round of rehab. There had been ten babies born to Blair's mother, and Grandma Lilly could keep only a few of them. Family came first, but there were limits to what even family could do in such desperate circumstances. The trouble for Blair's mother, I discovered, began with alcohol and drug abuse, things she had tried to correct in sporadic rounds of rehab. In between her stays in rehab and halfway houses, Blair's mother went around with different men. Blair had never met her biological father, but she knew he was a different man than the man she sometimes called her stepdad, a drunk. The changing cast of characters gave Blair a feeling of being in a crazy house. The only good thing about her mother being in the house was that Blair's half brothers didn't act out as much and hit her.
Sometimes her mother sat in the front bedroom, watching television along with everyone else. She was a large woman whose auburn hair fell upon her shoulders in a wild way, as though blown by a fierce wind. Her face was sallow and had a haggard, angry look. She was, Blair would say, very mean; if you saw her on the street, you would feel afraid. Sometimes when she was out of money, she would beg from Grandma Lilly, who struggled to keep food in the mouths of Blair and the other grandbabies left to her care. Other times she would go around and do things to get money from men. Blair didn't like people like that. As a matter of fact, she didn't like her mother. She wouldn't have minded if an evil house like Rose Red had sucked her mother into one of its shape-shifting walls.
"In Rose Red something happens to women," said Blair. "They end up dead."
"What's Rose Red?" I asked innocently. I had missed King's made-for-television movie when it aired over the winter.
"A haunted house," said Blair, turning the plastic spoon in her banana YoBaby yogurt like a stubborn three-year-old. When her mother was around the house, Blair wanted to be the baby. At those times, she would come into my class with a pacifier dangling from her mouth. She would crawl on the floor, cooing and making high whimpering sounds. She had acquired a nickname: Itty Bitty.
"And there's this girl," said Elizabeth. "She's magical, she's the only one that can wake up Rose Red."
Excerpted from The Road Out by Deborah Hicks. Copyright © 2013 Deborah Hicks. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsList of Illustrations
Introduction: A Teacher on a Mission
Part I. Childhood Ghosts
1. Ghost Rose Speaks
2. Elizabeth Discovers Her Paperback
3. We’re Sisters!
Part II. My Life as a Girl
4. Girl Talk
5. A Magazine Is Born
6. Mrs. Bush Visits (But Not Our Class)
7. A Saturday at the Bookstore
8. Jessica Finds Jesus, and Elizabeth Finds Love
9. Blair Discovers a Voice
Part III. Leavings
10. At Sixteen
11. Girlhood Interrupted
12. I Deserve a Better Life
13. The Road Out