Today I had the opportunity to finish a book that wrecked me.
The book was Tara Westover‘s memoir, Educated.
I won’t tell you how the story ends, but I will tell you that it is about a girl who grows up in a stifling environment with parents who never believed in giving her a high-school education. When she was finally old enough to fight for an education, her choice would often come between her and her family.
I could not deny the truth of the book. I knew it was true because it echoed too loudly the voices of the students I teach every day. I teach adults who didn’t finish high school, and the stories of why they never finished can be shocking.
One student walked for two hours to be here because it was the only way he could get to school. Any other time he came, he said, his dad would find out he was here and come and drag him out of class. I tried to picture his fragile frame being dragged down the hallway, legs flailing, while teachers stood agape in the doorways. I tried to imagine a time when any of my peers would have let that happen to him…on government property…where we should have at least held the upper hand. If I knew him then, I like to think I would have said something. I would not have just watched. But by the time I did know him, it was too late. He was too convinced he was worthless. I never saw him again.
Another student came to me with his arms folded and his nose held high in the air. He was determined not to work with his classmates on any group assignments that I gave him. He said he was “better than them” because he “needed his education more”. He had been homeless for years. He had lived in tents in the woods. He had lived with his family splintered when poverty finally caused his mother to suffer mental illness and not be able to recognize her own children. When I finally got this student to see his classmates as friends, he became one of the best tutors I have ever seen. He could explain material better than I could teach it with all my elevated degrees. He completed his high school degree and, later, his college degree while also tutoring strangers in the community. Education changed his life and gave him options he would have never had without it.
When I read Educated, I thought of all the students I have seen and continue to see that suffer a likewise fate. I have treated my job as a battlefield on which I am doing the very real work of saving people from the tyranny of ignorance. I have treated education as the saving grace that would get them out of the mess they are in. I still believe education is the key to a successful future, but I have to wonder if education isn’t also educating the educated on those who don’t have it as well as they do.
Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a book in the 1850s that would change forever the way we looked at slavery. Jacob Riis’s photography exposed the harsh realities of poverty vs. the gilded age of wealth in 1890s New York. Could Tara Westover’s book cause a likewise revolution in how we look at and treat uneducated people in America today?
As much as I wanted to believe the book was ground-breaking, I struggled with the fact that Tara returned to her abusive environment year after year even when she knew better and had every opportunity to stay away. I reasoned that the family couldn’t possibly be that bad if she would return to them. Then I remembered another one of my students. This student had been abused in every possible way by her father before the government stepped in and took her away from him, yet she still tried to call him and reach out for him from foster care. When she finally graduated high school as an adult years later, it was her abusive biological parents she was proudly introducing me to.
Why would any educated, abused person return to the place of their torment once they know better?
I can’t really answer that question, but I believe it lies in the importance of the bonds we make in our childhood. It seems that no matter how good or bad your parents are, you still seek their approval. You still want to make them happy. It is just something innate in us as human beings.
That leads me to another question: why didn’t anyone who knew what was going on, step in to make a difference at an earlier time in their childhood?
In Tara’s story, I think no one intervened because of the sheer force of the person they would have had to come against. He was scary. On the other hand, the family was so isolated that not many people knew anything about the truth of what happened until her book came out. Now the decisions that saved her–the decisions to educate herself and develop her own identity–would come in adulthood.
Like so many of the students I see every day, Tara had to wait till adulthood to take charge of bettering her life. Waiting that long, however, has left deep scars and regrets and ideologies that are hard to shake loose even with the elevated degrees she now holds. I can’t help but feel it would all be different if someone said something or did something earlier. If someone helped her as a child, could she have lived in more freedom today?
I think the real challenge of this book is the challenge for educated people to learn about people unlike themselves and challenge themselves to pay more attention to the people around them. Poverty and ignorance are everywhere; if we all got more involved, we could make a real difference in ending injustice before it becomes a lifetime of trauma for an adult to unwind.