PHILADELPHIA — On a Tuesday morning in a windowless basement in Kensington, Pa., a book group is discussing “Push,” the 1996 novel about Claireece Precious Jones, an obese, illiterate, HIV-positive African American teenager from Harlem who is beaten, neglected, and sexually abused by both her parents.
The book club’s members analyze the author’s use of language. They trace Precious’ character development. They savor the startling poetic beauty in her raw first-person account of degradation and redemption.
Not much of a surprise here, you might think.
After all, with encouragement from Oprah, book groups across the country are doing the same. The novel ranks eighth on the trade paperback best-seller list and has been made into a film, “Precious,” that has been harvesting awards like ripened grain in the art fields from Toronto to Cannes.
But here’s the thing. The members of this little confab in Kensington have more in common with the novel’s protagonist than they do with most of the book’s admirers. They are adult literacy students who read, on average, at a fifth-grade level. For many of them, “Push” is the first novel they have ever read.
And for nearly all of them, the story provides flashbacks to their own troubled lives.
Six of the students were victims of incest.
Several were thrown out of their homes as teenagers.
Half have spent some time in jail, and no one came from a stable, loving home where their mother read them Goodnight Moon at bedtime.
To these readers, Precious is not a fictional character. She is an avatar of their stark reality.
“Her mother didn’t start her off right,” says Roy Carter, who dropped out of school in 10th grade. “Nine out of 10 times, when you get to that stage where you’ve been hurt so bad, you turn to drugs and stop striving.” Now 40, Carter, dressed in a freshly pressed, white button-down shirt, says that reading about Precious’ struggle strengthened his resolve to leave the marginal world of the illiterate.
“It enlightened me. If she could do that, it’s definitely a push for me to do something positive.”
“Push” is the first novel by poet and performance artist Sapphire, who spent part of her adolescence in South Philadelphia.
During a videotaped appearance at a Borders bookstore, Sapphire said that, in creating Precious’ character, she drew on her experience as an adult-literacy teacher in New York. She recalled a student telling her, “It was like being blind.”
Through Precious, Sapphire said, “I wanted to show that struggle. . . . When a person is not literate, it induces shame.”
That shame, the Kensington literacy students say, kept many of them hiding in full public view and made them feel alone, when in truth they belonged to a very large secret society.
A study, released last summer by the nonprofit Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board, found that half of Philadelphia’s adult population, an estimated 550,000 people, is functionally illiterate. And since two-thirds of the jobs in the city require fluency in reading, writing, and math, a high school dropout’s prospect for employment are dismal.
The 16 students in the class at the nonprofit Community Learning Center range in age from 18 to 50. The majority have held only minimum-wage jobs in convenience stores and fast-food restaurants. Others have worked as a forklift operator, a receptionist, a cashier, a nurse’s aide, an administrative assistant, and a notary public.
“I’m getting older, my kids are getting older,” said Donna Bostic, 41, a single mother of four who dropped out of West Philadelphia High School in 10th grade. “I’ve started and stopped GED programs before. But if I don’t do it now, I’ll be where I was — in dead-end jobs.”
It was Bostic who brought “Push” to the class’ attention.
Two months ago, she saw a preview of Precious that mentioned the book. Soon after, she found a paperback copy at the Tacony flea market, bought it, and read it in one day.
The language in the beginning of the book was nearly indecipherable, she said, because it is written in Precious’ own words — “sinder” for syndrome and “maff” for math. As Precious advances, academically and emotionally, so does her language.
“Reading the book was just, ‘Wow! I can relate to her,’ “Bostic said. “She protected her children. I protected my children.”
Like Precious, she was molested by a family member and for years told no one. Between incest and illiteracy, she has spent much of her life feeling guilty and ashamed.
“I learned it’s not your fault. . . . What happened in your childhood doesn’t dictate your future. There’s a lot of people out here in the world like Precious who keep it to themselves,” she said. “They worry about it getting thrown in their face.”
Sarah O’Doherty, the literacy teacher, stands at the front of the classroom. To encourage interaction, she has pushed the desks together so her students face one another. O’Doherty draws two columns on the blackboard and asks the class for words comparing how Precious changes from the beginning of the novel to the end.
O’Doherty writes them under the heading “Before.”
But the class has not finished. “Misled! Deceived!” suggests Carter, the well-dressed student.
“How was she misled?” O’Doherty asks.
“Her parents never told her the right way.”
“Do you think she knew she was deceived?”
In unison, the class cries, “NO.”
“But part of her knew it wasn’t right,” says Carter, referring to the sexual abuse. “Her human instinct.” O’Doherty proceeds to the “After” column.
The class volunteers “determined,” “motivated,” “well-spoken,” and “respectful.”
One student, a young man in a Yankees cap, ignores the entire exercise.
This is his first day in class, O’Doherty explains. He has recently moved to Philadelphia from New York. And he has just been handed his copy of “Push.” He can’t put it down and spends two hours working his way through the pages.
The Kensington students, like Precious, are regularly tested to determine their grade level. Once they reach the equivalent of eighth grade, they can move into a class to prepare for the GED.
O’Doherty asks the class to take out their homework, a journal entry about the book. Nicole Pote, 21, lays a neatly handwritten paper on the desk:
“I loved this book “Push” while reading this book caught my attention through Precious speaking about having baby’s by her father. Most of all I can relate to Precious classmate by the name of Rita. I went through foster care when I was 15 yrs old. Came home and turned to the streets for love and attention. I needed money so I could survive so I started selling drugs. The time I was 18 I went to jail. back and forth from jail still using drugs. Went to rehab’s and recovery houses. this year I turned 21 years old. Now trying to achieve my G.E.D. to further my education as well as Precious, and her class mates.”
It is almost time for the midmorning break. O’Doherty asks them to sum up their observations.”
“So I guess we could say she did change.”
“Yes,” says Carter. “Three hundred and sixty degrees!”