It’s become a standard book and movie trope: An idealistic teacher walks into a classroom of hardened, at-risk students and strives to reach them.
But the outlines of the story, while familiar, can still surprise and inspire. In Deborah Hicks’s “The Road Out: A Teacher’s Odyssey in Poor America,” the author and educator writes about her experiences trying to help a group of troubled girls in urban Cincinnati using literature, empowerment, and personal communion.
She and the girls share similar roots: Hicks grew up in a working-class Appalachian family from North Carolina while her pupils’ families migrated from rural Kentucky and West Virginia to Cincinnati seeking a better life but instead finding debilitating poverty.
Hicks brings to life the stories of her seven main characters — several of them practically orphans, abandoned by drug-addicted mothers hooked on OxyContin and heroin. With unflinching eye, she details their lives, including some shocking physical and emotional abuse. She begins with 8-year-old Blair Rainey, a diminutive girl born with cocaine in her body and raised by her grandmother.
“The journey I undertook is based on the belief, indeed the conviction, that things can and must be different for girls such as Blair Rainey, and all of the girls who share her dreams and her crushing obstacles to opportunity,’’ Hicks writes.
Hicks starts by describing her own trajectory: She grew up in a rural mill town, made her way to college, financed her own study-abroad experience by picking grapes in France and working as a nanny, and later earned a graduate degree in education from Harvard University. She moves to Cincinnati for a university job but finds her mission in a local elementary school where she volunteers to teach reading and writing part time.
The chapters develop over four years with rich details about the girls, whom she gets to know through an afternoon class and special summer program. They include Blair, whose mother was crippled by drugs and alcohol, and Alicia, who was startled to see her drug-addicted mother fraternizing with prostitutes.
We learn of Hicks’s efforts to pull her students in through books and storytelling. She is first surprised by the girls’ affinity for horror stories, particularly books by Stephen King. But instead of belittling their taste, Hicks settles down to read the books herself and makes a startling discovery. “In their improbable way, I was learning, the horror stories offered hope. Hapless heroines could outwit sinister spirits and crazies,’’ she wrote.
As the years pass, the girls begin to find aspects of themselves in the characters they read about and their own intellectual curiosity takes root. They share breakfasts generously provided by Hicks and attend a book reading with a real author. In sixth grade, after a discussion about love troubles, the girls read Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” with great success. That same year, Blair declares, “I want to be the first one (in my family) to go to college.’’
Sadly for her students, it’s at this time that Hicks decides to leave the area to write and advocate for girls and young women full time in her native North Carolina. When she returns four years later to catch up with her former charges she finds the results dispiriting. Blair dropped out of high school — indeed only three of the seven eventually earn high school diplomas. The writing here is also less gripping. Unlike the teaching years, these stories aren’t as fresh as earlier passages and meld into one another.
Hicks concludes that what she had to offer her students wasn’t enough to permanently change their lives. Yet she still hopes their stories will lead to more ways to help impoverished kids. This heartfelt story, though imperfect, illustrates the challenges and the pressing need to do more to help the Blair Raineys across the nation.