In the book, Oher tells of how he grew up in a houseful of half siblings (he was one of 12, I think) who took care of each other since their mother was often gone completely for days at a time. His father, he only saw a few times in his life. He didn't have stability, since their family moved from home to home, he was often hungry, and spent time in foster homes and a hospital when not sleeping on friends' sofas or even outside. But he did seem to have love, since his brothers took care of him and they maintained fairly strong family bonds.
His message is that if he could beat the odds, others can too, so he tells his life story from that perspective, trying to figure out what made things work out for him differently than for others.
Some things he thinks helped:
Like Martin Luther King Jr, he had a dream -- but he said lots of kids in the ghetto dream about getting rich and getting out of there, and most of them don't. But he says that he also noticed that some just dreamed, but others worked for their dream, and he decided to be one of those.
So he set goals; he made plans. He looked for ways to stand out. When he was about seven, he saw Michael Jordan scoring in a close basketball game and that gave him a more concrete way to think about his future. He decided that sports was his best way out of poverty.
He learned from spending some time in a well -run foster home that not everyone lived like his family did -- that some people had order in their lives, and regularity. So he started associating work and order and discipline with success.
As he got older he decided to spend time with the kind of people who had lives like that and were working towards something. So he made friends who shared his desire to stay out of trouble and get ahead.
He said that he made some bad choices, but his focus was on making as many good choices as he could, and those added up towards turning his life towards better things.
Because he hung around with the type of people who were stable and loving and hardworking, those people tended to take an interest in him, and that was how he first came to the private school where he played varsity sports, and also how he was adopted by the Tuohys as shown in The Blind Side.
He said that though he understood why the movie played it that way, he didn't like the way it portrayed him as sort of slow and dense (though actually, I didn't think it did when I watched it). He was a smart kid who simply was way behind educationally, but when he got a chance, he worked hard and caught right up. In college he made the Chancellor's List in his junior and senior years.
So some natural ability also helped -- both his athletic ability and his intelligence, and it seems to me that he was also blessed by a good temperament, so that though he experienced anger and sorrow, he wasn't overcome by them.
The book reminded me of the concept of psychological resilience, which seems to make a difference for the better in outcome with some kids from disadvantaged or catastrophic situations.
It seems like Michael Oher managed to beat the odds by first, receiving some care and support from his brothers even though his parents weren't on the job; by forging relationships with people who could give him external social support; and by cultivating a good work ethic and developing skills that gave him a realistic confidence and pride. He talks about how he once lost his temper at a referee and swore and stalked off the field, and how his coach called him on it, telling him he had to make up his mind to be better than that if he wanted to get out of the environment he was born in.
Several factors are found to modify the negative effects of adverse life situations. Many studies show that the primary factor is to have relationships that provide care and support, create love and trust, and offer encouragement, both within and outside the family.
Additional factors are also associated with resilience, like the capacity to make realistic plans, having self-confidence and a positive self image, developing communications skills, and the capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses.
Another protective factor is related to moderating the negative effects of environmental hazards or a stressful situation in order to direct vulnerable individuals to optimistic paths, such as external social support.
He mentions that if he hadn't been fast and big as well as determined, he probably would be the guy taking your order at the local Taco Bell, but he figures that would have been OK, because it would be an honest living.
It was an interesting book, especially after watching the movie, and it made me more aware of the role one's own perceptions play in how one does in life.
For some reason I thought of some of Temple Grandin's books when I was reading this one. They aren't at all alike -- she's a woman from a middle class home with Asperger's Syndrome who has a doctorate in psychology and is an expert on humane cattle treatment, while he is a pro left tackle from the inner city who has a degree in criminal defence. But I think it's because they both portray coming from behind and pulling ahead, due to a willingness to learn and improve and a basic faith in their ability to do so. They both also extol the virtues of stability and regularity in upbringing -- she got that from her mom, while he only found it in foster homes and in friends who helped him out. And finally, they both talk about the importance of mentors in a kid's life, especially when the kid has definite goals and vision.