The Popcorn Theory
LEIGH ANNE and SEAN
We all begin on the same page and we're all going to end on the same page.—Sean Tuohy
After many years of getting and spending, of being broke, then rich, then almost broke again, of cashing in and paying up, and—let's face it—hoping to die with the most toys, we're convinced that it's better to give than receive. Some folks call that philanthropy. But we aren't the fancy types. We don't always have enough starch in our shirts and our household is about as formal as a sandbox. Instead, we live by a more informal notion, which we call the Popcorn Theory.
It goes like this: "You can't help everyone. But you can try to help the hot ones who pop right up in front of your face."
The Popcorn Theory is about noticing others. It starts with recognizing a fellow soul by the roadside as kindred, even if he doesn't seem to belong in your gated community and, at six foot five and over three hundred pounds, is the biggest piece of popcorn you ever saw. It's about acknowledging that person's potential and value. It's about seeing him, instead of looking past him.
"Like with popcorn, you don't know which kernel's gonna pop," Sean likes to say. "But the hot ones just show up. It's not hard to spot 'em."
Except, that first day we almost drove right by him.
It was a raw autumn morning in late November 2002, the day before Thanksgiving. A light dusting of snow had just fallen, which we in Memphis, Tennessee—being Southerners—considered a blizzard. Ice draped the roof gutters and the sky was dull and blanched, a waste-colored day.
We were on our way out to breakfast. He was trudging down the street in nothing but a T-shirt and shorts, his arms wrapped in a sad knot, his breath visible in the cold.
We glanced at him, briefly. Then we did what comes too easily to all of us. To be honest—gut-punch honest—we kept on driving and passed him by. Past the occasional patches of snow that lay on the yards like sheets half pulled back. Past the stubbled lawns and the freeze-cracked sidewalks.
But, as we left him behind, a thought tugged at Leigh Anne's consciousness. It was as faint as the wind, as indistinct as the chittering of birds.
"Turn around," Leigh Anne said.
With that, our lives changed in a heartbeat.
If you are among the millions of people who saw the movie The Blind Side, or read the book it was based on, then you know what happened next. You know how a wealthy suburban couple pulled over and spoke to young, rootless Michael Oher. How Michael was a ward of the state, his mother an addict, his father murdered. How he ran away from twenty foster homes and passed through eleven schools before he met us. How he eventually became a second son to us and earned a football scholarship to the University of Mississippi, where he made the Chancellor's Honor Roll. How he then went on to stardom in the National Football League. How an Academy Award‚Äìnominated film was made about our family, and how Sandra Bullock won her first Oscar for her portrayal of Leigh Anne.
You probably think you know everything about us, our whole story. Actually, you only know part of it. Don't get us wrong. Our friend Michael Lewis, the author of The Blind Side, wrote a wonderful book that deserved to be a bestseller. (Most of his books sell big. We haven't read all of them, but if you see him, tell him we did.) Our friend Sandra Bullock is a brilliant actress and her star turn in the movie, all nerve and bluntness, was perfect. (Leigh Anne doesn't actually wear skirts that tight, but it's a minor point.) Compared to our real lives, though, the book and movie were just sketches.
For instance, people ask all the time: "Is Leigh Anne Tuohy really like that?"
Our friends are quick to answer: "It's worse. The movie could only get an hour and a half of her in."
The truth is, childbirth is easier to explain than our story. So in this book we'd like to introduce our family properly, tell you how we saw events through our own eyes, and deliver our message in our own voices.
It's a message about giving. We often say that our son Michael gave us much more than we gave him. That confuses people: how is it possible that a homeless kid could give anything to wealthy parents who already had two perfect children? It's possible because in every exchange with Michael, we came out on the better end. We gave him a home—and he gave us back a stronger and more centered family. We gave him advice and support—and he gave us back a deeper awareness of the world. We gave him love as a boy—and he gave us back a man to be proud of. Each thing we gave to him has been returned to us multiplied.
But before any of that could happen, something else had to happen first. A fundamental precondition had to be met.
We had to notice him. We had to see him.
At this point we should pause to explain why a couple of well-heeled suburbanites would go out to breakfast on a weekday morning. The answer is that we don't cook. Or, to be more specific, Leigh Anne doesn't cook. As Sean likes to tell people, "My wife believes that if somebody else cooked it, and we bring it home and eat it, that's ‚Äòhome cooking.' "
Our son Sean Junior, who we call S.J. for short, claims that our conversations about meals always consist of the following exchange:
"What's for dinner?"
"Whatever you pick up."
S.J. also likes to tell the story of our Kroger's supermarket card. A while back the local grocery started a program: for every fifty bucks spent at Kroger's, four dollars would go to the school or charity of your choice. After about a year, our grand contribution to the team, based on the amount of food we purchased, came to just seven dollars. The only things we ever bought were Diet Coke and Gatorade.
Actually, we almost didn't even have a kitchen in our house. Several years ago we moved into a lovely home in the upper-crust River Oaks section of Memphis, thanks to our dual success in business—Leigh Anne as an interior designer, Sean as an entrepreneur in the fast-food business. Due to the growth of Leigh Anne's firm, Flair I Interiors, and Sean's company, RGT Management—which over the years has acquired more than eighty Taco Bells, Pizza Huts, and Long John Silver's—we were fortunate enough to be able to buy and remodel a beautiful four-bedroom, cream-brick manor on a bucolic street called Shady Grove Lane.
Leigh Anne handled the remodeling discussions with the architect, who then drew up some plans. When she showed the blueprints to the rest of the family, we all stared at them for a long moment.
"Where's the kitchen?" Sean said to Leigh Anne.
"I don't plan on cooking."
"All right," Sean replied patiently, "let's approach this from the practical side. What if we ever want to sell the house? Who would buy a house with no kitchen?"
Stubborn, emphatic pause.
"I don't plan on selling the house."
Eventually, we struck a compromise: a small passageway lined with bookshelves was converted into a galley kitchen. Sean likes to show it off to visitors by spreading his arms out in the tiny space. "See this?" he'll say. "This was a negotiation."
Even now, it's immaculate because it's so seldom used. As our daughter, Collins, tells her friends, "It's like a hospital operating room."
S.J. enjoys throwing open the refrigerator door to show visitors what's inside: nothing but bottles. We have drinks. We have sauces. We have condiments, ketchup, and mustard. We have seasonings, stuff to put on food. But no actual food.
By now you may have gathered that our family is a little . . . odd.
So that's why we were out driving that morning. We were on our way to get some home cooking.
That day in the car when we spotted Michael, ambling slowly along a tidy cement walk and past a series of wrought iron gates behind which peeked the tall gables of grand homes, we each had the same fleeting thought. We wondered, inwardly, what a black kid was doing in that neighborhood at nine thirty in the morning. Frankly, he was out of place. In that part of town, it's a little unusual to see someone walking on foot, much less a very tall, very large, dark-complexioned person in shorts.
"He looks like a fish out of water," Leigh Anne said aloud, peering through the windshield.
Memphis, of course, has a long and tortured racial history. But if you live in River Oaks—a stately, wholly white enclave—it's easy to avert your eyes from the city's race and class divisions, or ignore them altogether. Thick-chimneyed Mock Tudors and faux French chateaus are tucked behind whitewashed brick walls. The subdivisions have European names like Normandy Court and they exude affluence and seclusion. They are sheltered by old oaks and pines and heavy hedges and protected by thick garden walls. There's no concertina wire, but you get the idea.
As we passed Michael, Sean recognized him. He was the "new kid" everyone was talking about at Briarcrest Christian School.
The pleasant, redbrick high school where we sent our children was just four blocks from our house. Briarcrest had been founded in 1973 as a response to the court-ordered racial integration of the Memphis City Schools, when the flight of white parents had resulted in a burgeoning of small, private, reassuringly homogenous halls of education. Most of the kids at Briarcrest came from the same neighborhoods and their families enjoyed the same income levels.
But, to its credit, Briarcrest had begun to seek out and admit minority children, partly out of a philanthropic impulse, partly in the interest of giving its affluent students fuller exposure to the actual world around them. Michael was one of these minority kids—he'd only just arrived and he stuck out like a sore thumb.
As it happens, Michael was the same age and in the same class as our daughter, Collins. One day she had encountered him on the staircase on her way to anatomy. He was going up and she was going down, and he took up the entire passageway. She had to back up so he could get past her. She remembers thinking, "That's the largest person I've ever seen."
The next day she introduced herself to him. He just said, "Hey." She didn't get many words out of him in their first few encounters.
Sean had also noticed him at Briarcrest, where he volunteered in the afternoons as a basketball coach. It was his habit to drop by the school during his lunch break and he had spotted Michael in the gym, sitting in the bleachers watching some kids play ball. One afternoon Sean spoke with Michael briefly, and he came home talking about the huge new kid who had great hands and feet to go along with his size. Sean saw right away that Michael might be a real asset to the Briarcrest athletic teams.
As we left Michael in the rearview mirror that November morning, the two of us had a brief conversation.
"That's the new kid at Briarcrest I told you about," Sean said.
"What's he doing out here this time of day?" Leigh Anne asked. "School's not in session."
"I don't know."
And that was it. No question about it, we intended to keep driving. We were more concerned with breakfast. Actually, we were preoccupied with food in general, given that it was the day before Thanksgiving. We wouldn't be cooking ourselves, of course, but the previous evening we had spent a couple of hours helping Leigh Anne's mother—who would be hosting the family meal extravaganza—dice and chop.
Later on, we learned that Thanksgiving didn't mean much to Michael. Neither did Christmas, or his birthday. These days weren't for celebrating, quite the opposite. They were bleak, neutral days that only reminded him of want. "I went through a lot of those days with nothing," he told us. "A holiday was just another date to me."
We glided down the street in our BMW, a plush and comfortable silver cloud, fine with the world. But then it began to sleet, and that's when the thought whispered to Leigh Anne.
Why doesn't he have long pants on in November?
The thought grew until it forced itself into her throat and demanded to be spoken aloud.
"Go back and let's see what he's doing here."
"Maybe he's going to the school."
"That's all fine, Sean, but why does he only have a T-shirt and shorts on in this weather?"
"I don't have a clue."
Anyone who has heard Leigh Anne Tuohy speak in that tone invariably does what he is told. Sean promptly U-turned the car right in the middle of the street, as ordered.
One of the things Mister Tuohy understands after twenty-eight years of marriage is how not to aggravate Missus Tuohy. Another thing he understands is how aggressive she is when a kid has needs—aggressive being a polite term for borderline obnoxious. Kids drive her crazy, because whatever is wrong in their lives is not their fault. Just by looking at Michael, Leigh Anne could tell that he had never hurt a soul. And he was shivering.
We pulled up beside him and Sean rolled down the driver's side window with an electric hum.
"Hey, Michael, what are you doing over here today?"
Slowly, Michael folded himself in half and bent down to the window. His expression was placid, gentle eyed. His voice when he spoke was mellow, deep chested, and surprisingly beautiful. He had a voice like a cello.
"I'm going to shoot hoops."
"Well, the gym's not open."
To Leigh Anne, leaning across from the passenger seat, it was immediately apparent that Michael was disappointed. He had an "Oh, no" kind of look. It was obvious to her that he now had no mission, no plan—and no place else to go.
"They got heat there," Michael said uncertainly.
He was going to the school because it was warm.
"Let us take you home," Leigh Anne said.
"Oh, no, no, no," he replied, with something like alarm. "I'm okay, I don't need anything."
"Well," said Leigh Anne, "why don't you at least let us take you back up to the bus stop where you got off. When does another express come by?"
"I don't know," he said.
After another minute of conversation, Michael clearly realized how persistent Leigh Anne intended to be. We simply weren't going to leave him standing there in the sleet in a T-shirt. Finally, he agreed to let us drive him to another bus stop and he climbed in the car.
There was hardly any talk as we drove. A little basketball chitchat, nothing more. What was going through our heads? Not much. All these years later, Leigh Anne is the only one of us who can recall having a specific thought that day. The first thing she thought was, "This kid needs some clothes." It was apparent that he didn't own any cold-weather garments. Next, she thought, "I wonder who would know what size he wears?" But she couldn't bring herself to ask him any questions. We didn't know anything about him or his life and we didn't want to patronize him.
We arrived at the bus stop and let Michael out. He waved good-bye. That was it, the end of the first encounter. It was nothing, and everything.
The following Monday, when school was back in session, Leigh Anne went over to Briarcrest and began asking some questions. Who was this kid? Where did he live? Where were his parents?
No one had any firm answers. The counselors knew next to nothing about him, except that he had been brought to the school in September by a youth basketball coach named Tony Henderson, with whom he had spent a few nights. Henderson had persuaded the Briarcrest administration to enroll Michael as a hardship case, on academic probation.
Leigh Anne dropped by the gym and queried Briarcrest basketball coach John Harrington, who said, "I don't know that much about him yet, but I do think he probably is lacking in clothes." Leigh Anne said, "Will you ask him if he will let me take him shopping?" John said he would approach Michael and let us know. That night John called Leigh Anne to say that Michael had agreed to let her buy him some things.
The next day, as Michael climbed into the car after basketball practice, Leigh Anne began to grapple with the scale of his potential needs. For starters, he was such a big kid that she had no idea where to look for sizes that would fit him. Surveying him, she said, "Okay. Where are we going? Do you know where we could get you some clothes?"
Michael looked back at her with an impatient, adolescent expression, like she'd just said something stupid. He sort of snorted, "Yeahhh."
"Well, I certainly can't take you to Macy's," she shot back, "so point me in the right direction."
That was the first small seed of a rapport and it grew from there. In the months ahead, our relationship with Michael would develop with a lot of sarcastic back-and-forth, and a lot of teasing, which was what we did in our home. Michael learned pretty quickly that in the Tuohy household you can say just about anything and not get in trouble.
In the weeks that followed, Michael began spending more and more time hanging around the house. But he wasn't the only one. We had supported and cared for plenty of kids besides Michael. (We still do.) A lot of them were athletes looking for a way up and out through sports, kids who were on the margin financially or academically. We had a natural sympathy for them; earlier in our lives, as we will explain, we had had much less ourselves. Besides Michael, there was a boy in the band and a young girl on the softball team. We wanted our home to be open to them and to all of our children's friends. Our house was like a hive: kids came over to share our takeout, or to be tutored by Sean, or just to play video games with S.J. Michael was different only in that he had greater needs. Truth be told, he needed more than any kid we had ever met.
But if there is a fundamental misapprehension about Michael, it's that he needed saving. As we got to know him during those first few weeks, we discovered that underneath his shyness, his foot shuffling, and his head ducking, he had a tremendous will to determine the course of his own life. If he initially seemed forlorn, and searching, that was because he felt guarded and out of place because of what he'd been through. But buried under his skin, like rock under soil, was a deep confidence, a sense of his own capacities. You saw flashes of it when he would cut his eyes up at you and smile. In that instant, you could see all that he had inside of him, as if the landscape of his mind had just been lit up by lightning.
Eventually, we came to understand that Michael was almost always the smartest person in the room. It just took a while for all of us to realize it. If anything, he was almost too sharp for his own good. As Sean would sometimes joke, "He thinks he could perform surgery with a butter knife." Miss Sue Mitchell, his academic tutor in high school and college, once said, "If Michael and I are ever in a car wreck together, please do not let him operate on me. Because he thinks he can."
The point is, Michael was always going to find a way to make it out of his situation—and nobody was going to be more responsible for his success than he was. He knew what he wanted and he found ways to attain it. "I knew there had to be something better," he said later. "I'd say, ‚ÄòMan, there has to be something else. I just have to better myself.' "
Michael came to us this great, sweet, bright kid, ready-made for success. All we did was give him a few tools and step out of the way. We allowed him to become who he was supposed to be. He was such a self-made man, in fact, that when he later saw the portrayal of himself as a boy in the movie, he said, "I was never like that." He didn't like seeing himself as he was. He argued that he never had trouble meeting people and looking them in the eye, and he all but insisted that he was born with a 3.5 grade point average. To him, none of his past happened. What he is now is what happened. Sometimes we argue with him—in all honesty, it's still hard for us to know how to treat his past—but then we let it go. His childhood is his own property. He would probably not be the success he is without the ability to transcend his past. He simply refuses to let it catch his sleeve and drag him backward.
A couple of weeks after we picked Michael up and took him to the bus stop, he spent the night on our couch for the first time. At that point he was drifting from household to household, dividing his nights between three or four different families from Briarcrest. He occasionally spent nights with a young assistant football coach named Matt Saunders. He also spent a lot of nights with a classmate named Quinterio Franklin, who lived out in Mississippi about thirty-five miles away.
When Michael stayed with us, he slept on a sofa in our game room, a broad, many-windowed space that reflects the Tuohy love of toys. It's got three different flat-screen TVs, a Pop-A-Shot basketball machine, an Xbox rig, and a view of the swimming pool outside. It's also got a large L-shaped sectional couch.
The running family joke is that Leigh Anne took Michael into her heart the first time she saw how neatly he folded everything. He treated that sofa as if it were the property of the U.S. military. After his first night with us, we all stared at the blanket folded and cornered in a neat bundle and at the sheets he had so crisply squared.
"Instant love," S.J. remarked.
No one else in the household would have done such a thing. Except for Leigh Anne, of course. The rest of us are all wrecks—which is why we need her.
Collins's room during high school was so messy that it drove Leigh Anne to distraction. Collins lived in piles. You could see the Monday pile, the Tuesday pile, and the Wednesday pile. There was the formal-wear pile and the semiformal pile. Leigh Anne would take videos of the room and show it to visitors, in hopes of embarrassing Collins into cleaning up the mess. When that didn't work, Leigh Anne would scream, "I'm going to throw her out of the house!" Finally, Collins would clean her room . . . and a couple days later, you'd see the piles on the floor again.
For all the chaos and yelling, it was apparent to any outsider who walked into the Tuohy household that we were a close family—if a functionally dysfunctional one. We didn't come home to the smell of fresh-cooked meals every night but we laughed a lot. We didn't have many Dr. Phil moments, either. We were moving too fast. Our lives were simply too hectic—who's got time for serious conflict?
Michael's first impressions of the cast of characters in our house were pretty vivid. Here's what he saw in each of us.
Leigh Anne: a former cheerleader, and five foot two of plainspoken will. She wanted to get things done and usually what she wanted to get done needed doing. If anyone tried to stop her, she'd take his arm off and walk down the street with it. She had a shiny exterior, glittering and bejeweled, that covered for tenderness. She cried on Sunday at Grace Evangelical Church when Pastor Jimmy Young read her mother's favorite scriptures or called for her father's favorite hymn, "Up from the Grave He Rose." But that didn't mean you wanted to mess with her.
"I'm all about loving and giving," Leigh Anne would say, "but I'm going to kick your butt if you do something you're not supposed to do."
Sean: gently sarcastic in tone and in manner, he pretended to be the minority partner. "I get a 49 percent vote," he'd say. In reality, he was probably the strongest person in the family. Sometimes others in the family seemed almost to ignore him, but when there was a crisis, everybody ran right to him. He oversaw dozens of fast-food franchises and he was also a broadcaster for the Memphis Grizzlies, the local NBA team. He was short on time and big on results. He refused to read the instructions to anything—he just went from A to D and didn't want to know what steps B and C were.
Collins: picture a luminous changeling with waist-length hair—and biceps. Collins—or Collie-Bell, as others in the family liked to call her—managed to be all things at once, gorgeous and athletic, sweet and a smarty-pants. She was the member of the family to whom everything came effortlessly. Before Michael arrived she was the best athlete in the house. She would master a sport, become bored, and move on. She was a gymnastics prodigy and later one of the best swimmers in the city. She triple-jumped and then won a state championship in the pole vault.
Sean Junior: An antic child, with a thick slab of black hair falling over his eyes and speech that came all in a rush. Of everyone in the family, he was the most perceptive and attuned to others. He had a strange, hyperkinetic mind; he was a king of the universe at Xbox, and he made straight As though he hardly cracked a book. Somehow, against all odds, he was also self-assured. The youngest in a frenzied household, he was always being left behind but never seemed to mind it. His good humor was bottomless. When he played basketball for a local boys club team that was made up completely of black kids, except for him, his teammates nicknamed him "Spot."
The family came and went at all hours and seemed to live completely in the moment. Sean would need five clean suits for a road trip because in addition to overseeing his restaurants, he was traveling all over the country doing his broadcasting for the Grizzlies. Collins couldn't find her pole vault gear in all the piles, Leigh Anne was juggling decorating jobs, and S.J. needed a ride somewhere. The merry-go-round never stopped—or even slowed down.
Then Michael came along. It didn't take long for him to understand what we were all saying to him: "If you want to jump into this frying pan with us, let's go!"
There was never a moment when Michael formally joined our family. It just happened. Monday became Tuesday and Tuesday became Wednesday. He'd stop by the house to hang out between classes and practices, which became hanging out to study, which became spending the night, which became staying for three nights, which became staying for a month. All of a sudden six months had gone by. At some point we realized that Michael had been living with us for a long time. It just evolved into what it was.
At first we were just too busy to stop and think about what was happening. It was only later that we understood that a mutual awakening had taken place and began to measure the size of the awkward gaps we confronted, between privileged and poor, between black and white. And only then did we begin to bridge these gaps as a family.
One of the questions we're asked most frequently is, how were Collins, S.J., and Michael able to accept one another as brothers and sister without resentment? We're not exactly sure, except that they were born good-natured, and we didn't ruin them. For some reason, our three kids aren't sitting on some psychiatrist's couch saying, "I got screwed." How did that happen? We don't know. But we do know that the three of them cared for each other as much as anybody.
One possible answer is that we all laughed a lot. Another is that Collins and S.J. were open to Michael because they hadn't been raised in total privilege and prosperity. When they were younger, they saw us struggle economically, so they grew up with some sense for how hard we worked and how fortunate they were. We also tried hard not to sequester them socially—because when you're socially sequestered, you're susceptible to stereotypes and to viewing a lot of people as "others." We never wanted our kids to view anyone as an "other."
Not long before we met Michael, we sent Collins to a program called Bridge Builders. It's a weeklong seminar during which schoolchildren from the dead opposite ends of the city are placed in dormitory rooms on the University of Memphis campus and required to get to know each other. The program is run by a Memphis nonprofit foundation called Bridges, which for eighty years has been fostering racial and social justice through a variety of community initiatives. They mentor local "peacemakers" and help young dropouts get their equivalency degrees and find jobs. "Changing Memphis One Life at a Time" is the program's slogan.
For five days, Collins—who was then a sophomore in high school—roomed with a girl from Raleigh-Egypt High School on the other side of town. Raleigh-Egypt was the opposite of Briarcrest socially and economically; it had a mixed student body and its share of problems. On one occasion, for instance, a student had slapped a teacher.
None of the kids in the program were allowed to use cell phones except in an emergency. Communication with friends on the outside was strictly forbidden, so all the kids had was each other. Through a series of encounters and counselor-led seminars, Bridge Builders knocked down social barriers and forced the kids to lean on one another. At first Collins and her roommate were all about checking out each other's hair. But as they got better acquainted, they discovered they were separated by—and curious about—some of the simplest things.
One exercise in particular made a lasting impression on Collins. A counselor gathered about fifteen or twenty kids together in a room, lined them up single-file, and turned out the lights. In the dark, the counselor asked them to close their eyes and listen to a series of questions. The students were to respond to the questions simply by taking a step to the left or right. If the answer to the question was yes, they were to step to the right. If the answer was no, they had to step to the left.
"Are you going to get a car when you're sixteen?"
Collins heard shuffling in the dark. She took a step to the right.
"Do your parents have jobs?"
More shuffling. Collins took another step to the right.
"Do you have two parents?"
Still more shuffling. Collins again moved to the right.
After a few more questions, the counselor said, "Open your eyes."
The lights flickered on.
Collins stared around the room. Almost all of the kids were on opposite sides of the room. They had been pushed to either one wall or the other by their family's circumstances. Just a few kids stood in the center.
Collins thought, "So this is why we're the way we are."
If the message you take from our experience is that a rich white family tried to save a black kid, then you will totally miss our story's meaning. It has nothing to do with where we were from, how we lived, or how much money we had. It's not important what color we were, whether we had glasses or didn't have glasses, or what kind of shoes we wore. All of that is irrelevant. Some people have tried to make it relevant—but they emphasize the wrong thing.
It so happened that when we first met him, Michael was a black, sixteen-year-old male. But those words are just adjectives that describe the person we tried to help and ultimately came to love. Making him a part of the family was an unconscious act, and it happened in a heartbeat.
It's equally true, however, that the outlook on life that allowed us to open our hearts and home to Michael was developed over the course of our lifetimes. If the impulse was sudden, the two of us had been thinking for several years about our philosophy of giving.
One of our deepest beliefs is beautifully captured in the Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, or 2 Corinthians. The seventh verse of the ninth chapter of 2 Corinthians reads: "Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver." After many years of attending church together, and helping to found one of the fastest-growing congregations in Memphis, Grace Evangelical, we came to believe that a cheerful, spontaneous offering, no matter how small, could be increased and made powerful by God. Our faith helped us understand that it was up to us to be generous and make ourselves available to be used by others.
We also became convinced that in order to really give, we had to get our hearts right. We had to learn that it was important to let go of any particular agenda. What were we hoping to achieve when we gave? We knew that it couldn't be "We're looking to go out and help a fourteen-year-old Hispanic boy today."
So many people we knew wanted to make a difference and yet they waited for a really important cause to come along. Or they waited for their big bonus check to come in. They said to themselves: "I want to save Africa." Or: "I want to save the American Indian." They had an agenda. But why is it necessary to have an agenda? Because it relieves our conscience? Or makes us look good to our bosses? Or makes us feel good about ourselves? Because it makes us more appealing to the congregation? Or gives us more points on our Visa card? Or means that the United Way is going to give us a plaque?
The more we thought about the nature of true charity, the more we realized that there's a paradox in Americans' general attitudes toward giving: as a citizenry we are at once charitable and stingy. According to the National Philanthropic Trust, 89 percent of American households give to charity. Sounds impressive, but think about this: on average, we donate just 1.9 percent of our household income. To be frank, that's miserly. Especially considering how enriched some of us are, that percentage is well below what it should be. And by biblical standards—as most Christians would undoubtedly agree—it's downright shameful.
As we reflected on our own ways of giving, we came to see that we often approached charity too formally. Giving shouldn't always be a prescribed ritual or ceremony; it doesn't need to be accompanied by properly stamped paperwork. If we worried less about the procedures and methods of giving and concentrated more on a giving state of mind, we might have more to offer than we knew.
It pained us to realize that we too often failed at the simplest kind of giving. While we were waiting for a great cause, or focused on an agenda, we chose not to notice someone standing right in front of us. We looked right past the woman in the grocery store taking things out of her basket because she was short on cash or the elderly disabled man in line at CVS.
Ultimately, we agreed that by embracing a smaller and more cheerful kind of giving, we might ease a lot of everyday problems. It took several years but slowly, informally, we found ourselves arriving at a simple conclusion: it wasn't important to do something great.
Instead, we decided to take this approach: do small things with great love. If we could do that, little opportunities to give might grow beyond our wildest dreams.
And that's exactly what happened when Michael walked into our lives. We didn't set out to take in a homeless kid. We just gave him a ride. He was the ultimate example of the Popcorn Theory.
Too often we think we lack the means to improve someone's lot. We're wrong. The Popcorn Theory doesn't oblige all of us to write impressively large checks or take in every hungry child with a face like a flame. It only requires that we perceive the person standing right in front of us.
Not long ago we heard the following story from a U.S. senator we met during a trip to Washington for an Adoption Coalition convention. There is a little-known congressional program that awards internships to young people who have aged out of the foster care system. These are kids who were never adopted and are no longer eligible for state support. They have no families and few prospects. The internship program is a way to give a few of them a decent professional start.
This senator we met during the convention employed one such young man as an intern. One morning the senator breezed in for a meeting and discovered that his intern was already in the office, reorganizing the entire mailroom. The senator said to the intern, "This is amazing—the mailroom has never looked so clean. You did a great job."
A few minutes later the senator decided to get a cup of coffee. As he passed by the mailroom, he glanced through the plate-glass window and saw that the intern had tears streaming down his face. The senator stopped short, wondering what could have upset him.
He returned to the mailroom and said, "Son, are you okay?"
"Yes," the intern answered quietly, wiping his tears away.
"Did I say something to offend you?"
"Well, what's wrong?"
After a short silence, the young man said, "That's the first time in my life anyone's told me that I did something good."
A bit of attention and a kind word—that's how little it takes to affect someone's life for the better.
Thousands of people failed to notice Michael Oher, his quality and his promise. Every day, as he walked the long blocks from the bus stop to school, they drove right past him. Now, Michael was hard to miss. But nobody seemed to have noticed him. Nobody ever stopped to ask, "Where are you going?" Nobody even offered him a ride.
After we met Michael, we became very conscious of his old bus stop. Leigh Anne is a power walker who does five miles a day and, from that Thanksgiving on, whenever she strode up to that bus stop she always took note of the people who were waiting for a bus and stopped to speak to them. Sometimes she just said, "How is your day?" Or she paused to ask a few questions and find out more about them. There was an orthopedic clinic nearby and some of them were on their way to get medical care. (We never even knew the clinic was there.) Others were on their way to work at a Chick-fil-A on the nearby commercial strip. (We'd never thought about how they got to work.) Most of them were taken aback when Leigh Anne stopped for conversation. They got a look on their faces that said, "People don't usually talk to me in this part of town."
Try an experiment. At some point in the next twenty-four hours you're going to come across someone who seems of no consequence. Ask yourself if you see value in this person. It might be a young woman in a restaurant clearing off the tables. It might be the young man who parks your car in a garage. It might be someone standing on the curb at a red light or waiting at a bus stop. Pay attention to how you respond. You will glance at them, barely, and you will place some type of value on them. (You're lying if you say you don't.) You will pass right by them and if you give them a second thought, it will be this: you're better than they are.
By the time Michael was seventeen or eighteen, he might have completely fallen through the cracks, unnoticed by anyone. After all, who cared where Michael slept, what he ate, what he wore, or where he went? To be brutal about it, who really cared whether he lived or died?
Even after Michael made it to the NFL, people still didn't seem to value him, to see him, as clearly as they should have. For instance, when Sandra Bullock went on the Late Show with David Letterman, she had an exchange with Letterman that struck all of us. No doubt he didn't mean anything by it, but Letterman kept referring to "that boy in the movie." You could tell it got to Sandra. She finally said, "You mean Michael."
To us, the astonishing commercial success of The Blind Side is rooted in a kind of self-examination. Michael's story causes all of us to search our souls and it shows us how we too easily ignore, debase, and devalue each other. The experience of watching the movie is kind of like hearing a sermon when you've screwed up and suddenly the sermon seems directed right at you. But the movie also touches the part of us that wants to be better, that yearns to treat each other as family. The story it tells is a reaffirmation of the way we want to feel about who we are and the way we want our country to be.
We're often asked, wasn't it a risk to take Michael into your home? You know what? You take a bigger risk every day of your life. When you get in your car and drive across a bridge, you take a risk. You don't know if your tires are going to blow out, or if the bridge's pilings are going to hold up, or if there's a drunk driver coming at you from the other end of the bridge. But you don't stop and think about it, do you? You don't get up every morning and kick each of your tires. You don't stare at the bridge and say, "Yeah, I think it'll hold me." You go right ahead and cross that bridge without giving it a thought.
Everybody takes risks, every day. You just don't realize that's what you're doing. For us, loving Michael was like that. We just crossed the bridge without thinking about it. And the way we see it, these are the kinds of risks that all of us need to take more of.
This is not to say that we don't have problems or make mistakes. It's not like we give everything away and go around wearing sackcloth, either. Like most people, we spend too much money on too many things, from golf clubs to David Yurman earrings. All you have to do is take a look at Collins's Louis Vuitton MacBook cover—Michael bought it for her—or check out the four cars in our garage, including young S.J.'s Dodge Challenger—Michael bought it for him—to know that.
Moreover, we're the first to admit that we weren't always the most generous givers ourselves and also that our views about giving were strongly influenced by others, starting with our parents. In the chapters to come, we'll show you how giving was passed down as a legacy to us and how we're trying to pass it to our children.
As you'll see, we have our flaws. You could even say that we have major issues. But, in the end, we're like every family. We have our disagreements and our insensitivities. We don't always like how other members of the family behave. We fight. We make up. And we get over it.
That's what families do.
Excerpted from In A Heartbeat by Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy
Copyright 2010 by Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy
Published in 2010 by Henry Holt and Company
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.