Film: Why Precious Should Be Taught Math

Early in the movie Precious, based on the novel Push by Sapphire, Precious tells the audience how much she likes math class. She even shushes another student when he interrupts the math teacher. But then Precious is kicked out of school for being pregnant. Eventually she winds up at an alternative school, where her teacher encourages her to write daily in her journal. Math does not appear to be on the curriculum.

At film's end, Precious is living in a halfway house, raising an infant and a toddler with Down syndrome; she's also unemployed and HIV-positive. She is reading and writing on a seventh-grade level. It's possible, of course, that Precious will go on journaling her way to middle-class security. But watching the film, I wondered why her teacher kept insisting Precious write, write, write, instead of add, subtract, multiply. If Precious aspires to financial security and gainful employment, she's a lot likelier to get it as an accountant than a poet.

The idea that every underprivileged young adult harbors the soul of a Rimbaud is a favorite trope of popular culture. We don't expect our bankers and lawyers to be secret Baudelaires, but we eagerly accept the idea that every poor person has a "story," and just needs the right teacher or mentor to give it voice. In movies such as Freedom Writers and Finding Forrester, books including Precious, and the Broadway play Superior Donuts, underprivileged, minority kids are able to transform their lives with a few strokes of a pen. Rather than impeding effective communication, these characters' lack of vocabulary, limited understanding of grammar, ignorance of literature, and basic inability to read or spell guarantee the urgency and authenticity of their stories, which are nonetheless told in fresh, descriptive language that brings tears to the eyes of their teachers.

It makes sense that the creators of these works are invested in the idea that upward mobility is available via the arts—they are writers themselves. And maybe an innate talent for math is harder to dramatize than a gift with language, though a few exceptions, such as Stand and Deliver and Good Will Hunting, prove it's not impossible to convey the transformative powers of calculus. But it's also likely another work is informing this notion that writing in a diary will help you transcend your circumstance (and possibly bring you worldwide fame): Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl.

In Freedom Writers and the French film The Class, both based on true stories, underprivileged students read Anne's diary, then are encouraged to write in their own journals. Though Anne's circumstances are, obviously, quite different than their own, the message is that the kids will relate to her experience of powerlessness, and will similarly discover writing as a way to escape their dire daily existence. In Freedom Writers, the kids are so inspired by Anne's diary they arrange for Miep Gies, the Dutch woman who helped hide the Frank family, to come visit the school. The fact that the kids in Freedom Writers wound up seeing their stories made into a film (and their writing published in an anthology) reinforces the notion that the private act of keeping a diary can lead to fame.

But, as Francine Prose points out in her excellent new reading of the diary, Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife, Anne was not just an ordinary girl who happened to jot down a few notes about what was happening to her. She was a highly ambitious writer, and she crafted her diary as carefully as a novelist, with a clear intention of eventual publication. The supposedly candid, spontaneous musings millions of schoolchildren read each year are actually the result of three drafts, and involved much editing and rewriting by their author.

We also need to remember that Anne came from a wealthy, literate family, and was well educated before she went into hiding and stopped attending school. As much as movies like Precious rely on the trope that the sole ingredient of good writing is experience, writing (like math) requires a basic tool set of skills to be effective. Popular tough-luck memoirs marketed as the works of naif savants J. T. Leroy, Margaret Jones, and Nasdijj have been debunked as the work of educated, middle-class writers (like Sapphire), proving that even raw, unpolished prose takes craft.

Anyone who has taught adult-literacy classes knows that inexperienced writers' efforts are more often clichéd, vague, and confusing than searingly original and profound. And that's just the work of students with an aptitude to write. Some people, no matter how extraordinary their life stories, have little desire or ability to write it down: contrary to what movies like Precious would have us believe, writing is not a universally cathartic experience. Even if it were, there's a difference between catharsis and communication. Maybe writing in her journal allowed Precious to conceive of a better life for herself and her children; maybe creating a persona on the page enhanced her self-worth. But, contrary to what Hollywood would have us believe, the world does not reward self-expression as readily or consistently as it rewards a good head for numbers. It's hard for any writer to support herself writing. Precious's teacher should have known that, and given her a calculator along with that journal.

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