The chapter begins with an interview about Michael Oher between Joyce Thompson and Sean Tuohy. Thompson asks Sean if he knows much about Michael’s childhood, and Sean is forced to answer that he doesn’t. Thompson suggests that Sean “doesn’t care” about Michael’s past, but Sean insists that he and Leigh Anne are in “no hurry” to learn about Michael: “We got a long time.”
During Michael’s time living with the Tuohys, Sean and Leigh Anne don’t ask him many questions about his past. It’s strongly implied that this is because they want to respect his dignity and give him a measure of privacy. However, one consequence of this is that when Michael runs away (as he did at the end of the previous chapter), they’re unsure how to react.
When Michael Oher’s mother, Denise, was a young girl, her father was murdered. Her mother was an alcoholic, and eventually Denise was taken to an orphanage. She skipped school, and got into drugs. Later, when she was twenty, she gave birth to a child, followed by four more.
Previously we’ve been given very little information about Michael’s early life. Now, finally, we learn that Denise was a drug addict, and had many children in addition to Michael. This information might help readers understand why Michael is so shy, wary, and lonely.
Denise’s brother, Robert Oher, murdered his wife after his wife told him she wanted a divorce. In jail, Robert met a man named Michael Jerome Williams; later on, Williams, newly freed, served as a messenger, sending Denise letters from Robert, who was still in jail. Michael impregnated Denise, and Denise named the child after him: Michael Jerome Williams. Then, shortly after Denise gave birth, Williams disappeared—after that, Denise began calling the baby Michael Oher, after her own family name. In the next four years, Denise gave birth to four more children.
Michael’s mother and father didn’t raise him together, reminding us that, in many ways, Sean Tuohy is the closest thing to a father Michael has ever known (and, furthermore, Leigh Anne is a much more attentive, loving mother than Michael’s own biological mother).
Michael Oher and his brothers lived in squalor: every month, the government would send Denise a check, and afterwards, she’d disappear to spend the money on crack cocaine. Michael and his brothers had to find whatever food and clothing they could on the streets or in churches. On April 14, 1994, a court registered Michael Oher’s existence, and recommended that Michael be sent to a foster home to ensure his survival. Shortly afterwards, police cars pulled up to Denise’s house. Michael and his brothers ran away from the police.
Instead of working to take care of her children, Denise spent her money on drugs and neglected her offspring almost entirely. As reprehensible as Denise’s behavior might be, her negligence is in part a consequence of the institutionalized racism in the Memphis inner-city: a place in which impoverished people, many of them black, aren’t given the basic health care, education, and police protection that people in other parts of the U.S. take for granted.
Even as a young child, Michael Oher wanted to be a basketball star. He’d seen basketball games on TV, and wanted to be the next Michael Jordan. On the day the police arrived at his mother’s house, he ran after his older brothers and avoided the police. Later, however, the police caught up with Michael while he was in school. The police took Michael to live with an unkind woman named Velma Jones, who made Michael do unpleasant chores, and punished him by sitting on him. Two nights after being sent to Velma, Michael ran away to Denise, who took him back to Velma. Michael ran away many more times in the next two years.
Throughout his early years, Michael remains a dreamer, confident that some day he’ll be a great basketball player. Michael’s foster parents, such as Velma Jones, seem cruel or even just indifferent—they seem to have little interest in showing love or respect for Michael. In this way, Michael’s early upbringing might suggest why he has so much trouble expressing his feelings and developing strong relationships with others—he never had a loving mother, a stable relationship that lots of people take for granted.
When he was ten, Michael ran away from Velma Jones; this time, the police took him to a floor of St. Joseph’s Hospital designed for “bad kids.” Michael liked being in St. Joseph’s better than he’d liked living with Velma. He still missed his mother, in spite of her neglectfulness. Michael escaped from St. Joseph’s and found Denise again, this time living in a housing project called Hurt Village. By 1996, Hurt Village was one of the most miserable places in Memphis: gangs were powerful, drug addiction was rampant, and the average education level was between fourth and fifth grade. For a year and a half, Michael played “hide and seek” with the Department of Children’s Services: he never attended school, for fear that he’d be taken away from his mother again. By the time he’d turned twelve, he’d become adept at finding food for himself.
The passage paints a depressing picture of life in the Memphis inner-city. Even though Michael isn’t a “bad kid” by any means, he’s treated as a problem child because he runs away from his cruel guardians (this seems to mirror the way that some people who grow up in poor neighborhoods develop criminal records—not because they’re bad people, but because they’re victims of cruelty and neglect). Michael’s life in Hurt Village is harsh, so that Michael must learn how to adapt to his surroundings and find food for himself, or risk starvation.
Michael didn’t have many close emotional relationships in Hurt Village. One exception was a boy named Craig Vail, who Michael later described as “the one person in the whole world he fully trusted.” Another exception was a man in his early twenties named Zachary Bright, who looked remarkably like Michael. Zachary was a great athlete, who’d gotten football scholarships to many elite colleges. But, largely because of the encouragement of his peers in Hurt Village, Zachary quit the football team and didn’t even finish high school.
Michael’s friendship with Craig is the closest thing he has to a stable relationship during his time in Hurt Village. At this stage in his life, Michael simply can’t afford to trust many people. Notice also that Zachary has the option of going to college and playing football, but chooses to remain in the inner-city. Zachary’s situation suggests one of the most tragic aspects of Hurt Village: even though life there is harsh, people are so used to it that they’d rather continue living there than look for something potentially better.
Around the time that Zachary Bright was turning down his football scholarships, Michael Oher had acquired the nickname “Big Mike.” Michael hated his nickname—his still wanted to be a great basketball player, so he didn’t want to be big at all. He continued playing basketball, and retained much of his agility and flexibility. Sometimes he attended school, but he didn’t learn much. Shortly after his fifteenth birthday, Michael met Big Tony, who’d grown up in Hurt Village, and who’d previously coached Zachary. Big Tony decided that he’d take care of Michael—Michael seemed not to have close friends. Thanks to Big Tony, Michael played at a basketball camp at a local high school. There, coaches had told Michael that he wasn’t going to be a perimeter player, and Michael quickly became overwhelmed by the other, more competitive players.
At this stage in Michael’s life, Big Tony acts as his coach, father figure, and, in some ways, guardian. Michael still wants to be the next Michael Jordan, but doesn’t do well playing at basketball camp. Michael’s longstanding love for basketball helps us understand why he didn’t consider himself a football player until relatively late in his career. Even though in retrospect it seems obvious that Michael is a natural football player, he always saw himself as a basketball star first and foremost.
Shortly after Michael attended the basketball camp, Big Tony’s mother died, and made Tony promise to enroll his son, Steven, in a good Christian school. Tony decided to enroll Michael Oher as well.
The book comes full-circle, and we’re back where we started in Chapter Two. Now that readers have learned more about Michael, however, they can better understand why Michael struggled to make friends and open up to the Tuohys and, perhaps, why he continues to feel alienated.
In Michael Oher’s earliest weeks at Briarcrest, he was treated as a “freak of nature.” The other kids, virtually all of whom were white, struck Michael as being bizarre—totally unlike the kids he’d spent most of his time with. The white kids at Briarcrest, Michael later wrote in an essay senior year, were overly friendly, and needed constant medical attention for the most minor problems. Michael also noticed that it was easy to steal things from his white classmates. Big Tony found out that Michael and Steven were stealing things; he impressed upon them that they couldn’t “steal, or fight, or get into trouble of any sort.”
Where the stresses of the inner-city forced Michael to be reserved and stoic, and sometimes break the law to find food, Briarcrest requires Michael to be overly friendly and vocal and to obey certain rules that Michael has never had to before. Big Tony’s warning also suggests that Steven and Michael might be held to a different standard at Briarcrest because of their race and background. If a wealthy white student got in trouble, it might be dismissed as an adolescent mistake, but if Michael or Steven did, it could easily be punished as “criminal” behavior or used as a justification for racist beliefs.