Reading With Patrick by Michelle Kuo

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My Review:

Heartbreaking, inspiring and a tribute to dedication, Reading With Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship  is the memoir of an Asian American Teach For America teacher and her friendship with a poor, black student in Helena, Arkansas.  Their special relationship is in the forefront of the story with race relations, education and the legal system the backdrop for setting.

Michelle had always been encouraged by her traditional Taiwanese parents to get an education, settle down and get married.  But Michelle found the job of teaching troublesome kids in the Delta extremely rewarding. She stuck with it for a couple of years during which her student, Patrick, attended, on occasion.  His home life was less than perfect and his family was not overwhelmingly supportive or encouraging when it came to school.  Most of the people in the small towns were moving to the big cities and those left behind were the poorest and least educated.  After two years, Michelle, feeling pressure to fulfill her own personal goals and responsibilities, left Arkansas to attend Harvard Law School.  Upon her graduation she learned Patrick had dropped out of school and was currently in jail for murder.  Feeling a sense of responsibility, she gave up her life and returned to the Delta to meet with him, try to guide him legally and then continued teaching him while he was in prison.  The beautiful gift she gave him of being his mentor and teacher changed the course of his life. While in jail, Patrick wrote many letters to his daughter, allowing him to grow and prepare for all the work it would take to develop that relationship once he was released, while Michelle developed her inner strength to fight for what she believed in even if it went against the wants and needs of her beloved parents.

I admire the commitment Michelle Kuo made to Patrick; we must tend to the people in the poorest of neighborhoods where mentors, guidance and education are most needed.  She clearly made a difference in her student’s life, but currently, with a felony on his record he has a hard time finding a job.  According to a Random House Q & A with the author, Patrick’s “food stamps recently got cut off because of a federal law that cut off aid for 500,000 of the poorest people in the United States.”  On a positive note, his daughter is in third grade and doing well.

I highly recommend this inspiring story of dedication and human responsibility to teachers and everyone else who is able to contribute positively to our society.

As seen in Goodreads:

A memoir of race, inequality, and the power of literature told through the life-changing friendship between an idealistic young teacher and her gifted student, jailed for murder in the Mississippi Delta.

Recently graduated from Harvard University, Michelle Kuo arrived in the rural town of Helena, Arkansas, as a Teach for America volunteer, bursting with optimism and drive. But she soon encountered the jarring realities of life in one of the poorest counties in America, still disabled by the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. In this stirring memoir, Kuo, the child of Taiwanese immigrants, shares the story of her complicated but rewarding mentorship of one student, Patrick Browning, and his remarkable literary and personal awakening.

Convinced she can make a difference in the lives of her teenaged students, Michelle Kuo puts her heart into her work, using quiet reading time and guided writing to foster a sense of self in students left behind by a broken school system. Though Michelle loses some students to truancy and even gun violence, she is inspired by some such as Patrick. Fifteen and in the eighth grade, Patrick begins to thrive under Michelle’s exacting attention. However, after two years of teaching, Michelle feels pressure from her parents and the draw of opportunities outside the Delta and leaves Arkansas to attend law school.

Then, on the eve of her law-school graduation, Michelle learns that Patrick has been jailed for murder. Feeling that she left the Delta prematurely and determined to fix her mistake, Michelle returns to Helena and resumes Patrick’s education–even as he sits in a jail cell awaiting trial. Every day for the next seven months they pore over classic novels, poems, and works of history. Little by little, Patrick grows into a confident, expressive writer and a dedicated reader galvanized by the works of Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, Walt Whitman, W. S. Merwin, and others. In her time reading with Patrick, Michelle is herself transformed, contending with the legacy of racism and the questions of what constitutes a “good” life and what the privileged owe to those with bleaker prospects.

Reading with Patrick is an inspirational story of friendship, a coming-of-age story of both a young teacher and a student, a deeply resonant meditation on education, race, and justice in the rural South, and a love letter to literature and its power to transcend social barriers.

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About the Author:

Michelle Kuo is the author of the memoir READING WITH PATRICK, a story of race, inequality, and the transformative power of literature. She taught English at an alternative school in the rural town of Helena, Arkansas, located in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.

After graduating from Harvard Law, she became an immigrants’ rights lawyer at Centro Legal de la Raza, a nonprofit in Oakland, California. She advocated for tenants facing evictions, workers stiffed out of their wages, and families facing deportation.

Michelle has also clerked for the Honorable John T. Noonan at the Court of Appeals of the Ninth Circuit and taught courses through the Prison University Project at San Quentin Prison.

The daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, Michelle grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

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