Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo

Reading with Patrick

Michelle Kuo

Reading with Patrick is an inspirational story of friendship, 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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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

Reading with Patrick could be the most affecting book you’ll read this year.”—The Christian Science Monitor

“Powerful.”—The Seattle Times

“Tender.”—O: The Oprah Magazine

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.


Advance Galley Reviews

I was really touched by this. Like Kuo, I read the same books she mentioned in high school (Invisible Man, Malcom X, etc) and was filled with idealism and yet was different or "not of them". It could even be said that since she was Asian and I was an upper middle-class white girl attending private school, I was even more out of the racism and "not of them" loop. We both had skewed views of our idealism based on races and experiences and wanted to be a part of the change. She, to her credit, took on a tough teaching job in the Delta which she paints as the land that time forgot. (I wussed out on any major step, but still speak out when I see or hear racism along with continuing to read and learn so that I don't always sound like a stupid cracker.) Where do we go wrong with kids? If they've been left behind, whether by their family drama, or a lack of educational funding, at which age is it too late to reach kids and steer them in a better direction than their society and environment has put them on? Kuo doesn't have all the answers and her grand idea dwindled down to helping only really one student, but still....think about that. She tried. She tried again and again. Not all of us could do this. In fact, very few would take on what she did with the resources she had and the lack of cheering section in her family. I loved how she intertwined books and poems into her time with Patrick, in search of what would finally reach him. It was intriguing how some lines would touch Patrick, others would touch her, and still another would grab me. My one issue with this is that she did a whiz bang "let's wrap this up" ending. Suddenly we fast forwarded to her starting to date, getting married, visiting with Patrick, etc. all in the space of a few pages. Other than that, kudos to her, I wouldn't have had the guts to do half of what she did.

Reading with Patrick is very much Michelle Kuo's story. It speaks to her immigrant background, family concerns, and cultural expectations. This book is about a young woman finding herself; her journey happens to intersect with this community and this young man. I leave this book wondering what was Patrick's story and what happened to Patrick and how Patrick's life changed because Michelle Kuo was a part of it for a time. Read my complete review at http://www.memoriesfrombooks.com/2017/08/reading-with-patrick.html Reviewed for Penguin First to Read program.

Michelle Kuo has graduated from Harvad and her parents didn't expect her to start to teach in Arkansas. The town is known as rural and the teachers keep coming and leaving. Michelle is sure that she can change the kids and their interest in school and studying. The kids stay stubborn and Michelle starts focus on Patrick, he shows big interest in school. Several years later she is becoming a lawyer and Patrick is in jail, he has been arrested for murder. She decides to visit him and help. The novel shows how much of an impact an help in somebodys life can be and how the justice sometimes works.

This is a wonderful true story about the powerful relationship between a teacher and her student, Patrick. I loved the writing style. Michelle is a Harvard graduate who works for the Teach for America program. Michelle leaves the program to move back home but returns back to continue teaching Patrick. Patrick was one of her brightest stars but that star fades when he is jailed for murder. In this remarkable story, we see a brilliant young man but impacted by the poverty of his home. Her teaching draws out his intellectual curiosity and inspires him and the teacher. A really well done story that I would highly recommend.

5 stars Reading with Patrick is not a memoir in the traditional sense in that its author Michelle Kuo doesn’t really write a whole lot about herself. Rather, she writes about the students she taught while volunteering in the Teach for America program, where she was assigned to a school in the small rural town of Helena, Arkansas – a town located in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, which also happened to be one of the poorest rural areas in the United States. This is a town largely “abandoned” by the government in terms of money and resources and so its residents are pretty much left to fend for themselves and to find ways to “survive” as best as they can; a town where violence is rampant and the justice system is practically nonexistent, where the school system is broken to the point that out of a class of 20 students, you’re lucky to have one student who lasts the entire semester. I don’t usually like to quote from ARCs, but in this case, I feel it is necessary, as Kuo’s description of the town is powerful in conveying the harsh realities that her students – most of whom are merely kids, teenagers – must face on a daily basis: “…in the Delta, the ghetto was not a corner of the city but an entire region of the country. This ghetto is all the students knew and it occurred to me that if you live in a place you cannot leave, where you can’t travel or work if you can’t afford a car, where land is endless space that’s been denied you, where people burn down their houses because the insurance money is worth more than the sale price, where the yards of shuttered homes are dumping grounds for pedestrian litter, where water is possibly polluted by a fertilizer company that skipped town, you want to believe that you do not at all resemble what you see. You want to believe that your town’s decay is not a mirror of your own prospects, that its dirtiness cannot dirty your inner life, that its emptiness does not contradict your own ambitions….” It is in this desperate, hopeless environment that she meets Patrick Browning, a mild-mannered 15-year old boy in the eighth grade. In a school that the local administration uses as a dumping ground for the supposed “bad kids” (druggies, troublemakers, truants, etc.), Patrick stood out from the rest of the students, as he largely kept to himself, listened more than he spoke, and for the most part, didn’t get involved in other people’s troubles. Gradually, over the course of 2 years, Kuo introduces Patrick and the rest of her students to books and also encourages them to express their feelings through writing, to allow the paper and pen to “talk” for them in situations where they couldn’t – wouldn’t – speak up themselves. Through the medium of reading and writing, she uses literature to make an impact on her students’ lives – however, just as they are making good progress, Kuo decides to give in to her parents’ wishes for her to get her law degree and become a lawyer, so she leaves the Delta and her students behind. Later on, she learns that her once-promising student Patrick is in jail, charged with murder and awaiting trial – feeling guilty that her decision to leave the Delta prematurely played a role in what happened with Patrick, Kuo returns to Helena in the hopes of “fixing” her mistake. She meets up with Patrick again as he sits in jail facing a potentially bleak future and together, they resume the education through literature and writing that had been cut short earlier. This book turned out to be so much more than what I initially expected. Yes, it is about a love of books, about reading and writing and how education makes a difference in people’s lives. On a deeper level though, this is also a study on the destructive power of racism and inequality, society and circumstance, as well as the coming-of-age of a young boy forced to make the best of his surroundings and the teacher who, in helping him, also comes to a better understanding of herself. The writing was simple and straightforward and the story it tells is inspiring, moving. I know that some people don’t like to read memoirs because majority of the time they come off as pretentious and self-serving. Well, this one is the complete opposite in that, throughout the book, very rarely did Kuo paint herself in a good light. In fact, the few times she talked about her own life, she would very candidly relay how much she disappointed her parents in choosing to teach rather than putting her Harvard education to good use, how she was initially mean to some of the students and did things that she regretted, how she was a messy person who rarely cleaned her house and constantly left dirty dishes and clothes all over the place. I especially resonated with Kuo’s story on a personal level, perhaps because we both share the same ethnic background and culture as Chinese-Americans (Kuo is from Taiwan whereas I’m from Hong Kong). I absolutely understood the pressures Kuo felt in striving to fulfill the role of a filial daughter constantly trying to prove to her parents that the sacrifices they made in immigrating to a foreign country were not in vain and balancing that against doing what she felt called to do versus what she was “expected” to do. When Kuo talked about her relationship with her parents and how deeply she loved them, yet they were a source of constant stress and pressure for her, I nearly cried because she expressed perfectly what I’ve been struggling with my entire life: “Few of my friends in the Delta understood the power my parents had over me. ‘You’re like a little girl around them,’ one roommate had admonished. ‘How can they tell you what to do? You’re an adult.’ But one can never overestimate the extent to which many Asian parents make their disappointment unbearable. The caricatures in popular culture are untruthful mainly because they never go far enough. For my family, at least, there was the usual stuff, the yelling and tears, the shaming and guilt trips….Maybe the secret of their effectiveness was what they declined to say. They thought nothing of emptying their savings for my lessons and my books. They did not hope for too much success in their own lives, ours were more important. They did not think to ask my brother and me to do chores – they believed studying was a full-time job. They didn’t read to me, because they were afraid I would adopt their accents. They cared so little for their own histories that they didn’t make me learn their native tongue. For them, the price of immigration had always been that their children would discount them in these ways.” For me, this book was very powerful and personal. While I definitely understand that this book won’t mean the same thing to all people, I still encourage everyone to read this lovely memoir. If anything, read this for the historical aspect, as I believe that even those who may not be able to relate to Kuo’s personal story or that of Patrick or her students can probably appreciate the well-researched history about slavery, the Civil Rights movement, the geographical history of the Delta, etc. that Kuo incorporated into her narrative. I definitely learned a lot from it! Received advance reader’s copy from Random House via Penguin First-to-Read program.

Michelle Kuo's storytelling drew me in from the beginning. Admittedly, I generally skip the Introduction pages of most books, but Kuo's introduction compelled me to interest in how this story would unfold. It was refreshing to read an honest and realistic reflection of the power of literature in a life of an adolescent, who by all statistical references, does not have a bright future. I enjoyed reading this and have even added some classics mentioned in the book to my list of summer reads.

This was a very moving and emotional book.  I enjoyed Michelle's style of writing and her references to various literature. This book is Michelle's memoir of her years during her twenties.  Michelle has gone to Helena, Arkansas, to teach at a school.  The students at this school are there because they have been removed from the main school for some infraction.  These students are behind in the standardized education level.  Michelle begins special writing assignments and introduces the students to various books, poetry, and literature.  She studies and forms a bond with one student in particular, Patrick.  She mentions The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  A teacher read that to me when I was very young.  And I, like Patrick, was mesmerized by the tiny bit of this story that I had heard.  I finally read the whole book many years later with my own child.  More important than Michelle's style of writing and the literature referenced, is the way that she depicted the racial, cultural, and lifestyle issues of the Delta area.  Many people there are existing in the same way as their older family members had.  This was my first introduction to the history and situation in this area.  Michelle hopes to help the students and teach them something, ultimately hoping to help them in some way.  What exactly is the strength of the power of words and education?  I could not put this book down.  It reads like a novel, but for the people involved, this is their real life.

This is an immensely rich and important book, using memoir to engage questions about poverty, race, the criminal justice system, teaching, and literacy. I encourage everyone to read it. I’m glad that I did.

This book. Wow. I was expecting a book about books, and how they can have great impact on us throughout our lives but this was so much more. It's a book about teaching, inspiration, race, America, the justice system, family, expectations, poetry, and so much more. I will be recommending it to friends widely - it's a book that makes you see the world a little bit differently. Thank goodness for individuals like Michelle Kuo who seek to make change in this world.

A special thank you to Penguin Random House First to Read. Michelle Kuo has written a beautiful, thought provoking book. This books covers a variety of issues, but focuses on the student teacher relationship. While reading this, I continually thought back to the teachers who made a lasting impression in my life. I really enjoyed the way Kuo uses books and writing as a means to reach her students and help them realize their potential. This story inspires, knowing there are people willing to reach out and try to positively impact the lives of others. This book speaks to so many issues and sheds light on many injustices that still exist in our world. The world needs more people like Ms. Kuo. I would highly recommend this book.

Beautifully written, thought provoking, inspirational, and painful. I am so glad that I was able to have access to this digital galley.

I was drawn to this book because my son is currently reading To Kill a Mockingbird and The Water is Wide for his Honors English project. In talking through those books with him, Reading with Patrick seemed like a book that would explore those same topics and provide another viewpoint. In Reading with Patrick, we meet Michelle Kuo, a recent Harvard graduate, who accepts a teaching job in the Mississippi Delta area. A child of Taiwanese immigrants, Kuo soon learns that her idealistic approach to the students is met with little enthusiasm. What she encounters there changes her life and takes her down many different paths than what she imagined. The book not only details the friendship that developed between Ms. Kuo and her student Patrick, but on a larger scale, examines the difference one person can make in the lives of others. Reading with Patrick also takes a look at how difficult it is for people to overcome the circumstances of their environment, even with the best of intentions. Ultimately, the book is a true testament of how a friendship changed the lives of both teacher and student forever. Reading with Patrick is inspiring on many different levels and I felt the author truly captured many amazing moments of her time with Patrick. I received this book courtesy of Random House Publishing Group in exchange for an honest review.

A deeply moving, thought-provoking story, inspiring both despair and cautious hope. There were many ways a story like this could have gone wrong, but Kuo tells it with a humility, honesty, and wry self-awareness that generally keep it on the right track. Her relationships with Patrick and those around him are very real, simultaneously troubling and touching. Important reading.

What a beautiful story and testament to the power of caring and of books.

Such a wonderful book with so many powerful insights. As a reading specialist I appreciate the opportunity to have read and reviewed this poignant memoir. The author's honesty of her preconceived notions and naïveté of the students and community she found in the Delta was refreshing as I understand her optimism and sense of need to rite the wrongs of social injustice...only to find things not as simple. Michelle Kuo is a role model for teachers...no matter how little materials or curriculum you have at your availability, the teacher is the most important factor for student learning. This book is a 5 and I would recommend it for all teachers. A lot of our politicians need to read it also!

A big thank you to First to Read for my copy of Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo. "The idea that you can change somebody's life for the better is powerful." By Michelle Kuo The obvious is that Ms Kuo, the teacher, was able to change the life of Patrick, a disadvantaged African American youth. I believe Patrick was just as important in changing her life. Both characters are very powerful. I loved this book so much. It is a tribute to books and the ability the authors have to make us think and maybe view the world in a different way than we might have before reading their words. It is also a tribute to teachers who go the exact mile and to those who realize the impact their words and actions can have on their students lives. It is also a story of racism, life in the Delta and our justice system. Read this book, you'll be glad you did. Five stars without a doubt. By Debbie Carey Thornton, Colorado

Michelle Kuo wrote about a friendship/mentorship she shared with a black student she met as a Teach for America volunteer in Arkansas. Book lovers will appreciate the included quotes from literature she used with her student Patrick. This book covers a lot of material from literature to the state of education and race relations in the American South. Part of me as bothered that the selling hook seems to be Patrick's arrest after Michelle leaves the area, but the continuation of their relationship at that point makes for good reading.

Thank you First to Read for the opportunity to read this amazing book. This is a book for people who love books. The story is filled with lines and excerpts from multiple pieces of literature. However, that alone is not what makes it stand out. The story is a special one. It is proof that the right words, the right books and the right teacher can forge a bond that cannot be broken by circumstance. 4 Stars!

A special thank you to Penguin Random House First to Read for an ARC in exchange for an honest review. Michelle Kuo is a recent Harvard graduate that finds herself in a rural town in Arkansas as a Teach for America volunteer. Wanting to make a difference in her students' lives, she is full of optimism but soon discovers how broken the system is. Kuo tries a different tactic—she uses quiet reading time and guided writing exercises as a way to instil a sense of self in her students. Throughout her tenure, Kuo loses students for various reasons. Some are as simple as truancy and others are harsh and stem from violence. She also is inspired by some, and one of those students is Patrick who is fifteen and is still in grade eight. Under Miss Kuo's attention, he flourishes. However, Michelle is feeling incredible pressure from her Taiwanese immigrant parents to pursue other opportunities and ultimately leaves Arkansas after a couple of years to attend law school. On the eve of her graduation, Michelle learns that Patrick has been incarcerated for murder. Murder? Patrick? Kuo has incredible guilt and thinks that she is partly responsible because she prematurely left the school. Determined to right the situation as best she can, Michelle returns to teaching Patrick from his jail cell while he awaits trial. It is here that we get a sense of both of their characters. Michelle doesn't waiver in her dedication, even when it appears as though Patrick has forgotten most of what she taught him. In this moving and inspiring memoir of a teacher that didn't give up on her student, Patrick, Kuo shares the story of her mentorship of Patrick Browning and his incredible journey of self-discovery through literature and writing. Kuo is also taken on her own journey as she is forced to navigate through several broken systems, racism, social standing, privilege, and relationships. Friendship can come unexpectedly sometimes, and you never know your impact on someone else's life. I highly recommend this wonderful story.

Michelle Kuo has told the story of her years in the Arkansas delta well. So often memoirs such as this take on a self-congratulatory note or glorify a particular individual. Instead, Ms. Kuo tells us about her struggles and her doubts. There are no attempts to sugar-coat the effects of deep poverty and the hopelessness it creates. Ms. Kuo points out the efforts of other teachers to provide a good education, and Patrick's lawyer to provide a good defense. She does not lay blame for the region's problems on any institution or government agency. The narrative deals with issues of racism, both in how blacks and Asians are treated. While the end result of Ms. Kuo's private tutoring was not what either she or I hoped for, I felt that she had made a difference in his life and provided a means for him to examine his actions and plan for his future. I hope this book will be chosen for "One Book, One Community" programs as I think it will generate meaningful discussion and may spur some to correct inequalities in economic and justice systems.

This was an inspiring and enlightening story about one woman's experience teaching and mentoring a young man in the Delta region of Arkansas. She incorporated reading poetry and writing into their time together, which resulted in some significant transformation. I learned so much about the area's race relations and repression from this book and the history was weaved into her own narrative fluidly. The story would be more powerful if she had actually committed to the students and remained in the area, but I still appreciated it.

I needed a couple of days to write this review. I have so many things to say about this book. At the beginning it reminded me of Freedom Writers and so many other books and movies about transformative teachers. I was a little skeptical since these types of stories tend to be simplistic and focus on “magical” results. But Michelle Kuo managed to deliver an honest and humble book. She is constantly questioning her teaching methods, her motivation, the educational and justice systems and the real change she can make in her students’s lives -specially Patrick’s-. She neither places teachers on a pedestal nor she diminishes the difference that a dedicated and caring teacher can make for a student. But what I loved the most about this book was the fact that she, humbly, talks about Patrick’s progress as his own doing. What she provided were the right tools and enough encouragement for him to grow. I would have loved to read more about her work in class though, the relationship she had with the rest of her students. Now more than ever we need books like this one: an honest look into the educational and justice system (no matter your country of origin) as well as the struggle we, as society, keep facing to accept others without judging race or origin.

Reading with Patrick is one of those stories that will stick with you for a really long time. Telling the story of how the education system and justice system fails poor youth in the south, Michelle Kuo shows how just the smallest encouragement and changes could have made all the difference. Michelle Kuo is what the world needs more of; People who just care without needing anything return. This book takes you on a rollercoaster of emotions ranging from anger to hope. It is a touching story that touches on a place in the map that doesn't get the attention it needs. I took my time writing this review because I couldn't quite organize my thoughts on this book and honestly, I still can't. It hits a nerve and leaves me speechless. My eyes have been opened and Kuo has encouraged me to be a better person. I guarantee that anybody who reads this story will be changed as well. Although the story is quite slow to unravel, every word and every description is absolutely vital in piecing together the story and it's purpose. I definitely recommend especially to anybody in the education field

This is simultaeously a small story and a big one. Patrick Browning was failed by two American systems: our education system and our justice system. Michelle Kuo is a participant of both; she dabbles in teaching through Teach for America, and then she goes to law school. By the time she visits Patrick in jail, she is a lawyer, but there's not much she can do for his case. So she resumes her teacher role and they read and write together, with him regaining the literacy and thinking skills he had lost and then advancing farther than either imagined he would. So there's individual triumph here. But it's not a convincing triumph -- Patrick, of course, still struggles and has a felony on his record. And Kuo has this amazing experience with a student, but she is not a teacher; there are all kinds of differences between sticking it out in the classroom and this story. The claim that the world would be so much better if teachers just cared, like she does, rings hollow to anyone who is sticking it out in the trenches. If caring means visiting someone for hours a day in jail with 1-on-1 intensive tutoring, yeah, that would work great. But that's not what teachers' jobs entail. Yes, this story is inspiring and beautiful and has literary insight and wonder. It's also a little problematic, as many real life stories are. Kuo's not sure what she learned, and she's not sure what we should learn. But it's a captivating read, and well done, and a marvelous story. And it's an important snapshot of those educational and justice systems that should inform our perception of anyone who has been failed by them. I got a copy to review from First to Read.

It's taken me some time to get my thoughts together on this book, and I still may not have them organized as well as I like. Being in the education field, I read this sort of book with a skeptical eye as I don't want to read another "I saved them because I'm special" narrative. Kuo hasn't written that book. I was interested while reading about what her parents expected her to choose as a career and what she actually did choose by deciding to teach, as well as her immersion in African American history while trying to figure out her place culturally. She also provided enough background detail on the history of the institutionalized racism in the South that the reader can't just say "If only the students had tried harder...." When it comes to Patrick's story, Kuo is self-reflective as to her purpose in writing about him, as well as if what she is teaching him will truly help him. While some may wonder about her self-questioning, that is what needs to be done to help ensure learning: Do I have a bias in this lesson and if so, how do I eliminate it? What does this student need to learn? How is the best way to teach that? Did that lesson actually work? How could I have taught that more effectively? She mentions several times either stopping or changing lessons that aren't working. I wish there had been more written about her in-class interactions with the students and the other ways she developed relationships with them. It seems to go from reading silently in class, to driving them across state lines in her personal vehicle so some more explanation there would have helped. Overall, enjoyed the book and will be recommending it to friends.

Reading with Patrick is slow to find its rhythm, but once Kuo begins to connect with her students in the Delta, the book comes alive through her students. I wished for more anecdotes from her classroom - these sections remind me (in a good way) of Erin Gruwell's books written about and with the Freedom Writers. While Kuo is not a teacher by trade, she has the instincts and desire to connect with her students and these interactions come to life. Kuo remains honest about both her own shortcomings and her students' - Patrick's, in particular - preventing the book from becoming simplistic or saccharine. Kuo shares a bit of history on the Delta region, and while necessary to understanding Patrick and current circumstances in the region, these portions of the book are a bit dry and less personal. Perhaps most impressive is Kuo's reflections on race as an outsider, as an Asian American woman from Michigan transplanted to the deep South where she discovers great empathy and compassion towards Patrick, a man from very different circumstances. This is a moving and honest memoir.

I went into this book a bit skeptical since stories of transformative teachers or the power of books can be self-congratulatory and simplistic. Kuo obviously knows this too, and so brings to this story of her relationship with Patrick, a student she first meets in a rural Arkansas high school who is eventually jailed for murder, a self-awareness and self-questioning that I found honest and valuable. She maintains a good tension between the reality that teachers cannot be saviours and the optimism that a relationship between a teacher and a student can make a difference. In many ways, this book reminded me of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The scope and area of focus is different. But like Henrietta Lacks, Reading with Patrick is rooted in the relentless and long history of institutional racism in the US but always with an emphasis on individual lives. People such as Patrick and his family have suffered under these conditions but their story cannot be reduced to that, either. Like Rebecca Skloot, Kuo is also aware of her position as an outsider and the challenge of not exploiting Patrick for her own gain, reducing him to a an easy lesson or example. It is a beautiful and timely book. I will definitely be recommending it to friend, those who work in education and those who don't.

 


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