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

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.

Advance praise for Reading with Patrick

“This book is special and could not be more right on time. It’s an absorbing, tender, and surprisingly honest examination of race and privilege in America that helps articulate what is often lost, seemingly intentionally, in national debates over criminal justice and education: the inner life and imagination of a young person.”—Wes Moore, author of The Other Wes Moore

“Every American should read Michelle Kuo’s remarkable memoir. Honest, generous, humble, and wise, Reading with Patrick will endure as a defining story for our times and, abidingly, a testament to the power of language and of books.”—Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs

“I delighted in this book and read it in a single weekend. Reading with Patrick is a significant work that could swell the ranks of highly motivated and qualified teachers—people who understand they are not just transferring information but transforming lives.”—Bill Moyers

“Riveting . . . an essential addition to our national conversation about institutional racism.”—Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them

Advance Galley Reviews

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.

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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