BookBrowse Reviews Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo

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Reading with Patrick

A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship

by Michelle Kuo

Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo X
Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2017, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2018, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Karen Lewis

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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.

From page one, Michelle Kuo's extraordinary memoir, Reading with Patrick, pulled me into a journey from Arkansas to Harvard, and places in between. It challenged my assumptions about the label "murderer" and reinforced my own professional experience teaching at-risk students. Kuo's entertaining writing style and honesty fuel a deeper conversation about education, race, and justice in contemporary America.

In 2004, Michelle Kuo – American-born daughter of Taiwanese parents – sidesteps the siren call of corporate America. Armed with her Harvard degree and infinite idealism, she moves to Helena, Arkansas on assignment with Teach For America (see Beyond the Book.) "What I wanted to do was straightforward, immediate work in places that needed people," she says. Placed at a school called Stars – which has since closed – where incorrigible students were sidelined as a last resort, Kuo learns that merely showing up to school is their largest hurdle. She realizes that school cannot magically solve the enduring ills of the community: poverty, drugs, violence.

Despite early struggles to reach her students, Kuo improvises ways to spark her eighth-graders' intellectual curiosity. Lorraine Hansberry's play, A Raisin in the Sun, inspires their passion for reading aloud. The students relate to the characters and compete to act out the roles. She tapes poems that students have written on the walls, then notices them eager to read each others' ideas. Silent reading and creative writing eventually lead to (inconsistent) student success, best measured in moments rather than test scores. But these kinds of creativity and success are rare in a community where youth come of age surrounded by the constant thrum of school and community violence. One student, Brandon, is killed while robbing a store. When Kuo encourages the class to write about Brandon in order to grieve and heal, she's called out by other school staff for "endorsing Brandon's crime". The school culture was a tough one to navigate. "And we, the teachers, were also violent: For more-minor incursions, like cussing out a classmate or teacher, students were paddled," Kuo says. "And we, the teachers, were also violent: For more-minor incursions, like cussing out a classmate or teacher, students were paddled. Corporal punishment was legal in Arkansas and widely practiced in these parts. Stamped with ARKANSAS BOARD OF EDUCATION, an updated paddle had been engineered with holes to make it swing faster. I did not personally paddle, but like most teachers who have sent kids to the principal's office, I was complicit."

In the second section of the memoir, Kuo heads to law school – when her requisite two years with Teach for America are finished; partly to please her parents and also because she's burned out after living and teaching in Arkansas. Although courted by Wall Street firms on the verge of law school graduation, Kuo returns to Helena when one of her most promising students, Patrick Browning, is charged with first-degree murder. The heart of Reading with Patrick explores how this mentorship evolves, despite many obstacles. Tutoring Patrick while he's in jail transforms Kuo's basic assumptions about literacy, race, privilege, criminal justice, and her own slice of the American Dream.

The third section of Reading with Patrick offers perspective on Kuo's encounters with the criminal justice system. Patrick is the prisoner of a system as well as a particular jail. Overwhelmed courts and an under-resourced public defender network cause prisoners to be confined for months without a hearing – so much wasted human potential. Prisoners rarely understand their legal options. "Knowing Helena, I half-expected Patrick's public defender to be wearing sweatpants and chewing tobacco," says Kuo. Extreme, systemic racial prejudice endures in this region. If Patrick were white and the victim black, police would have likely described the incident as "a man, defending his home" without even making an arrest.

Kuo braids fascinating historical and legal facts with personal experience. For example, in the region where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. mobilized for civil rights in the 1960s, many students aren't clear who Dr. King was. "They hadn't known, for instance, when slavery ended or recognized the vocabulary word emancipation." Despite the fact that few, if any, of her students have ever seen an Asian person, Kuo learns that nearly 17,000 Japanese Americans were sent to the region as detainees during WW2. She also explains distinctions between first-degree murder and manslaughter, and why most defendants (including Patrick) take a plea bargain instead of risking a jury trial.

Reading with Patrick crafts a vivid character study of Patrick's coming of age: his family, fears, aspirations, his questions about life, guilt, innocence, and how to become a good father to his baby daughter. Kuo also reveals – with clarity and pathos – her own soul-searching, and her conflicted role in her immigrant parents' quest to assimilate: "They didn't read to me, because they were afraid I would adopt their accents."

At its core, Reading with Patrick speaks to the power of humans reaching out to each other with hope and kindness and willingness to do the hard work; to communicate using language instead of violence. While one individual cannot change the world, one may inspire a lasting, positive impact on a child, a classroom, a prisoner, a generation.

Reviewed by Karen Lewis

This review was originally published in August 2017, and has been updated for the April 2018 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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