Reading with Patrick
In Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student and a Life-Changing Friendship, Michelle Kuo tells the riveting
story of her relationship, as mentor and friend, with Patrick, who is fifteen-years old and in eighth-grade when they
meet. In this candid and poignant memoir, Kuo contemplates her own class and racial position as the child of Taiwanese
immigrants who settle in Michigan and later take pride in their daughter’s Harvard education as a sign of the family’s
success. They are troubled and confused, however, when, after graduation, Kuo joins Teach for America and ventures
to the rural, impoverished, and predominantly African American town of Helena, Arkansas. Kuo, however, finds inspiration
in her broad reading in history and literature—particularly the work of James Baldwin—and she seeks to promote social
and educational justice by teaching literature and writing to young people marginalized by race and class.
The book is especially powerful in juxtaposing her own struggle against deeply imbedded stereotypes—held by her African
American students as well as white Americans—with the grimmer conditions of her students. They live in the Delta, a
region shaped by the winding, muddy Mississippi River as well as a history of plantation slavery, and the Civil Rights
movement, and the severity of White reaction to it. Her understanding of the Delta grows as she befriends her former
student, Patrick Browning, whose mild manners and gift for poetry clashes with his prosecution and imprisonment for
killing another adolescent in a fight. The two develop a transformational relationship that empowers both with greater
confidence and trust in their voices as teacher and emerging young writer.
Kuo crafts a profound reflection on our entanglement in racial and class distinctions and with the educational and legal
institutions built on those distinctions. Hope appears in this teacher’s ability to learn from her students as she
strengthens their literacy, exposes them to great works of literature, and helps them develop their skills as writers.
Ultimately, Kuo offers no easy way out of our dilemmas, no quick moral resolution, but instead presents deep, hard-earned,
and often painful insights into herself, her parents, Patrick, the Delta, and the complexity of American society.
- Susan Southard and Alan Taylor
2018 finalist judges
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Excerpt from the book
I know what I am doing: wishful thinking, crazy thinking. I know that maybe nothing would be different if
I had stayed, that Patrick might have kept living his life and I mine. And I know it sounds as if I think
I could have saved him, as if I think I’m so important in his life. It’s not like that.
Or maybe it is, in the sense that the alternative, the rational thought, would be to say to myself, You
can’t do that much, you’re not that important, there are so many forces in a person’s life, good and bad, who
do you think you are. That’s what I said to make myself feel better after I left the Delta, and sometimes
I still say it. But then what is a human for? A person must matter to another, it must mean something for two
people to have passed time together, to have put work into one another and into becoming more fully themselves.
So even if I am wrong, if my dreaming is wrong, the alternative, to not dream at all, seems wrong, too.