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.


2018 Nonfiction Runner-Up

Michelle Kuo, photo credit Kathy Huang

(Click photo to see acceptance speech at awards dinner.)

Michelle Kuo
Reading with Patrick:
A Teacher, a Student and a Life-Changing Friendship

 

“By telling the story of an incarcerated person learning to read and write, I hoped to show how books can charge an inner life with imagination and beauty. I sought to grapple openly with the question: What do we owe each other in a world of inequality, and how can we do the hard work of coming to know one another? Reading together is one way to create a shared world. I am deeply grateful to be recognized by the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. In honoring my book, it honors the idea that there can be no peace without economic and racial equality, and no freedom without literacy.”

— Michelle Kuo                        

Michelle Kuo was born and raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Kuo’s parents are immigrants from Taiwan. She taught English at an alternative school in the Arkansas Delta for two years. After teaching, she attended Harvard Law School as a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and worked in legal aid at a nonprofit for Spanish-speaking immigrants in the Fruitvale district of Oakland, California, on a Skadden Fellowship, with a focus on tenants’ and workers’ rights. She has volunteered as a teacher at the Prison University Project, the only college-degree-granting program in a California prison, and clerked for the Honorable Jon T. Noonan on the Ninth Circuit.

Currently, she teaches courses on race, law, and society at the American University of Paris, where she recently won the Board of Trustees Award for Distinguished Teaching.

 

 
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