Written by a onetime Teach for America recruit, a new memoir offers a powerful meditation on how one person can affect the life of another.
(Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of “What We’re Reading” posts on books, magazine pieces or other significant stories about education.)
In her new memoir, “Reading with Patrick,” Michelle Kuo spares herself no criticism.
She’s a shamelessly idealistic Ivy League graduate, desperate to make a difference in the world; meaning she’s a perfect Teach for America recruit.
The controversial program that stations highly educated young adults in the nation’s neediest schools has been criticized as a wading pool for academic elites who dabble in grit for two years, and then move on to high-gloss careers.
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“I went to the Mississippi Delta with a specific project: to teach American history through black literature,” she begins.
Richard Wright, Maya Angelou and Alice Walker had been her role models, and Kuo assumed they would have a similarly life-changing effect on her students.
The question of impact — where and how best to make it — is a central tension in Kuo’s story, and it will echo for readers in every profession. Do you create change at the ground level, by working with individuals, or within systems, improving lives by changing laws?
Sensitive as a grasshopper’s antenna, Kuo lands in Helena, Arkansas, a place so remote she has to drive 100 miles to see a movie. The funeral industry offers the steadiest work around, and graduation day is the saddest of the year because it augers mass departures.
At the alternative high school where Kuo is stationed, the 22-year-old teacher meets Patrick, a quiet kid who rarely pushes his face beyond a half-grin, “as if he’d once trained himself to smile fully but had since abandoned the project.”
Patrick’s life outside of school, revealed in phases, could not be more different from Kuo’s. She grew up middle-class, the parent-pleasing daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, who cried when her father barked complaints about math homework.
Books had taught her to stand up to the world, and she believes they will do the same for her students. She assigns a short story by James Baldwin, and discovers they are unable to read it. She thinks Malcolm X might rile the class to attention, but succeeds only in boring them. She hands out a photograph of lynching.
“Nobody want to see that,” a boy mutters, putting his head down on his desk.
One of the great strengths of “Reading” is its portrayal of the risk inherent to teaching. Kuo becomes increasingly afraid to share any piece of writing she considers precious.
“If it meant nothing to them,” she muses, “maybe it should mean less to me.”
Desperate, she takes a chance on Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” and connects.
A notable difference between Kuo’s teaching memoir and so many others is the author’s frankness about her own naiveté. She wants to be an activist but hates bothering people. She knows she can leave Helena whenever she wants, and her students know it, too.
And leave she does.
Disgusted with her failures, Kuo heads for law school. But three years later, while preparing for a fellowship in California, she learns that mild, diffident Patrick is now sitting in the county jail, a high-school dropout charged with murder.
Did her giving up have anything to do with his failure? Or is that just the grandiose thinking of a wannabe-savior? Kuo confronts this debate by returning to the Delta to try and salvage what she believes Patrick could have been.
Every day they meet in jail, reading classics like “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” They study haiku and recite poetry (W.S. Merwin is his favorite.)
Daily, she assigns vocabulary.
“It would be figurative if I say I’m dead in jail,” Patrick writes in his homework notebook.
“Wonderful use of figurative,” she observes.
It would be a crime of its own to give away the ending, but suffice to say that Kuo’s book poses a question at the heart of many debates in education: what, really, is the power of a teacher? Is it possible, human-to-human, to transform a life?
Patrick, as he often does, quietly supplies an answer.
“You know, it wasn’t the best school,” he remarks to Kuo about the place where they first met. “But you was there and you cared. It made going to school — you know, made it really mean something.”