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Reading with Patrick
Cover of Reading with Patrick
Reading with Patrick
A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship
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“In all of the literature addressing education, race, poverty, and criminal justice, there has been nothing quite like Reading with Patrick.”—The AtlanticA memoir of the...
“In all of the literature addressing education, race, poverty, and criminal justice, there has been nothing quite like Reading with Patrick.”—The AtlanticA memoir of the...
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  • “In all of the literature addressing education, race, poverty, and criminal justice, there has been nothing quite like Reading with Patrick.”—The Atlantic

    A memoir of the life-changing friendship between an idealistic young teacher and her gifted student, jailed for murder in the Mississippi Delta

    FINALIST FOR THE DAYTON LITERARY PEACE PRIZE

    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.

    “A powerful meditation on how one person can affect the life of another . . . One of the great strengths of Reading with Patrick is its portrayal of the risk inherent to teaching.”—The Seattle Times

    “[A] tender memoir.”—O: The Oprah Magazine

Excerpts-

  • From the cover ***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

    Copyright © 2017 Michelle Kuo

    Chapter 1

    A Raisin in the Sun

    Where Helena sits on the banks of the Mississippi, the river is quiet, peaceable. Summer songbirds talk with frogs, with a tsee tsee tew tew cheer cheer. Wild dewberries bloom on the bluffs, where they dangle, ripe but unplucked. In the water below, catfish form shadows, ready to gorge on what the wind shakes in. For thousands of years the river routinely flooded these banks, building the most fertile soil in the world. In the mid-nineteenth century, plantation owners yielded from this soil a single crop—cotton—and cotton made it slave country.

    Slave owners in the Delta were the richest moguls in the nation, and the wealthiest 10 percent of Arkansas’s population owned 70 percent of its land. Steamboats competed with railroads to transport cotton from Helena. After the Civil War, the lumber industry took off, and the swampy hardwoods in the Delta offered yet another source of wealth. People flocked here for wages at the twenty-four sawmills and the docks, the fish fries and the juke joints, the opera house and the saloons. Toss dice, haul wood, make moonshine, repeat. Helena was, as Twain wrote in 1883, the prettiest situation on the river and the commercial center of a broad and prosperous region.

    In 2004, the year I arrived in Helena, Twain’s city was hard to imagine. On Cherry Street, the town’s main drag, wooden planks covered windows. There was a No Loitering sign on an abandoned storefront even though the actual loiterers were across the street, hovering around the town’s only liquor store. The marquee of a long-shuttered store had become the canvas of a prankster: Starbucks Coming Soon. Sincerity was more likely to be found on the marquees of churches, which abounded. No such thing as rehab without Jesus, said one. There was no coffee shop, no bookstore, no movie theater, and no more than a handful of restaurants. When I asked where to get good coffee, people recommended McDonald’s. (It wasn’t bad.)

    Helena had begun an effort to market an enchanting part of its history, the blues, at the old train depot, which was converted to a museum. The museum shares stories and photos of black musicians who sang in Helena, lived in Helena, visited Helena, used Helena as a stepping-stone to Chicago, or retired in Helena when Chicago didn’t work out. Their names are evocative, often involving infirmity or animals: Blind Lemon Jefferson, Howlin’ Wolf, Super Chikan. Exhibits here have hopeful titles—A Heritage of Determination, reads one, or Struggle in a Bountiful Land—but few visitors.

    People say Helena’s decline truly began with the closing of Mohawk Rubber and Tire Company. When it shut down in 1979, the middle class, both black and white, fled. Then Arkla Chemical, a fertilizer company, was shuttered. The bowling alley, the movie theaters, the shops, and the nicer restaurants followed suit. Those who grew up here left, trying to find jobs in Little Rock, Memphis, Fayetteville, or Texas; families stopped coming here to live. When I first arrived in Helena, I worried what locals would think of teachers who left the community after Teach For America’s standard two years. But soon I realized my question presumed that leaving was novel to the experience of living in Helena. What was novel was that young teachers would travel here at all. “The saddest day is high school graduation,” one grandparent would later tell me, referring to the kids who had found opportunities elsewhere, “because those kids...

About the Author-

  • Michelle Kuo 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 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 and clerked for a federal appeals court judge in the Ninth Circuit. Currently she teaches courses on race, law, and society at the American University in Paris.

Reviews-

  • AudioFile Magazine Michelle Kuo narrates her memoir about her relationship with Patrick, a student she first met as a young teacher in the Mississippi Delta who made a lasting mark on her life. Kuo's straightforward narration provides clarity, although her lack of nuance in pitch and tone gives everything the same weight, whether it's her ambivalence about starting law school or the news years after she left the Delta that Patrick is in jail for murder. Not creating unique voices for individual people, particularly Patrick, seems a lost opportunity to add depth to the production, but Kuo's story of reconnecting with him and beginning a dialogue with him through literature is a fascinating one that will capture many listeners. A.F. � AudioFile 2017, Portland, Maine

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