Books Book Reviews

'Reading with Patrick' tells of a teacher's extraordinary journey

A Harvard-educated idealist takes a two-year teaching job in one of the country’s most depressed, segregated cities – then returns again when a beloved student goes to jail.

Reading with Patrick By Michelle Kuo Random House 320 pp.
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  • Terry Hong

Pontificating with superlatives only halfway through the calendar year might prove short-sighted, but risking humiliated inaccuracy seems to be a negligible consequence for claiming that Reading with Patrick could be the most affecting book you’ll read this year. To experience such a spectrum of responses – from anger to admiration, disbelief to inspiration, helpless frustration to stand-up-and-shout-cheering – should be enough impetus to get you urgently "reading with Patrick" as soon as possible.

Debut author Michelle Kuo doesn’t offer a perfect book – she’s guilty of unnecessary repetition, overdone details, and unresolved tangential narrative spurs, but what she’s written is unguardedly open, thoroughly revealing, and deeply thoughtful. On the surface, Kuo’s story reads like a heroic tale: a Harvard-educated idealist takes a two-year teaching job in one of the country’s most depressed, segregated cities and makes lasting connections with many of her middle-schoolers. Indeed, Kuo’s altruistic actions are inarguably laudable, but Kuo is self-aware enough to recognize her youthful arrogance, admit to mistakes, question her motives, and realize the impossibility of definitively knowing the right or wrong of her decisions.

The US-born daughter of Taiwanese immigrants who grew up in Michigan in the 1980s, Kuo considered herself “weak, sweet, obedient” until she found her “role models in books.” With Asian Americans either missing or silenced by a history that seemed predominantly black and white, Kuo turned to writers like W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou who “seemed as fearless to [her] as Asian Americans seemed afraid, as essential to American history as [Asian Americans] were irrelevant.” Meeting activists at Harvard emboldened her, but she realized she “wasn’t good at it.” What she wanted was “straightforward, immediate work in places that needed people,” which led her to the Mississippi Delta with Teach For America: “I went ... with a specific project: to teach American history through black literature.”

In 2004, Kuo arrived in Helena, Arkansas, assigned to an alternative school “incongruously named ‘Stars,’ which the local administration used as a dumping ground for the so-called bad kids” – where “troublemakers” who had already been expelled from mainstream schools were given a final chance before being permanently ejected from the public education system. Here, students were “paddled”: corporal punishment was still legal in Arkansas. In a predominantly African-American community in which “[m]ost students had never encountered an Asian person before,” Kuo was insulted, cursed, and targeted, but she persisted. Relevant books – by Walter Dean Myers, Nikki Grimes, and Jacqueline Woodson – became her most effective teaching tools.

As her two-year contract approached its end, Kuo agonized over whether to stay or go to Harvard Law School. Despite misgivings, she chose the law, trying to convince herself she could be more effective with her prestigious degree and powerful connections-in-the-making. Then in her final year, she got a call that one of her most promising students was in prison for murder.

Patrick was 15 in her eighth-grade class when Kuo met him; she would eventually learn “[h]e’d watched dope deals at age five, accidentally set himself on fire at eleven.” With everything he’d endured, the Patrick Kuo knew was “mild-mannered”; he “wanted to try ... was thirsty for encouragement.” When he skipped school too often, Kuo brought him back with additional, individual attention. Kuo would never have believed Patrick capable of such violence.

Kuo returned to Helena to understand what happened. She deferred her post-graduation job at a non-profit serving undocumented immigrants in Oakland. With the "Stars" program shut down, Kuo reluctantly agreed to teach Spanish at another Helena school (her protestations that she only had two years of college language classes doesn’t disqualify her). When she’s not in the classroom, Kuo re-establishes her teacher/student relationship with Patrick – in jail. Again, books provide the means to explore difficult topics, engage in intimate discussions, and share deep life lessons. Kuo leads Patrick through Narnia, black history, poetry as diverse as Bashō and Whitman and Merwin; Patrick shows Kuo new paths and possibilities along the way. Easy answers, happy endings are hardly what await, but the journey together is agonizing and rewarding both.

“’We shouldn’t have sent you to Harvard,’” Kuo’s parents lamented during their single visit to Helena. “Everybody there thinks they can change the world.’” Parental disapproval aside, Kuo stays true to her course – in matters of race, equity, and justice, she becomes both witness and prosecution to prove that “[a] person must matter to another, it must mean something for two people to have passed time together, to have put work into each other and into becoming more fully themselves.”

Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.