"Get out of my face, China woman.” That’s just one of the greetings Harvard graduate Michelle Kuo received during her two years in the Teach for America program. She was working in Helena, Arkansas, an impoverished town in the Mississippi Delta, where most of her students had never seen a person of Asian ethnicity.
“Students will say anything to see if they can get under your skin,” Kuo says. She is calling me from Berlin, Germany, where her historian husband is doing research (both now teach at the American University of Paris). “They called a teacher next to me fat,” she remembers. “They called the teacher across from me a cracker. But teachers know that once you let students know it bothers you, you’re done for, so I had to pretend it didn’t bother me.”
Kuo had arrived in Arkansas in 2004 with lofty goals, eager to share readings she cherished from Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Ralph Ellison at an alternative school for kids who had been expelled from other schools. She was particularly fond of Patrick Browning, a quiet, reflective young man giving eighth grade a third try. He ended up completing the year with the “Most Improved” award. Kuo tells his story in her moving chronicle, Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship.
Despite the challenges of teaching in Helena, the rewards were great, and when Kuo left to attend Harvard Law School, she felt seriously conflicted, wanting to stay longer. Not only did she and her students grow fond of each other, the adult townspeople welcomed her with open arms.
Little did she know she’d be back two years later, after being notified that high school dropout Patrick was in jail, charged with murder two days before his 19th birthday. She visited him while she was in law school, and again a year later, after her graduation in 2009. Patrick was still in jail awaiting trial. This time she made a bold decision: to put her life on hold for seven months, postponing a fellowship in California. As she writes: “Your sense of responsibility to your students never leaves you. . . . You wonder if you failed them.”
Kuo visited Patrick in jail every day, resuming their reading and writing lessons, and also taught Spanish part-time at a charter school (her old school had closed). “I initially just went to visit him and see how his case was going,” she recalls. “And then I realized he felt alone. I was devastated to see him like that. The last time I’d seen him was the last day of school, and he had been so excited about going to high school. So the news was a shock.”
There have been any number of books about teaching challenging students (think Pat Conroy’s The Water Is Wide), and numerous others about reading with prisoners (including Mikita Brottman’s 2016 book, The Maximum Security Book Club). Few, however, share Kuo’s unique vantage point of having taught someone both before and during incarceration. It’s this singular relationship, combined with Kuo’s heartfelt, introspective prose, that makes Reading with Patrick so memorable.
“Those seven months changed my life,” Kuo freely admits. “They were so extraordinary. When do we feel most loved? It’s when people show up. I guess Patrick changed me in that way: my belief in that kind of love as being so important.”
“When do we feel most loved? It's when people show up.”
In the county jail, Patrick’s first words to his teacher were, “Mrs. Kuo, I didn’t mean to.” His 16-year-old special needs sister had been returning home from a date with a 25-year-old man whom Patrick judged to be drunk and high. The man refused to leave when asked, so Patrick picked up a knife left on the porch from a stroller repair. Patrick claims he simply intended to scare the man, but they ended up fighting, and tragically, his sister’s date ended up dead.
Patrick was charged with first-degree murder. Had he been a white male in the suburbs, Kuo surmises, the charge might have been manslaughter due to mitigating factors such as the “castle doctrine,” giving people a right to defend their homes.
During Kuo’s hours with Patrick in jail, they read poetry and the works of Frederick Douglass, C.S. Lewis, Marilynne Robinson, W.S. Merwin and more. Patrick wrote heartbreakingly lyrical poems, as well as letters to the mother of his victim, his own family and the young daughter he had fathered. “He had come so far,” Kuo writes, “. . . and it frightens me that so little was required for him to develop intellectually—a quiet room, a pile of books and some adult guidance. And yet these things were rarely supplied.”
Patrick agreed to a plea deal, which saddened Kuo, who notes that “so little investigation was done into what happened during that evening that traumatized so many.” While in prison, he went on to proudly earn his GED—with notably high scores in reading and writing—and was released on parole after two and a half years for good behavior.
After her months with Patrick, Kuo returned to her Oakland, California, fellowship, working as an immigrants’ rights lawyer and later as a law clerk. Patrick, meanwhile, worked various part-time jobs in Helena, including laying tombstones at cemeteries. More recently, he left for Texas in search of better opportunities. “I hope he’ll have a better shot at finding permanent work there,” Kuo says.
Kuo wishes she were a clone so that she could still be “pushing [Patrick], encouraging him, lecturing him and sometimes haranguing him.” She continues to cherish their friendship and treasure his letters.
“Every time I hear about somebody getting arrested,” Kuo adds, “or a felon getting out of jail, I think about how they were all once students in a classroom.”
(Author photo © Kathy Huang.)