I have read some great memoirs this year written by fascinating people, and Reading With Patrick is high up there on that list. Michelle Kuo spent two years teaching English at an alternative high school in rural Arkansas through Teach for America. After getting her undergraduate degree at Harvard, Kuo was accustomed to big-city amenities and opportunities and was shocked by the isolation and economic depression of her new home. Her students, already kicked out of traditional public schools for various offenses, did not have many options when it came to building good lives for themselves. Kuo, an idealist and would-be activist, wanted to inspire and empower her students, but the obstacles at times seemed insurmountable. Despite the struggles, she was drawn in by the area and found herself wanting to stay even after her two-year service was over. Instead, she bowed to parental and social pressures and returned to Harvard for law school.
After law school, she found out one of her favorite students, Patrick, had been arrested for murder. Stunned that the boy she remembered as gentle and quiet could have committed such a crime, Kuo came to visit him in jail. The Delta was calling her back. Ultimately, she stayed for months, visiting Patrick and giving him homework, discussing poetry and re-teaching him many of the skills he’d lost since he dropped out of school.
Kuo demonstrates how the deck was stacked against Patrick from the beginning, and how the legal system in Arkansas was unconcerned with the prospect of putting one more black man behind bars. I appreciated the complexity of Kuo’s defense of Patrick, as he confessed to the crime--it’s not a case of a righteous innocent man fighting for his freedom. Instead, it’s a meditation on guilt and innocence, extenuating circumstances, and the risk of defining a person by the worst thing they’ve ever done. At the forefront of Kuo’s mind, always, is the question of what could have gone differently if she hadn’t left when she did. What if she had stayed and truly invested in the lives of Patrick and her other students? Can one person really make a difference? Is that idea so cheesy and clichéd now that it has lost all meaning?
I don’t know how much stock I put in the “savior teacher” narrative anymore. Probably not much. But what I do believe, and what I think Kuo believes as well, is that individual, one-on-one connection can change lives. Truly investing in another person, recognizing their full humanity, has power.