by Fran Withrow
At the tender age of 22, Michelle Kuo took a job in Helena, Arkansas, with Teach for America. Helena is in the Mississippi Delta, and is among the poorest places in the country. Kuo taught in an alternative school for troubled high school kids called Stars, remaining there for two years. It is there that she first met 15-year old Patrick Browning.
Patrick was sent to Stars for starting a fire in his back yard. Quiet and shy, he finds his voice through poetry and letter writing. Patrick and his peers flourish under Kuo’s tutelage.
Despite the progress her students make, Kuo decides to leave the area to attend law school once her contract is over. But tragedy strikes: while in law school, Kuo learns that Patrick is in jail for murder.
What follows is Kuo’s description of her continuing, life-altering relationship with Patrick. Returning to the Delta, she meets with him daily, reviving his interest in poetry and writing. They share their favorite lines with each other and memorize poems together. Her connection with Patrick causes her to meditate on her life as well as his, to explore her family’s expectations and her own experiences as a minority in America (Kuo is the child of Taiwanese immigrants). How does her experience parallel Patrick’s and how do they diverge? How much responsibility does she bear for who Patrick is and what he does?
Kuo’s musings include observations about race, poverty, and class. She notes that Patrick and his peers are stuck in a cycle of poverty and prison with few ways to better themselves. Her description of how Patrick was jailed for more than a year before meeting briefly with his court-appointed lawyer is appalling, as is his all too brief sentencing before the judge, who seems to have become numb to the despair and hopelessness before him.
I can’t stop thinking about this insightful, thought-provoking book. I picture Patrick’s prison issue sandals, held together with string. I mourn that Patrick is unable to see outside. “Is it raining?” he often asks Kuo when she comes to visit him, and I wonder how we can ever rehabilitate those who cannot even see outside.
I envision these two learners in the dimly lit prison visiting room as Patrick pores over pages, laboriously writes poems. He cherishes an old book, a single pen. In these dismal surroundings, Kuo and Patrick find satisfaction and enlightenment through the magic of literature.
Even in the dark, there is light.
“Reading With Patrick” is many things: memoir, self-reflection, meditation. It is an indictment of our prison system, and an affirmation of the power of poetry, of language. It is an example of what can happen when teacher and student are willing to learn together, and from each other. It is a testament to the endurance of the human spirit. Engaging and compelling, this is a story of courage, of the ways we change each other’s lives, and of the deep well of richness lying at the heart of the written word.
“Reading With Patrick”
by Michelle Kuo