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A memoir of race, inequality, and the power of literature told through the life-changing friendship between an idealistic young teacher and her gifted student, jailed for murder in the Mississippi Delta
Recently graduated from Harvard University, Michelle Kuo arrived in the rural town of Helena, Arkansas, as a Teach for America volunteer in 2004, 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 political 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 gun violence and truancy, she is inspired by students such as Patrick. Fifteen and in the eighth grade, Patrick begins to thrive under Michelle’s exacting attention, rising to meet her rigorous expectations. 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.
Years later, on the eve of her graduation, she learns that Patrick has been jailed for murder. Feeling that she had 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 question of what the privileged owe to those with bleaker prospects.
Reading with Patrick is an inspirational story of friendship, a coming-of-age story for both a young teacher and a student, an expansive, deeply resonant meditation on education, race, and justice in the rural South, and a love letter to literature and its power to transcend social barriers.