Patrick wasn’t an attention-seeker. He just wanted a good life. But the 15-year-old didn’t know how to climb out of the hole dug by poverty, and by a father who spent time in prison on drug charges.
In her new memoir, Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship (Penguin Random House, 2017), Michelle Kuo (pronounced "Kwah") describes her arrival in the impoverished town of Helena, Arkansas. She went there as a 22-year-old teacher, eager to make a difference for at-risk kids like Patrick.
“Helena was a place that I had not encountered in my life,” Kuo says. “I think a lot of people would be startled going there. It sits right on the Mississippi River, has a population of around 13,000 people that's declining. It’s a place that used to be thriving. When I walked down the street in downtown Helena in 2004, there were a lot of abandoned buildings, boarded up. There was a sense of previous majesty. You wondered, 'What’s happened here? Why has it become a ghost town?'”
Kuo came to Helena through the Teach for America program. One of her first discoveries was that she was now the minority. Her students were the rejects of other schools, thrown out because of lack of attendance or behavioral problems. They were mostly African-American. And Kuo found that many had never met an Asian-American in person.
“The census had the Asian-American population in Helena as 0.6 percent, so probably like a total of ten of us,” Kuo says. “The town is majority black, around 67 percent.”
Kuo heard remarks from her students that some might consider racist. But she says they seemed to be offered more in humor or curiosity than with malicious intent. Kuo also got a sense of what it means to be different in terms of privilege. Kuo grew up in Kalamazoo, the daughter of parents who came from Taiwan. They lived in comfort and encouraged her to pursue the best educational opportunities.
“Most of the kids I taught were the descendants of slaves,” Kuo says.
Kuo failed to connect with the students at first. But she persisted until the barriers came down and her students learned to trust and respect her. Kuo taught them creative writing and literature, and helped them find their unique voices through their writing.
Patrick was one those students. Kuo went out of her way to help the quiet teenager, visiting his home and letting him know that his attendance and participation in class was noticed and appreciated. Patrick opened up to her encouragement and becomes “most improved” among his classmates. But when Kuo leaves Helena to attend law school, Patrick’s life takes a turn. She learns later that he's doing time in prison for killing a man.
Kuo's memoir is also the story of the connection with Patrick that got stronger within the walls of the prison. She shared books and writing with the now-adult young man, and visited him daily during her second stay in Helena. Both are transformed.
Some of the royalties from Reading with Patrick go to a fund to help Patrick, a college tuition fund for his daughter, and to help the Boys & Girls Club of Phillips County, Arkansas.
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