Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship

When Michelle Kuo graduated from Harvard in 2003, she joined Teach for America and went to Helena, Ark., a rural town in the heart of the Delta. She dreamed of galvanizing her students through black literature, believing that books could change lives. "It was unabashedly romantic." She chronicles her aspirations, and the hard reality she encountered, in Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship.

After failing to rouse her students with fiery prose from James Baldwin and Malcolm X, she found a hit with A Raisin in the Sun. She bought YA books for them; they began to guard them "like amulets." Patrick was 15, mild-mannered, and thrived under Kuo's attention. After two years teaching, she went to Harvard Law School; upon graduation, she heard that Patrick had been jailed for murder. Shocked, she turned down a law firm job, and went back to Helena for Patrick and what she considered unfinished business for both of them. They restarted their relationship reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and moved on to haikus, Tennyson, Mary Oliver and Frederick Douglass (for Patrick, "to keep reading was urgent--in fact, not a choice at all.") Every day Patrick wrote, every day they recited poems. He found his métier in writing letters to his young daughter, infused with poetry: "...a silver carp surfaces as if it is jewelry in the water." Both teacher and student evolved.

Tender and gritty, with reflections on race and justice and pedagogy, Reading with Patrick is a paean to literature, to caring and to Forster's maxim, "Only connect." --Marilyn Dahl

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