The Weight of Words

photo: Kathy Huang

Is it possible to change lives with words? Michelle Kuo, author of Reading with Patrick (reviewed below), believed so when, at the age of 22, she set out to teach in the Mississippi Delta. Armed with a degree from Harvard and a passion for the Civil Rights movement, Kuo felt sure she would find a city and its people eager for aid. The truth was something altogether different: "What had the Civil Rights Movement been for--the violence, the martyrs, the passionate actions--if its birthplace was still poor, still segregated, still in need of dramatic social change?"

Though daunted in the classroom, Kuo carried on, wondering if she'd ever manage to make a difference. She applied to law schools, convinced by college friends that she could "maximize" her impact with another degree. Eventually, she made strides with her students through writing, the star being Patrick Browning, a 15-year-old with a quiet, calm presence and a desire to learn. But the influence of Kuo's parents, Taiwanese immigrants, coupled with Kuo's own doubts over her effectiveness, led her to leave and pursue a law degree, eventually landing in California.

Still, the Delta was never far from Kuo's mind. And when she heard that Patrick had killed a man, she returned--and stayed, visiting him every day in the almost two years leading up to his trial. They read together and, ultimately, connected in a way Kuo had always hoped for, but feared was impossible: "There were moments when I was reading with Patrick that he appeared to me anew...." "[T]here seemed to exist between us a mystical and radical and improbable equality. This was what reading could do: It could make you, however fleetingly, unpredictable. You were not someone about whom another can say, You are this kind of person, but rather a person for whom nothing is predetermined." Ultimately, Kuo learned it is possible to change lives with words. Maybe not in the precise way one would expect or hope, but change nonetheless. --Stefanie Hargreaves, editor, Shelf Awareness for Readers

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