“Ms. Kuo,” he said. “Things I see ain’t nothing worth talking about.”
Reading with Patrick: A True Story by Michelle Kuo is an moving memoir of her efforts at teaching American history through black literature in the Mississippi Delta. She is convinced that book therapy “could change the lives” of her students. She was twenty-two. She sets about her task with evangelical fervour.
“We all front,” I said. “You know why I love to read? It’s because books don’t front.”
They were listening — it was working.
“You can hear what people are thinking in books,” I continued. “They do crazy things, but you can figure out how they feel. You get to figure out what’s happening to them on the inside.”
We talked about what it meant to see only the outside of people. I asked, “Why do people keep their insides hidden?” The responses were painfully insightful, and the most common was a variation on this one: “People are afraid that if they’re honest about what they want, they won’t get it.”
I realized that I needed also to give them a sense of ownership over the people and stories in these books. I researched black writers for teenagers: Walter Dean Myers, Sharon Flake, Sharon Draper, Sister Souljah, Nikki Grimes, Jacqueline Woodson. I ordered these books and then I read them. I felt these writers knew better than I did what stories teh kids needed. The heroes were people who looked like them, talked like them, and faced the problems they faced. In Tears of a Tiger, by Sharon Draper, Andy, a teenager blames himself for his best friend’s death. In Jazmin’s Notebook, by Nikki Grimes, Jazmin, fourteen, is her mother’s primary caregiver. In Begging for Change, by Sharon Flake, Raspberry has to decide whether or not to welcome her estranged father back in her life. A state fund for new teachers had given me eight hundred dollars for the classroom, and I spent it all on these books.
While teaching at the school she came across a lot of children who were existing but no one really cared about them. There was one particular student she was concerned about — Patrick. She persuaded him to return to school and be regular. He slowly picked up reading and writing. A couple of years later she had to leave to join law school. Two years after that she got a call to say that Patrick had been arrested for a murder. She was horrified and flew back to meet him in prison. She discovered he had stabbed a drunk who had brought his simple-minded sister home on a school night. The drunk had been aggressive at first and without realising what he was doing Patrick had stabbed him probably in the arm but a few steps from the house the victim stumbled and died. The police charged Patrick with manslaughter though months after the crime had been committed. All the while the young man languished in a prison. Around the time Michelle Kuo finished her law degree, passed her bar exam and decided to return to the delta. She also decided to set Patrick daily homework in prison of reading and writing while he awaited to go on trial. Reading with Patrick is about this extraordinary relationship of teacher and student. It is very reminiscent of the 1962 classic The Cross and the Switchblade in which the priest “saves” the young gang leader ultimately converting him to Christianity. In Reading with Patrick Michelle Kuo manages a similar transformation by gently persuading and teaching Patrick so that by the time he is released on parole for good behaviour he is able to apply to the local community college for further studies. He is able to get through the admissions test as his scores are good much to the astonishment of the official.
Years later when Michelle Kuo met a consultant who recognised her from Richard Wormser’s documentary Delta Dreams he remarked, “You have a gift for children, a real gift. For speaking with them. And speaking about them.” While writing this book Michelle Kuo told Patrick about her project but was not sure if she should use his real name or not. His reply:
“You can use my name,” he says. “I believe in testimony; I believe in God.”
I feel relieved. But I am thinking to myself, this is not his testimony: it is mine.”
Michelle Kuo Reading with Patrick: A True Story Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, 2017.
24 Sept 2017
*Note: All images are off the Internet. If you know who is the copyright holder please let me know.