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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

‘Reading with Patrick’ — in class and jail

The daughter of middle-class Taiwanese immigrants, Michelle Kuo went from Harvard to Helena, Arkansas as a Teach for America volunteer. She was assigned to an alternative school used “as a dumping ground for the so-called bad kids.” One of her students was a 15-year-old eighth grader named Patrick, a “mild-mannered” boy who was “thirsty for encouragement.”

Her goal, she writes in Reading With Patrick, was to “teach American history through black literature.”

The book “could be the most affecting book you’ll read this year,” writes Terry Hong in the Christian Science Monitor.

Kuo is honest about her failures, writes Claudia Rowe in the Seattle Times.

Books had taught her to stand up to the world, and she believes they will do the same for her students. She assigns a short story by James Baldwin, and discovers they are unable to read it. She thinks Malcolm X might rile the class to attention, but succeeds only in boring them. She hands out a photograph of lynching.  “Nobody want to see that,” a boy mutters, putting his head down on his desk.

Finally, she connected with Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.

After two years of frustration, Kuo went to Harvard Law School. Just as she was finishing her degree, she learned that Patrick, a high school dropout, was in the county jail charged with murder.

Kuo returned to the Delta to teach and to visit Patrick.

Every day they meet in jail, reading classics like “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” They study haiku and recite poetry (W.S. Merwin is his favorite.) Daily, she assigns vocabulary.  “It would be figurative if I say I’m dead in jail,” Patrick writes in his homework notebook. “Wonderful use of figurative,” she observes.

I wonder if Kuo tried to teach Ernest J. Gaines’ powerful book, A Lesson Before Dying, about a black teacher teaching a black prisoner to read, so he can go to his execution as a man.

Convicted of manslaughter after 16 months in jail, Patrick served 2 1/2 years before qualifying for parole.

Kuo is a lawyer specializing in immigrants’ rights.

Michael Copperman, an Asian-American Stanford graduate, taught fourth grade for two years in the Mississippi delta, also for Teach for America. In Teacher, he describes himself as well-meaning but naive, eager to help his students but often unprepared to do so. Copperman now teaches at the University of Oregon.

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