A memoir of race, inequality, and the power of literature told through the moving friendship between an idealistic young teacher and her gifted student, jailed for murder in the Mississippi Delta.
Recently graduated from Harvard University, Michelle Kuo arrived in the rural town of Helena, Arkansas, as a Teach for America volunteer, idealistic and naive. But she soon encountered the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow in one of the poorest counties in America. In this stirring memoir, Kuo, the child of Taiwanese immigrants, shares the story of her complicated but rewarding mentorship of one student, Patrick Browning, and his remarkable literary and personal awakening.
Convinced she can make a difference in the lives of her teenaged students, Michelle Kuo puts her heart into her work, using quiet reading time and guided writing to foster a sense of self and intellectual liberty in students. It is at this alternative school—a dumping ground for students kicked out of the local middle and high school—that she meets Patrick. Fifteen and in the eighth grade, Patrick begins to thrive under Michelle's exacting attention. However, after two years of teaching, Michelle feels pressure from her parents and the draw of opportunities outside the Delta and leaves Arkansas to attend law school.
Then, on the eve of her law-school graduation, Michelle learns that Patrick has been jailed for murder. Feeling that she left the Delta prematurely and determined to fix her mistake, Michelle returns to Helena and resumes Patrick's education--even as he sits in a jail cell awaiting trial. Every day for the next seven months they pore over classic novels, poems, and works of history. Little by little, Patrick grows into a confident, expressive writer and a dedicated reader galvanized by the works of Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, Walt Whitman, W. S. Merwin, and others. In her time reading with Patrick, Michelle is herself transformed, contending with the legacy of racism and the questions of what constitutes a "good" life and what the privileged owe to those with bleaker prospects.
Reading with Patrick is an inspirational story of friendship, a coming-of-age story of both a young teacher and a student, a deeply resonant meditation on education, race, and justice in the rural South, and a love letter to literature and its power to transcend social barriers.
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