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

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Recently graduated from Harvard University, Michelle Kuo arrived in the rural town of Helena, Arkansas, as a Teach for America volunteer, bursting with optimism and drive. But she soon encountered the jarring realities of life in one of the poorest counties in America, still disabled by the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. 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 in students left behind by a broken school system. Though Michelle loses some students to truancy and even gun violence, she is inspired by some such as Patrick. Fifteen and in the eight 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 resonant meditation on education, race, and justice in the rural South, and a love letter to literature and its power to transcend social barriers.

296 pages, Hardcover

First published July 11, 2017

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About the author

Michelle Kuo

3 books180 followers
Michelle Kuo is the author of the memoir READING WITH PATRICK, a story of race, inequality, and the transformative power of literature. The book was a runner-up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, Reading Women Award, and shortlisted for Goddard Riverside Stephen Russo Book Prize for Social Justice. It has been honored as a community reads pick at programs across the United States, including Washtenaw Reads, University of Iowa Center for Human Rights, and Yale Prison Education Initiative.

Michelle has taught English at an alternative school in the rural town of Helena, Arkansas, located in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.

After graduating from Harvard Law, she became an immigrants’ rights lawyer at Centro Legal de la Raza, a nonprofit in Oakland, California. She advocated for tenants facing evictions, workers stiffed out of their wages, and families facing deportation.

Michelle is a passionate advocate of prison education and criminal justice, and has volunteered at the Prison University Project at San Quentin Prison.

The daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, Michelle grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

She is currently an assistant professor at the American University of Paris in the History, Law, and Society program. She has written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Point, Public Books, and other publications.

As Pulitzer Prize-winning James Forman Jr. and Arthur Evenchik write in The Atlantic, "Impassioned writing and hard-earned wisdom set her book apart ... In all of the literature addressing education, race, poverty, and criminal justice, there has been nothing quite like Reading With Patrick.”

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,029 reviews
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,782 reviews14.2k followers
July 26, 2017
I read, and I read alot, but I still have a rush of anticipation, of wonder when I open the cover of a new book. This only works with an actual physical book, E-readers have their place but the same feel just isn't there. Will this book be good, memorable, will it astonish me, teach me? So many questions. Yet, still I was surprised by how special I found this book, profound, made me think as all truly good books should.

I have read plenty of stories set in the Mississippi Delta, but never knew there was a Arkansas Delta as well. One of the poorest districts in the United States, a large percentage of blacks,and very few opportunities for employment. High dropout rates, teen pregnancies, drugs and all the other ills that accompany these poorest of communities. A young Asian woman, idealistic comes to the Delta as part of Teachers across America, and while teaching meets a young boy who shows promise, curious and raw talent, though his future looks grim. This will be the beginning and the book follows her joys, her sorrows, or failures and her successes. If ever a book showcases the commonality of a love for literature as well as it's transformative powers, this is the book.

The struggle to learn in an environment most would consider grim. How one act can change a life forever more. How difficult to pull oneself up and start again. I also consider this book a homage to teachers, to people who have the ability and strength of character, to work with others less fortunate than themselves. Our society's problems of race and poverty are incredibly complicated, ingrained and difficult it seems to solve. The author shows what can be accomplished by helping just one person. I found this story touched not only my mind, but my heart as well.

ARC from library thing.
Profile Image for Cindy Burnett (Thoughts from a Page).
575 reviews992 followers
July 9, 2017
While I agree with the many reviewers that find this memoir “inspiring” and “moving”, my first choice of a descriptive adjective would be heartbreaking. Reading with Patrick offers a glimpse into a world that few will believe still exists today in the United States. Michelle Kuo tells the tale of a young African American boy, Patrick Browning, who lives in a Helena, Arkansas, a town situated in one of the poorest counties in the U.S. Kuo is sent to Helena through the Teach for America program and befriends Patrick during the two years she spends there. Thankfully, Kuo is honest and tells of both her failures and successes, and her struggle to figure out how to connect with kids who face so many challenges in life. While Patrick is a product of his environment, Kuo’s interactions with Patrick manage to eventually set him on a different trajectory and clearly significantly impacted Kuo’s life too.

The conditions in which Kuo taught are truly mindboggling, and the dropout rate for the local high school staggering. Our public school system is in desperate need of an overhaul and nowhere is this more apparent than Helena, Arkansas. While I am not sure what the solution is, one is desperately needed as Reading with Patrick so vividly demonstrates.

While Patrick is the focus of the book, Kuo also provides the background story for Helena and how the town and area ended up on the bottom rung of society. This context helped the story along and engendered my sympathy for those forced to live in the conditions Kuo describes.

As a lover of literature, I relished the poems and passages she includes; they were a highlight of the book. Reading with Patrick is a tough read but worth every second it takes to read it. It serves a reminder that one person can make a difference on the life of another. I have not stopped thinking about Patrick and Helena, Arkansas since I finished reading the book, and I wish it would be required reading for Betsy DeVos, the Department of Education, and every school district board.
Profile Image for Trish.
1,352 reviews2,438 followers
January 27, 2018
Michelle Kuo’s debut stopped me in my tracks. All other work I had on my plate was shoved to the side while I read this nonfiction detailing Kuo’s after-college years teaching English to at-risk kids in Helena, Arkansas in the Mississippi Delta. As a piece of literature, this memoir succeeds beautifully; her organization is laced with poetry, and the work exudes a kind of transcendental grace. More than once I found myself barking out sobs at the waste of lives we tolerate every day and for her recognition of the means by which we acknowledge and express thanks.

Back in 2009 Kuo had published a piece in the NYT Magazine about her two years teaching in Arkansas, and a special student she had there. In one year that student’s reading had progressed two grade levels and his attendance had improved dramatically. His classmates has also named Ms. Kuo a great influence on their lives. The at-risk school closed for lack of funding just as her kids were entering high school. Then Ms. Kuo left to attend law school in Boston.

One of the things I liked best about this story is the self-interrogation Kuo subjects herself to on her reasons for choosing to teach in the Delta. She explains how racism impacted her and how, learning of writers of the civil rights movement, she felt exhilarated and enabled. But she did not think she would do well trying to change the minds of self-interested people in power. She thought she could bring notions of empowerment to those who had no advocates.

Kuo’s parents are my favorite characters in this story. Immigrants from Taiwan, they’d sacrificed everything to give their children more opportunities. When their clever and talented daughter graduated from Harvard and chose to teach in the Mississippi Delta region, they are confused, embarrassed, hurt. She could go anywhere and do anything, and she chooses social and racial justice work in the deep South. She doesn’t claim religious beliefs, and the work wasn’t easy. By the end of her story we can all see that her generosity of spirit comes directly from her parents, though they didn’t recognize it at first.

Kuo names the chapters in her story after works of literature: poems, short stories, novels, or in one case, after the words of an affidavit her prize student, Patrick, signs to acknowledge his role in the death of a man. Patrick had dropped out of school when Ms. Kuo left for law school, had allowed his reading and writing skills to languish, and was a vulnerable teen with no oversight in a town that didn’t care very much. Kuo returns to the Delta to teach Patrick in prison, organizing her life so that she can try, in a few short months, to bring back some of the promising boy she’d seen years ago.

There were other teachers from northern schools who’d come to the Delta to teach in underserved communities and some had stayed. When Kuo returned to Helena, she was treated to their successes: the segregated black school did better on their state math scores than did the white schools. For the first time white families were complaining their kids didn’t have the same opportunity at their better-resourced schools.

What Kuo hadn’t been prepared for was that the man she saw in jail bore almost no resemblance to the promising boy she’d left years before. Now nineteen, Patrick could no longer read or write well. He expected nothing from anyone, least of all from himself. But he did remember what it felt like to have Ms. Kuo as a teacher. “It made going to school—you know, made it really mean something, somebody that care for you.”

Kuo infuses her work with the language of poets, and insists that we, like Patrick, listen to the sounds and decipher the deeper meanings. She shows us what teaching can be, and what a gift it is when done right. Discipline and good behavior often comes from not wanting to disappoint a mentor, and that impetus is what Kuo provided for Patrick. She draws for us the everyday reality of Patrick’s world so we do not blame him for his own inadequacies.

In this way, the memoir is a political book. We are persuaded that certain educational and social polices are not as helpful as others. We can see that there can be benefits to assistance and huge, disgraceful, unacceptable human losses without them. It is unforgivable of us to allow such disparities in opportunity, but we need those whose opportunity is stolen to acknowledge and address that lack. Ms. Kuo teaches us about that nexus, and we are grateful.
Profile Image for Stephanie Anze.
657 reviews114 followers
December 20, 2017
"This was what reading could do: It could make you, however fleeetingly, unpredictable. You were not someone about whom another could say, You are this kind of person, but rather a person for whom nothing is predeterminated."

Michelle Kuo was an idealistic, recent Harvard graduate when she joined the Teach for America program. A passionate reader, Kuo thought that simply teaching the kids would be enough to exert change. She was wrong. Sent to the Delta, to Helena, Arkansas Kuo is assigned to Stars. Stars is a last ditch effort school where all the "bad" kids are sent. If the students fail here, they fail to be the government's responsability entirely. Kuo flails and stumbles initially but soon finds a way to connect with her students, particularly with Patrick Browning, a mild mannered, considerate boy. After a few years, Kuo goes to law school and leaves the Delta only to learn that Patrick is in jail, awaiting trial for murder. She wonders if she should have done more for him.

Wow, this is one of the best books of 2017! I came upon this title by chance and I am so glad I read it. There is so much depth and heart among these pages. The prose is exquisite, lyrical, moving. Michelle Kuo is of Chinese descent, an avid reader and eager to pursue a career where she could make a difference. She joins Teach for America. She is assigned to Stars, a bottom rung school that is all but abandoned. Most of her students have given up, a direct result of the broken and dysfunctional school system that rules their region. There are virtually no resources or help. The authorities are a joke. The teachers do not care. Why should they? Racism is rampant. Inequality and disparity are their constant shadows. The odds are stacked against them. In short, these kids are victims of circumstance. Kuo wakes up from her idealism and emerges a beacon for this kids. She does something quite radical: she cares.

While the historical aspect of the novel was brilliant, the heart of the book is the friendship between Kuo and Patrick Browning. Like the rest of the students, Patrick had a rough upbringing. His heart, though, is hungry for learning. Ms. Kuo teaches him how to read. So its much with a heavy heart that she learns that Patrick, out of all her students, is in jail for murder. She visits him and knows, that this time, she must stay. She begins to visit regularly and starts teaching him again. They write letters, read books and poetry and start quoting their favorite lines. These visists means as much to her as they do to Patrick. Before I go further, I 'd like to note that this is not "an outsider swooped in and saved the day" kind of book. Kuo is very aware of her faults and shortcomings. In fact, Kuo is quite candid about them. She does not "fix" Patrick. She becomes his mentor, friend and ally. Their bond is so touching and pure. This is one duo I will not soon forget about. Hope Hollywood takes notice, this is a story worth sharing. An amazing and powerful book. Highly recommended!
Profile Image for Yun.
521 reviews21.8k followers
August 13, 2023
Reading with Patrick instantly grabbed and captivated me. Kuo's story of Patrick is both joyful and heartbreaking. Her nuanced writing captures his humanity as well as his struggle within the boundaries of his race, his class, and his environment. She doesn't try to smooth out the negatives and only talk about the positives. Rather, there is an honesty to the writing that feels raw and emotional.

There are so many things I loved about this book. Its testament to the power of books and teachers is absolutely uplifting. There is also a thoughtful exploration of how much nurture plays into a young person's life versus the environment they were born into. In addition, Kuo raises interesting points around the plea bargain and how it denies justice to poor uneducated blacks.

This book isn't just an outward catalog of external happenings, but also an introspective for Kuo. It captures her uncertainty and frustrations when things are not going the way she expects, and honestly accesses her motivation and influence in her students' lives. Her writing is lyrical and graceful, incorporating poems and snippets of Patrick's writing into the narrative.

This book moved and touched me for all the reasons above and so much more. It is definitely one of my favorite books this year.
Profile Image for Jessaka.
902 reviews138 followers
June 5, 2018
Patrick could become a writer.

The injustices that are caused by our system’s disregard for black people continue when they are let out of prison because they are still a felon when released and so have not the ability to get a job, rent a house or an apartment and much more, but this also applies to anyone let out of prison. It is as if they have never done their time; it never ends.

What a powerful book. I read it because I really liked Pat Conroy’s book, “The Water is Wide.” But instead of teaching blacks on a Gullah Island, Michele Kuo taught in the Mississippi Delta in Arkansas.

What I liked about these two books is how both of these teachers learned a way to get kids interested in learning, unique ways. I kept thinking how our colleges are failing in that these skills may not be taught to upcoming teachers. Of course, I understand that not all teachers have the ability or even the desire to influence students in creative ways.

I wonder how many people had teachers that they remember who had left an imprint on their lives? I had one in grammar school, my 8th grade teacher, Mr. Bailey. He kept me interested with his own eclectic interests. He talked about VWs and the future cars; he talked about UFOs and told us ghost stories and so on. When I came home from school I often said to my parents, “Mr. Bailey said…” I know of no teacher in high school that was memorable, but in college I had professors who were at least interesting, especially one, a woman, who believed that I had leadership abilities and wanted me to become the president of the World Government Organization at the college. While I said, No, I at least remember her because of her interest in me, and I enjoyed her humanities class.

I kept thinking, while reading this book, that no matter what you taught the kids they couldn’t rise up because they were in a poverty stricken area, and because they had no money in which to move out of that area.

But I felt that Patrick was a student that really missed opportunities that he could not help, and, like I said, I wish that he could have been able to do more with his life, except for society keeping the felon down, when in fact; he should not have been convicted of a crime that was actually just a misdemeanor.

I think about the beautiful letters that Patrick wrote to his daughter and his mother, much like those in the book ”Gilead” that Michele Luo had him read. Patrick’s poems were really moving too. They could be published. I wish that he would even write about his life, the life of a black man living in the Delta, but then maybe he would think that it has been written by Luo.

I leave you a little of Patrick’s short poem that he wrote in regards to his daughter while in prison:

“Let me imagine that I am there with you
when you need me even if a little late.”

A Letter to His Daughter:

Do you remember when me, you and your mother went fishing at Bear Creek? I know you do, you were so happy. And yes, I will take you back there again. Down by the bank where I was sitting you came running, calling, ‘Daddy, look.’ There near some bamboo you showed me some bright pink flowers. They were pink peonies with many petals that you described as more beautiful than a rose. You pulled one and said, “Take this, Daddy,” and I put its stem in my mouth. That made the biggest smile on your face, so I picked you up and kissed your nose with the peony still hanging from my mother…”
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,780 reviews1,458 followers
August 10, 2017
The GR book description outlines step by step the events of the book. There is no reason to repeat that already explained. In my view, it says too much. Moreover, that we are told in the final paragraph the story is inspirational can surely be debated.

What this book does extremely well is to describe in vivid detail the extreme violence, poverty and discrimination that exists in the South today. For this reason alone, it is worth reading.

The book asks if one can change a person's life through education and to what extent does the environment in which one is raised irrevocably mold us.

The book is also a memoir about both the author, a teacher, and one of her pupils, Patrick Browning. The author came to Patrick’s community as a Teach for America volunteer. (For more information about TFA see the link here: https://www.teachforamerica.org/ ) She is young, only twenty-two when she first meets Patrick. Her inexperience and naivety show. She was raised in Michigan by Taiwanese immigrant parents. For her, education, self-development and that she would make something of herself are givens.

Patrick is African American. His home environment is one of extreme deprivation. Poverty, crime, racial discrimination, high unemployment and lack of rudimentary medical and educational facilities are the norm. His home, Helena, Arkansas, is part of the Lower Mississippi Delta Region, as defined by the federally sanctioned Lower Mississippi Delta Commission. The region consists of 219 counties in portions of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee and Kentucky. The memoir aspects of the book that focus on Patrick’s life put the deplorable conditions in the area on a personal level. The events of his life show us how poverty, poor housing, lack of employment, violence on a daily basis, non-existent medical care and absence of police play out in the lives of all those living in such communities. It is for this the book should be read.

Yet if you look at the book as a whole, too large a portion of the biographical elements focus on the author, Michelle Kuo, rather than Patrick. I think this detracts from the strength of the book. Her parents’ endeavors to have her get married, although part of her story, are not relevant.

The question arises if as a teacher she was able to significantly help Patrick. I am in no way discounting what she tried to do. Her efforts are indeed praiseworthy. Later she becomes a lawyer, although not as a conscious effort to bring about necessary change. One cannot help but wonder if perhaps now she can achieve more. This topic is not tackled in the book. Neither does it ask what political and socio-economic instruments could be used to improve the deplorable situation in the Delta Region and in other regions where extreme poverty exists.

The book is a homage to literature. Teaching Patrick, Michelle Kuo, introduces him first to young adult authors that might speak to him. C.S. Lewis is one example. As Patrick’s abilities expand she widens the scope to authors and poets such as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, Leo Tolstoy and Franz Kafka. She doesn’t confine herself to the classics. She discusses Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Mary Oliver’s poems. She opens his eyes to what these authors might be trying to say to him. She talks with him. She explains how the words might be interpreted by someone like him. This she does extremely well. She makes the authors’ words personal and relevant to the events in his life. She gets him thinking. She prods him to be creative, to express how he sees the world around him. She urges him to use his imagination. This frees him and gives him strength. It is a delight to observe. Yet what permanent change can she bring? What happens when she departs, and depart she will. I acknowledge that she did her very best, but neither can I deny that I question the efficacy of her efforts.

I also wondered to what extent she was talking to us, educated readers, rather than to Patrick. She flips between the two. His English was rudimentary. You could sense when she shifted from depicting what she actually said to him and those sections where she is instead speaking to her readers.

I found the writing unexceptional, at times lacking clarity. There are instances where you know what the author is attempting to say but the words used do not say that which is intended.

The author reads the audiobook. Narrating an audiobook takes training, training that she seems to lack. She is an author; one doesn’t have to be an expert in everything! The speed of the narration fluctuates. The beginning is read way too fast. Pauses occur inappropriately. At points, one has difficulty discerning the exact words; one is forced to rewind. I have given the narration two stars; it is not terrible but merely OK. If you want to listen to the audiobook, don’t let the author’s narration deter you, but it would have been better had she brought in an experienced reader.

The book concludes with a chapter entitled I Taught Myself To Be Free. It backtracks to April 2010 when Patrick sits in the county jail. Ending on the note that Patrick is spiritually free, is just not enough for me, and so I dislike the ending.

Keep in mind I am only rating the book, not the author and certainly not Patrick.
Profile Image for Jennifer Blankfein.
384 reviews655 followers
September 27, 2017

Follow me on Book Nation by Jen for all reviews.

Heartbreaking, inspiring and a tribute to dedication, Reading With Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship is the memoir of an Asian American Teach For America teacher and her friendship with a poor, black student in Helena, Arkansas. Their special relationship is in the forefront of the story with race relations, education and the legal system the backdrop for setting.

Michelle had always been encouraged by her traditional Taiwanese parents to get an education, settle down and get married. But Michelle found the job of teaching troublesome kids in the Delta extremely rewarding. She stuck with it for a couple of years during which her student, Patrick, attended, on occasion. His home life was less than perfect and his family was not overwhelmingly supportive or encouraging when it came to school. Most of the people in the small towns were moving to the big cities and those left behind were the poorest and least educated. After two years, Michelle, feeling pressure to fulfill her own personal goals and responsibilities, left Arkansas to attend Harvard Law School. Upon her graduation she learned Patrick had dropped out of school and was currently in jail for murder. Feeling a sense of responsibility, she gave up her life and returned to the Delta to meet with him, try to guide him legally and then continued teaching him while he was in prison. The beautiful gift she gave him of being his mentor and teacher changed the course of his life. While in jail, Patrick wrote many letters to his daughter, allowing him to grow and prepare for all the work it would take to develop that relationship once he was released, while Michelle developed her inner strength to fight for what she believed in even if it went against the wants and needs of her beloved parents.

I admire the commitment Michelle Kuo made to Patrick; we must tend to the people in the poorest of neighborhoods where mentors, guidance and education are most needed. She clearly made a difference in her student’s life, but currently, with a felony on his record he has a hard time finding a job. According to a Random House Q & A with the author, Patrick’s “food stamps recently got cut off because of a federal law that cut off aid for 500,000 of the poorest people in the United States.” On a positive note, his daughter is in third grade and doing well.

I highly recommend this inspiring story of dedication and human responsibility to teachers and everyone else who is able to contribute positively to our society.

Profile Image for Lisa (NY).
1,550 reviews602 followers
August 21, 2018
I loved this book! Michelle Kuo writes with clarity and warmth about her experiences teaching in the Mississippi Delta and her relationship with one young man, Patrick. She avoids the traps that I half-expected - not trying to force her story into an arc that would work better for an "inspirational" book.

Kuo is a remarkable, brave teacher and writer whose book about a complicated friendship manages to also illuminate race and poverty and education and the criminal justice system. Oh yes - and this is a book about the love of literature and reading and writing. Read it!
Profile Image for Bkwmlee.
405 reviews309 followers
July 18, 2017
**Note: I initially had this at 4 stars, but after thinking about it more and finishing my review, I’ve decided that the fact this book impacted me in such a personal way makes it well-deserving of 5 stars.**

Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship is not a memoir in the traditional sense in that its author Michelle Kuo doesn’t really write a whole lot about herself. Rather, she writes about the students she taught while volunteering in the Teach for America program, where she was assigned to a school in the small rural town of Helena, Arkansas – a town located in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, which also happened to be one of the poorest rural areas in the United States. This is a town largely “abandoned” by the government in terms of money and resources and so its residents are pretty much left to fend for themselves and to find ways to “survive” as best as they can; a town where violence is rampant and the justice system is practically nonexistent, where the school system is broken to the point that out of a class of 20 students, you’re lucky to have one student who lasts the entire semester. I don’t usually like to quote from ARCs, but in this case, I feel it is necessary, as Kuo’s description of the town is powerful in conveying the harsh realities that her students – most of whom are merely kids, teenagers – must face on a daily basis:

“…in the Delta, the ghetto was not a corner of the city but an entire region of the country. This ghetto is all the students knew and it occurred to me that if you live in a place you cannot leave, where you can’t travel or work if you can’t afford a car, where land is endless space that’s been denied you, where people burn down their houses because the insurance money is worth more than the sale price, where the yards of shuttered homes are dumping grounds for pedestrian litter, where water is possibly polluted by a fertilizer company that skipped town, you want to believe that you do not at all resemble what you see. You want to believe that your town’s decay is not a mirror of your own prospects, that its dirtiness cannot dirty your inner life, that its emptiness does not contradict your own ambitions….”

It is in this desperate, hopeless environment that she meets Patrick Browning, a mild-mannered 15-year old boy in the eighth grade. In a school that the local administration uses as a dumping ground for the supposed “bad kids” (druggies, troublemakers, truants, etc.), Patrick stood out from the rest of the students, as he largely kept to himself, listened more than he spoke, and for the most part, didn’t get involved in other people’s troubles. Gradually, over the course of 2 years, Kuo introduces Patrick and the rest of her students to books and also encourages them to express their feelings through writing, to allow the paper and pen to “talk” for them in situations where they couldn’t – wouldn’t – speak up themselves. Through the medium of reading and writing, she uses literature to make an impact on her students’ lives – however, just as they are making good progress, Kuo decides to give in to her parents’ wishes for her to get her law degree and become a lawyer, so she leaves the Delta and her students behind. Later on, she learns that her once-promising student Patrick is in jail, charged with murder and awaiting trial – feeling guilty that her decision to leave the Delta prematurely played a role in what happened with Patrick, Kuo returns to Helena in the hopes of “fixing” her mistake. She meets up with Patrick again as he sits in jail facing a potentially bleak future and together, they resume the education through literature and writing that had been cut short earlier.

This book turned out to be so much more than what I initially expected. Yes, it is about a love of books, about reading and writing and how education makes a difference in people’s lives. On a deeper level though, this is also a study on the destructive power of racism and inequality, society and circumstance, as well as the coming-of-age of a young boy forced to make the best of his surroundings and the teacher who, in helping him, also comes to a better understanding of herself. The writing was simple and straightforward and the story it tells is inspiring, moving. I know that some people don’t like to read memoirs because majority of the time they come off as pretentious and self-serving. Well, this one is the complete opposite in that, throughout the book, very rarely did Kuo paint herself in a good light. In fact, the few times she talked about her own life, she would very candidly relay how much she disappointed her parents in choosing to teach rather than putting her Harvard education to good use, how she was initially mean to some of the students and did things that she regretted, how she was a messy person who rarely cleaned her house and constantly left dirty dishes and clothes all over the place. I especially resonated with Kuo’s story on a personal level, perhaps because we both share the same ethnic background and culture as Chinese-Americans (Kuo is from Taiwan whereas I’m from Hong Kong). I absolutely understood the pressures Kuo felt in striving to fulfill the role of a filial daughter constantly trying to prove to her parents that the sacrifices they made in immigrating to a foreign country were not in vain and balancing that against doing what she felt called to do versus what she was “expected” to do. When Kuo talked about her relationship with her parents and how deeply she loved them, yet they were a source of constant stress and pressure for her, I nearly cried because she expressed perfectly what I’ve been struggling with my entire life:

“Few of my friends in the Delta understood the power my parents had over me. ‘You’re like a little girl around them,’ one roommate had admonished. ‘How can they tell you what to do? You’re an adult.’ But one can never overestimate the extent to which many Asian parents make their disappointment unbearable. The caricatures in popular culture are untruthful mainly because they never go far enough. For my family, at least, there was the usual stuff, the yelling and tears, the shaming and guilt trips….Maybe the secret of their effectiveness was what they declined to say. They thought nothing of emptying their savings for my lessons and my books. They did not hope for too much success in their own lives, ours were more important. They did not think to ask my brother and me to do chores – they believed studying was a full-time job. They didn’t read to me, because they were afraid I would adopt their accents. They cared so little for their own histories that they didn’t make me learn their native tongue. For them, the price of immigration had always been that their children would discount them in these ways.”

For me, this book was very powerful and personal. While I definitely understand that this book won’t mean the same thing to all people, I still encourage everyone to read this lovely memoir. If anything, read this for the historical aspect, as I believe that even those who may not be able to relate to Kuo’s personal story or that of Patrick or her students can probably appreciate the well-researched history about slavery, the Civil Rights movement, the geographical history of the Delta, etc. that Kuo incorporated into her narrative. I definitely learned a lot from it!

Received advance reader’s copy from Random House via Penguin First-to-Read program.

Profile Image for Daniela.
175 reviews91 followers
November 6, 2021
This is a story of failure. Not individual failure. Given the circumstances the subject of this book, Patrick, does exceptionally well. No, this is a failure of a whole system, the indictment of a whole country, of a whole history. Riddle me this, what is the point of a country, any country that abandons its people to bear the burden of sins that are not theirs?

Michelle Kuo is a Taiwanese-American, Harvard educated young woman who goes to Helena, Arkansas to teach kids about books. She was young and full of pretty ideas about how books can change people. She does help some of her students for a little while but she leaves eventually, and as the school disintegrates so do her students’ lives. One of these is Patrick a shy, nice young man who ends up killing another boy two years after Kuo leaves the school. She is shocked that he could have done this, and an underlying narrative of the book is her trying to understand what got into Patrick’s head in that moment. How and why? Kuo then decides to return to the Mississippi Delta and help Patrick, who’s in jail, in the only way she knows how, by teaching. What Patrick gains is a consciousness of his own situation, his own place in society, his own history and self.

Some people enjoy the idea that we are a product of our own work and efforts. I understand that this can be a tremendously comforting idea. You depend upon yourself and no one else. On the other hand, whenever someone starts talking about class and inequality they are branded as apologists of the lazy layabouts who don’t want to work. This is a caricature but stick with me for a moment. It should be evident, because it is logical and reasonable, that where you’re born and the circumstances of your birth automatically give you a series of advantages or disadvantages. You’re born in Sweden, your parents are both doctors. Things can still go badly for you but the risk is considerably smaller than if you had been born a black boy in Arkansas.

It is worth pointing out that the conditions that led Patrick to jail, the social conditions of black people in the South, the level of social exclusion and poverty, the learning difficulties are not what you might expect to find in a so called developed country. No matter how much you twist it, one of the foundations of a developed country is that education should be a stepping stone of social and economic improvement. If education doesn’t achieve that, if society doesn’t provide that it ultimately fails as a society – as a country. That is a huge part of how liberalism was founded. The idea that education would contribute to the development of the people. Only through education would they become full citizens. If the State doesn't provide its people with an education, it will automatically break down as it fails to create citizens. What is shocking in this book is that this is all more or less clear. Everyone knows this. They all know about the poor and disfranchised blacks. They all know that poverty begets a lack of education. These beget crime. It is a vicious circle. And yet, no one cares. And the narrative that is continually pushed forward is that of personal responsibility. That somehow black kids who either come from violent, abusive backgrounds or whose families face poverty and unemployment, kids the system failed so badly they don’t even have a clear idea of where California is, are supposed to stand for themselves and take responsibility. When not only the system never took responsibility for them, but the system, through pernicious mechanisms of disfranchisement both social and political, kept alive forms of white supremacy and racism. The system created the poor black population and the system continues to exclude them. Social exclusion and poverty don’t shock me by themselves. What shocks me is how the narrative blames the victims for the crimes that were inflicted upon them.
Profile Image for Taryn.
1,210 reviews189 followers
February 21, 2018
I have read some great memoirs this year written by fascinating people, and Reading With Patrick is high up there on that list. Michelle Kuo spent two years teaching English at an alternative high school in rural Arkansas through Teach for America. After getting her undergraduate degree at Harvard, Kuo was accustomed to big-city amenities and opportunities and was shocked by the isolation and economic depression of her new home. Her students, already kicked out of traditional public schools for various offenses, did not have many options when it came to building good lives for themselves. Kuo, an idealist and would-be activist, wanted to inspire and empower her students, but the obstacles at times seemed insurmountable. Despite the struggles, she was drawn in by the area and found herself wanting to stay even after her two-year service was over. Instead, she bowed to parental and social pressures and returned to Harvard for law school.

After law school, she found out one of her favorite students, Patrick, had been arrested for murder. Stunned that the boy she remembered as gentle and quiet could have committed such a crime, Kuo came to visit him in jail. The Delta was calling her back. Ultimately, she stayed for months, visiting Patrick and giving him homework, discussing poetry and re-teaching him many of the skills he’d lost since he dropped out of school.

Kuo demonstrates how the deck was stacked against Patrick from the beginning, and how the legal system in Arkansas was unconcerned with the prospect of putting one more black man behind bars. I appreciated the complexity of Kuo’s defense of Patrick, as he confessed to the crime--it’s not a case of a righteous innocent man fighting for his freedom. Instead, it’s a meditation on guilt and innocence, extenuating circumstances, and the risk of defining a person by the worst thing they’ve ever done. At the forefront of Kuo’s mind, always, is the question of what could have gone differently if she hadn’t left when she did. What if she had stayed and truly invested in the lives of Patrick and her other students? Can one person really make a difference? Is that idea so cheesy and clichéd now that it has lost all meaning?

I don’t know how much stock I put in the “savior teacher” narrative anymore. Probably not much. But what I do believe, and what I think Kuo believes as well, is that individual, one-on-one connection can change lives. Truly investing in another person, recognizing their full humanity, has power.

More book recommendations by me at www.readingwithhippos.com
Profile Image for Tara.
64 reviews7 followers
June 6, 2017
To be honest, this book frustrated me, similar to how the program "Teach for America" frustrates me. I'm a teacher in a Title I school, where the majority of TFA candidates are sent. Teaching is a calling, a lifelong pursuit. Not a hobby or something to make Ivy Leaguers feel good about themselves before law school. Michelle returned to the Delta to try to assuage some of her guilt for leaving in the first place. Patrick became a project for her but she couldn't fix the problems that put him in prison in the first place. By leaving, she perpetuated her students' idea that sooner or later everyone leaves, no one cares. Not a fan.
Profile Image for Linda Lipko.
1,904 reviews43 followers
June 25, 2017
By far the best early review book I've received and read to date. I liked this book so much that is is difficult to put into words the beauty of it! Michelle is inspired to enroll in the Teach for America project. She lands in the Southern Delta in Helena Arkansas. Helena is a sleepy town with little outlet, majority of the people are black, and there are very few jobs.

Her parents came to America from Asia. Before arriving in Helena, she read Malcolm x, many books of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. On fire to impart her knowledge to a classroom of students who landed in a STAR program composed of those who are on the verge of flunking.

She takes a special interest in all her students as she learns of their backgrounds and the many things stacked against them, including families with drug addictions, sisters who have more than one child at an early age, incredible poverty, and because most are black they have an extreme low self concept and and inability to use punctuation, to understand, and to write their thoughts and feelings. Feeling there is no way out of their situation, sadly this equates to the belief that there is nothing they can do to rise about it all.

She takes particular interest in Patrick who is quiet, does not engage with fights of others, and seems to have a desire to learn. When the Star program ends after two years, she attends law school at Harvard. Graduating, she has a lucrative offer, but learning that Patrick has been jailed for murder propels her to return to the Delta to learn more , and to perhaps apply her legal knowledge to assist him.

She learns that, as many, Patrick's case is shoved to the bottom, and he doesn't even know if a lawyer is assigned to him. Sadly, while protecting his sister who he deems as "a little slow,", he overreacts when a boy either high or drunk argues with him. Patrick doesn't remember much, other than the boyfriend is dead as a result of multiple stab wounds as a result of a fight on his porch.

Michelle takes much of her time and effort in visiting Patrick and teaching him poetry, YA books such as The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, and many other books she feels will help him. While he is depressed and knows he must pay for what he did, Michele is the ray of light that propels him forward.

This is a book about racism, poverty, the abject discrepancy of how blacks are treated opposed to whites, not only in the educational system, but in the legal system as well. It is a story of trying to beat the odds. Mainly, it is a story about a person who cares from the bottom of her heart. She listens, she cares, and together the stories and poems Patrick reads open up a new sense of awareness in both of them.

For seven months, before his hearing in court, they read the stories of Malxom X, Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin. It is poetry that unlocks his soul, and Michelle's challenging methods of teaching push him to a place where he tries desperately to apply the stories to his life.

After writing this, I still don't think I can express the power of this book. Mainly, those of us who read book after book, can relate to the power of words well written. Some of us who have had less than perfect childhoods, can try to understand the ways in which our past impacts our future, and that by leaving behind the damaging memories, one can, if they are motivated, try to live with a new paradigm and move forward. And, sometimes one distinct person can make a difference.

That difference however, can only go so far. And, as Michelle learns after Patrick's trial, plea bargain and eventual release from jail, she cannot save the world, or one person.

Five stars for this book that brought smiles, tears and that reminded me once again why I love the power of words.
Profile Image for Caterina.
235 reviews88 followers
April 22, 2019
Mysteries, Yes

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
  to be understood.

How grass can be nourishing in the
  mouths of the lambs.

How rivers and stones are forever
  in allegiance with gravity
    while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds
  will never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
  scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
  who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
  “Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
    and bow their heads.

— Mary Oliver, quoted by Patrick Browning in one of his letters to Michelle Kuo

The absence of stories was itself the violence that I had missed.

— Michelle Kuo, Reading with Patrick

A wondrous, well-written memoir of an authentic and lasting friendship, forged over the course of several years, between young English teacher (and later, attorney) Michelle Kuo and her gentle and gifted student, Patrick Browning, who unexpectedly finds himself in the nearly bottomless pit of the American (in)justice system. As the thoughtful and well-educated, yet inexperienced Kuo grapples with dreams and ideals, parental expectations and life decisions, making mistakes and attempting to right them, she implicitly traces her maturation in wisdom and courage — without ever calling attention to her own personal growth. In parallel, on his infinitely more difficult path, Browning matures and develops in wisdom, commitment, an inner spiritual strength which on some level rubs off on Kuo. And Browning develops an astonishing poetic sensibility that I think surpasses Kuo’s, though she is quite a gifted teacher.

“Wondrous” describes the way the friendship developed through books and poetry — and the specific poems, poets and writers that Patrick loved and used in his writing — including his numerous lovely letters to his infant daughter, his mother, and later, to Kuo.

First and foremost these are real people; Patrick is in real jeopardy; his situation is dire -- and all too representative. Halfway through the book I began worrying intensely about what might happen him, or rather, what might have already happened.

Kuo's study and Patrick's direct experience reveal terrible, shameful historical and present-day conditions for impoverished African-Americans in rural areas and small towns that I had no idea about -- or rather, they were different than I would have guessed -- things that never make the news; and that hardly anyone — left, right, or center — has room for in our political discourse. Nor is it easy to find and become part of the significant success stories, especially success stories of groups, populations, towns; regions -- or those times when individual stories are shared and became group stories. This lack of stories, Michelle Kuo realizes, is another form of violence — when a people has no body of stories of their own to nourish their becoming.

While Kuo's initial ambition was to tell a wider, "sweeping" story, she realized her greater desire was to work one-on-one with Patrick. Yet, through this story of interpersonal and inter-family relationships, she touches on wider societal stories -- as well as offering a widely applicable personal story of giving and receiving courage, friendship and encouragement across cultural boundaries.

Highly recommended.
807 reviews130 followers
July 31, 2017
This is a well-written book with several compelling story elements. I finished the book in one day. And I am troubled by a certain trope. My concerns are summarized by asking: If an African American went to a poor, predominantly African American school (or to a poor, white school!) and did good, would that person get a book deal? How does Kuo's story fit in the American racial lexicon?

The author has numerous progressive street credentials. She’s the child of immigrants and she’s worked at a nonprofit organization that provides legal aid to very low-income Latinos and at a prison college program. In the book, Kuo importantly frames the context about Asian Americans (e.g., history of Chinese in the Mississippi Delta, Japanese American internment in AK), about civil rights, about race in America (e.g., Vincent Chin, Oscar Grant), and about the history and structural factors that impact the Mississippi Delta region where the book is mainly set. Her commitment beyond her 'Teach for America' stint and to Patrick are sustained and very admirable. There is nothing wrong with her work in Helena or in Patrick’s life. I believe that Kuo’s intentions are sincere, and this is certainly demonstrated.

I am, however, troubled by how this book is the latest iteration of a non-African American person going into an impoverished, African American neighborhood school to do good. Here she is an Asian American, instead of a white person, doing the familiar white savior jaunt. Her book is the result of a publishing industry and the media complex that too often promote the idea that African Americans are in a “one down” position. They are somehow victims, need saving or help, and as recipients of such, their story is relegated to the backstory of someone else’s heroic or noble cause.

I also think Kuo's is being used to promote the “model minority” myth that Asian Americans are THE successful minority. She is an example of a minority person who did very well because American society does not hamper minorities. The not-so-subtle message here is deeply disturbing.
Profile Image for ♥ Sandi ❣	.
1,320 reviews18 followers
November 17, 2020
3.5 stars

Again I feel I am an outlier on this book. It is okay - even good in spots - but similarly has boring spots and spots that are just not relevant. I began by trying to listen to the audio - that was horrible. I absolutely hated the voice of Kuo - the author. It was like nails on a chalk board. So I had to resort to reading the book. Which was like a ride in a very hilly country - up and down it went - here a curve, there a pothole.

The premise of the story is the friendship between a young Asian American teacher and an African American boy from the poor south Delta region. She meets him in her classroom at an alternate school and follows him through his trek in jail, then prison, then after his release.

This being a nonfiction book I cannot argue the logistics of the story. However, I can dislike and speak on parts of how it has been written. The majority of the book held my interest. There were places however that I felt were just not relevant to the journey of Patrick - one example was having to suffer through parts of the book Narnia - word for word! - that seemed to go on and on and never ending - and again with the numerous poems that were recited. Both of these over long sessions could have been said in a different way with much fewer words and still put forth the intended ideas.

On a good note, this story did reveal much of the Jim Crow south and did well in summarizing the attitude and outlook of families, at least this family, in their options to better themselves, their relationship to the world, and their place in it.
Profile Image for Nancy.
1,502 reviews348 followers
July 3, 2017
Michelle Kuo is a Chinese-American who grew up in West Michigan. I've lived in West Michigan. I lived in an entire county with only a handful of African Americans. I don't think there was one Asian person out of the 40,000. So it is understandable that Kuo grew up feeling alienated, identifying with the African American experience.

I admire how Kuo struggled with her immigrant parent's dreams for her and her personal desire to dedicate her talent to human rights. And I appreciated her honesty in admitting her failures and steep learning curve about the limits of what she could accomplish. It recalled to mind the idealism my husband and I once held and the pain and disappointment when faced with reality.

Reading with Patrick is her story of two years teaching English in one of the poorest counties in America, working in a school for troubled students. Success was not immediate, but she persisted. Her kids realized she was a teacher who cared.

She leaves under pressure to continue her education, planning a career in law. Several years later one of her best students is in jail for manslaughter. Kuo again puts her personal life on hold to be with Patrick. They start back at square one. He has to physically relearn how to write legibly and read with understanding. Over seven months he becomes a gifted creative writer.

The story of how she discovers how to awaken his mind and set his spirit free is heartwarming and also devastating. I thought of the old television commercials for supporting black colleges: A mind is a terrible thing to waste. But of course, these children born in poverty, with little opportunity, do lead wasted lives. Kuo discovers many of her students have also ended up in jail or pregnant and it makes her reconsider her own estimation of her legacy.

Patrick accepts a plea bargain and serves his time. And then discovers all the doors are closed to him. As Kuo points out, the justice system has moved from trials to settlements, but the jail sentences permanently impair futures. The justice system and public education, and the legacy of racism behind, them are addressed with thoughtful insight.

It is Kuo's self-revelatory journey that sets this book apart. And I loved reading how students, and in particular Patrick, responded to literature and poetry.

I won this book on a giveaway. Thank you to LibraryThings and the publisher.
Profile Image for ☮Karen.
1,533 reviews9 followers
April 27, 2020
After a slow start, I then became caught up in this story and enjoyed it a lot. It's the author's true story of her time spent in Helena, Arkansas, as a Teach for America volunteer. She also had a slow start there as the predominantly African American students exhibit poor attendance, a lack of interest and self confidence, all amidst an atmosphere of extreme poverty and depression. She takes a special interest in one student named Patrick who thrives under her tutelage, and the two of them develop a bond reading and discussing books and poetry together. After two years, Michelle leaves the school to attend law school and Patrick lands in jail for murder. Michelle feels more than a little guilt for this turn of events and that she abandoned him. Visiting him in jail, she sees that the progress she had seen in him before is now gone, only adding to her guilt. She stays in the area to work again with him on his reading and writing skills, and to look into his legal case.

I enjoyed reading about all of their interactions as they learned from each other and gained mutual self confidence. I especially enjoyed the poetry they studied together and the poems Patrick wrote. Patrick's education is substandard yet he is able to analyze lines of poetry with tremendous insight. It is heartbreaking while heartwarming at the same time.
Profile Image for Sharon Metcalf.
735 reviews166 followers
April 12, 2020
4.5 stars
The following words extracted from the New York Times and attributed to Michelle Kuo perfectly summarise her book Reading With Patrick. A teacher, a student and a life-changing friendship

It’s an intimate story about the failure of the education and criminal justice systems and the legacy of slavery; about how literature is for everyone, how books connect people, and the hope that with enough openness and generosity we can do the hard work of knowing each other and ourselves.

From the introduction to the very last page I couldn't get enough of this book. Michelle Kuo tells of her own upbringing, her motivations and how she ended up teaching in the Mississippi Delta one of the poorest parts of the country, in one of the poorest schools. The school where the very worst students were sent - those who'd been expelled from other schools - druggies, truants, troublemakers and fighters. Her parents were aghast that she should waste her Harvard degree in this way. She told of the progress she made with her students and surprisingly to me she told of leaving the Delta to study law. What did not surprise me so much, was that she would place everything on hold to return to the Delta because of the circumstances Patrick found himself. She clearly held a special place in her heart for him.

The lessons and her dedication to Patrick were the parts I enjoyed most. How she helped him with reading comprehension, asking him to consider how the things he read made him feel. As she taught Patrick she learnt a lot about herself, perhaps about her own motivations and her understanding of the way people learn.

This was an eye opening story of recent life in the Arkansas Delta. It was an inspiring and motivating story about the author's willingness to help others, I don't meant her ideas of how she might help but literally throwing herself into the deep end and just doing it. I found it an interesting and heart warming story and am so glad to have read it.
Profile Image for Heidi.
70 reviews21 followers
September 10, 2017
Where to start? Other reviewers have captured this beautiful memoir so well. I received this book from Netgalley in exchange for my honest review. Thank you for this opportunity!

Kuo's Reading with Patrick was stunning.
Kuo chronicles a time when she taught with Teach America in Arkansas and some years after. She is clearly a gifted teacher.

Full of history, literature, beautiful imagery and insightful sociological and psychology commentary- the memoir is truly astounding- it really packs a punch! Never self-righteous or strident, rather it is both compassionate and honest, this in itself, given the subject matter of the US's abhorrent treatment of African Americans and the sheer magnitude of a problem spanning centuries, is noteworthy.

The relationship of Kuo and her student Patrick is quite moving. They worked together when she taught his high school class and after he was arrested for killing a man as an adult. So many passages spoke to me. In particular at the end, Kuo ponders what the impact of an authentic relationship does, that of course one hopes to be impacted and affected, not out of pride but because that is the purpose of life, basically, to connect and be affected. Words cannot really express for me fully, how impressed I am by the story, the scholarly weaving of history and literature, and the beautiful portrayal of human bonds and caring, and the potential they are for catalyzing shifts in our lives.
1,643 reviews92 followers
November 19, 2017
Michelle Kuo took a year between college and law school to work with Teach America where she taught at risk teens in rural Arkansas. She quickly fell in love with these young people neglected by society. One particularly quiet young man, Patrick, found a special place in her heart. As she was finishing law school, Kuo learned that Patrick had been arrested for stabbing a man. So Kuo puts her law career hold for another year and returns to Arkansas to tutor Patrick as he awaits his trial in prison. Through that experience, she learns how much potential can be discovered in a youth if just a bit of time and resources are provided. She also discovers her vocation of advocating for the powerless and voiceless. It is a blessing to meet people willing to go the extra mile for someone else, even if that encounter is only between the covers of a book.
Profile Image for Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance.
5,871 reviews292 followers
May 30, 2017
This is a book that was written for me, I think. Patrick is a trouble student from a difficult high school, and Michelle Kuo is a deeply committed teacher who wants to change the world one student at a time. Kuo bows to her parents' wishes and leaves her Teach for America stint in Arkansas to go to Harvard Law School, but later learns that one of her most promising students is in jail awaiting trial for murder. Kuo resolves to meet with Patrick one-on-one and tutor him, and she does, with amazing results. It's a story for struggling teachers and dedicated teachers alike.
Profile Image for Suzanne.
221 reviews36.1k followers
September 27, 2017
In the world of non-profit marketing, there’s an understanding that you need to make things personal and individual to get people involved. Michelle Kuo’s story of working in Alabama with a young student called Patrick is compelling precisely because he exemplifies the problems facing many African Americans. You want this kid to succeed. But the odds are stacked against him. As another reviewer wrote, the adjective to use with this book is ‘heartbreaking’. And yet there is hope there too. And resilience.

The key strength of “Reading with Patrick” is how it weaves together information about our education system, the judicial system, and the history of slavery and civil rights with poetry and (my favorite childhood book) “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe”. I learned so much and I have a feeling the educator in Kuo will be glad to know that I felt like I was getting some extra special English lessons too.

Kudos also to Kuo for being self-aware and self-confident enough to reveal her (small) failings and laugh at herself. It made the book more relatable.

This was a buddy read with BP and Jasmine. We all loved it and I hope more people take the time to read it. I read “The Hate U Give” earlier this year and “Reading with Patrick” is a good complement to that.
Profile Image for Lori.
1,443 reviews
April 13, 2017
I was a goodreads giveaway winner of this book. I like to read books about teachers and their students. This is a very nice one. Michelle Kuo went to a small town in Arkansas after graduating from college. She spent two years teaching in a town that was know for it's poverty. She taught children in junior high who were barely getting by in their education. She is especially focused on a student named Patrick. He is very poor a year behind in school and is doing poorly in his classes. She tutors him after school to improve his reading and writing.
After two years of being a teacher she returns to college at Harvard to become a lawyer. Four years later she comes back to Arkansas and learns that Patrick is in jail for murder. For the next seven months she visits Patrick continuing with his reading and writing. They form a special friendship. She helps him to get his GED. and sticks with him over the next few years keeping in touch. This is nice book of how people can make a difference in each other's life. Don't want to give too many details. A nice read.
Profile Image for Julia Chuang.
1 review
May 10, 2017
I read this book in a single frenzied sitting! (Though I did get up twice to grab Kleenex.) In the opening, Michelle Kuo writes about meeting her student, Patrick, a "wry and pensive" student who draws her deeply into his life. Over the next decade, Michelle and Patrick engage in an ongoing conversation that becomes, for each, a formative moral education. Kuo tells Patrick's story in direct sentences: true to life, often heartbreakingly so. The second half of the book slayed me. It was unrelenting, morally demanding. After I read it, I found myself living a little slower, moving a little more thoughtfully, paying more attention to the past and to the present. It opened up to me new possibilities for the meanings (and change) we can make through cultivating thoughtful relationships with those whose paths we cross every day.
Profile Image for Dick Whittington.
625 reviews6 followers
June 25, 2017
I thought the description of the book was much more interesting and involving than the story itself. I felt Patrick was the true hero and his convictions stood out in direct opposition to the on-again, off-again nature of the main character. I was ready to close the book and give up about half way through, but remembered how strongly I was drawn to the description and forced myself to finish. When I finished I found myself feeling duped and disappointed by the story's lack of delivery on the promise and excitement of the description.
Profile Image for Abeselom Habtemariam.
50 reviews50 followers
June 21, 2022
‘’I was learning that you can’t try to fill someone up with stories about the people you think he ought to contain. You first have to work with his sense of himself. Douglass, King, Malcolm and Obama were all black men who attained a measure of freedom through the act of writing about their lives. But my students had no frame strong enough to hold these great men.’’

I didn’t know what to expect from this book. Perhaps, something akin to The Freedom Writers Diary by Erin Gruwell. I ended up being pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. The book is primarily a memoir on the seven months Michelle Kuo spent teaching, through literature, her former student Patrick Browning. Patrick was serving time at the Phillips County Jail in Helena, Arkansas. I, like many people (I suspect), had not heard of Helena before picking up this book. With a median household income of $29,263 and 15% of households earning less than $10,000 a year, Phillips County is one of the poorest counties in America, according to the United States Census Bureau . It is also one of the most violent counties. This is where Patrick Browning grew up and the county that Michelle would travel to for a Teach for America program.

The chapters in the book are named after classic works of world literature such as Crime and Punishment and The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Kuo then uses these classics as a motif to describe the different phases in Patrick’s intellectual growth. I thought that it was a brilliant touch. She also uses Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time in describing Helena’s past through Slavery, Emancipation, Reconstruction and The Civil Rights Movment. The Meticulous narratives that she weaves using history, literature and her own experience, is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Her commentary goes deeper into policing, education and the justice system in underprivileged communities in the south in particular, and in America in general. Patrick is a glimpse into Black America that is seldom visited or rehabilitated in any profound manner. This book is also a credit to all the inventive teachers out there who truely believe in their student's potential. While I concede that the book might be understood by different people in accordance with their own life experiences, I still think it is worth a read.
Profile Image for vanessa.
1,012 reviews150 followers
November 5, 2017
For its emotional impact, for the way I related to it, and for its honesty & heart this book is five stars. Kuo's compassion is evident and inspirational, but she is also honest about her idealism and her romantic notions about teaching. Specifically, she realizes that education and literacy as the pathways to ultimate success are way too simplistic in this largely forgotten town.
In this book, Kuo ponders the role of a teacher as well as how difficult it is for students to succeed when faced with poverty, systemic racism, and many emotional traumas. That makes this story feel very true to me: Kuo knows education is important, but also realizes that historical disenfranchisement and institutional neglect are serious obstacles to education.
This book made me happy because I think education is so important to children and young adults. This book made me sad because it showed me that I, as a single person, can't fix these problems.
Profile Image for Glady.
639 reviews9 followers
May 5, 2017
I received a free ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship stands as the best book I have read this year. Michelle Kuo, an Asian-American Harvard graduate, opts to join Teach for America and spend two years in rural Arkansas. Kuo's parents are mystified and question her motivations and long-term goals. Their questions, however, serve as a counterpoint Kuo's questions and doubts about her purpose and effectiveness. Is she making a difference? Does she have a right to impact anything when she always has the option to leave? Are her intentions to bring literature and wonder to a forgotten population intrinsically selfish?

Kuo effectively describes her initial teaching experiences as disastrous. She had great ideas of what she needed to do but these ideas bore little relation to what her students - intellectually, physically, socially and emotionally bereft - actually needed. With no guidance and lots of missteps, Kuo's manages to bring some light into the drab world of her students.

Kuo's description of the alternative school in Helena, Arkansas reveals an educational system that did not have any commonality to any experience I had with nearly 40 years as a public school educator. Certified teachers? Of course not. Books? Of course not. Caring child-centered discipline system? Only if you consider a paddle to be effective. Kuo's lack of educational theory allows her to break the rules of many public school systems. These students, however, have been abandoned by the system. Neither the system nor Kuo's students had dreams or hopes or expectations. Their world was limited and colorless. Few graduate from high school and higher education is not a consideration. They had committed the sin of being born poor and black.

One student, Patrick Browning, is fifteen when Kuo first introduces him. He and his classmates are barely literate. Through trial and error, Kuo brings young adult literature into their world. Patrick becomes a favorite and her effectiveness and success are based on Patrick's growth. After two years in the Delta she leaves for law school, uncertain as to the lasting impact of her two years of service.

While in law school and beyond, Kuo continues her quest to make a difference. She intends to take a job in the public sector when she learns that Patrick, now nineteen, is in jail awaiting trial for murder. There is no doubt that he caused the death of an unarmed man. Kuo returns to the delta, eventually postponing her planned move to California and employment. For the next few months, Kuo visits Patrick in jail as he awaits trial. Here the two resume Patrick's education with literature and writing.

Over the next few months, Patrick's intelligence and personality shine while Kuo, along with her readers, are exposed to the nightmarish legal system. Prior to trial, Patrick has no access to a lawyer since the public defender system is so limited in Arkansas. Also, the trial calendar is so time-constrained that defendants spend months and months in jail without appearing before a judge. Patrick meets his attorney on the same day that he accepts a plea deal for manslaughter. There has been no investigation, no victim impact statements, no understanding of the charges, and no real justice. Reading this section reminded me of the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird minus the impassioned Gregory Peck.

Reading Kuo's memoir is almost painful; I had to keep reminding myself that the events happened in the 21st century. As a country, we still leave too many of our citizens to the whims of chance. Reading this book brought easy comparisons to The Other Wes Moore. Both open up an America that many of us don't know or even believe exists.

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