A Teacher, Lit, & a Jailed Student

After J Barnett, “Elizabeth Fry reading Bible to Newgate prisoners”


The Atlantic has just reviewed a book that is now on my must-read list. Among other things, Michelle Kuo’s Reading with Patrick explores the impact of literature upon poor students of color in a blighted rural Arkansas town.

The first part of the memoir describes Kuo’s experience as a Teach for America teacher in an eighth grade English classroom. When she returns as a lawyer a few years later to support a former student jailed for murder, she once again finds herself teaching him English. The reviewers praise the book for avoiding both the white savior narrative and the fatalistic narrative. We see literature making a difference but in unexpected ways.

As a beginning teacher, Kuo learns to let go of her expectations and listen to her students:

Eventually, Kuo does begin to reach some of her students, but she gives them most of the credit for their progress as readers and writers. When they perform A Raisin in the Sun in class, she looks on, amazed, as they compete for the part of the matriarch Lena Younger—a character they admire because “she don’t play.” When she creates a classroom library and schedules silent-reading periods, she sees their adolescent restlessness give way to concentration. Before they relinquish the books they like, the students inscribe endorsements on the inside front covers. Until now, Kuo points out, they had never been handed a play or allowed time to read books of their choice. Just look, she seems to say, at what they make of these opportunities.

Whatever hopes Kuo has when she leaves, however, are brought into question by what subsequently happens to many of these students, especially Patrick Browning. At one time, reading seems to open limitless possibilities for Patrick:

He sits at the back of Kuo’s class, quiet and easily overlooked. But over the course of his eighth-grade year, he develops eclectic tastes in reading—everything from Langston Hughes and Dylan Thomas to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—and wins the school-wide award for “Most Improved” student. 

Yet Patrick eventually drops out of school and then is involved in a scuffle that ends in a death. The circumstances are such, Kuo says, that a white defendant might have been able to argue self-defense, but Patrick feels so guilty that he can’t stop confessing. Kuo wants him to change the narrative about himself:

[M]aybe he needed his guilt; otherwise the death would have happened for no reason, a result of senseless collision—of mental states, physical impulses, and coincidences. He needed, for his own sense of meaning, to knit his failures into a story. “Cause and effect,” as he put it. The thread was that he messed up by ignoring God.

But I didn’t believe the story he told himself. I wanted to break it. For me to do that, we needed to forge a connection. But what did I have that I could share with him?

The connection is reading and writing:

All I could think of was books. There were other things he liked—he’d tended lovingly to his go-cart and said once that he wanted to be a mechanic. I didn’t believe that reading was inherently superior to learning how to fix a car, or that reading makes a person better. But I did love books, and I hadn’t yet shared with him anything I myself loved. Had I known how to sing, I would have had us sing.

Although he initially thinks that his English experiences are in the past, Patrick begins to shift:

Once they begin reading, Kuo is continually surprised by Patrick’s responses. When she gives him C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobefor instance, she thinks of it as a diversion: “a magical book, where the heroes were children, and children on the side of good.” But Patrick doesn’t see it that way. He is drawn to the character Edmund, who acts wrongfully but makes amends, and who grows stronger and wiser in the process. The story matters to Patrick because it allows him to envision the possibility that a person can change.

Similarly, Kuo is not prepared for the intensity of Patrick’s reaction to Frederick Douglass’s NarrativeHe reads it in a concrete stairwell at night, away from the other inmates, and persists even when he finds himself painfully identifying with the slaves Douglass describes. She half-expects him to deride the exuberance of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, but instead he writes lines imitating it, picturing landscapes and cities he has never seen. At such moments, Kuo recalls, “he appeared to me anew, as a person I was just beginning to know.”

Patrick is also inspired by Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, a novel in the form of a long letter that a dying father writes to his infant son. In his own letter to his infant daughter, Patrick

describes a journey they might one day take together. The writing is so evocative that it humbles Kuo to read it. “I was searching for myself,” she admits, “for deposits of our conversations, memories he’d shared or words I taught him. But I was barely there. Each word felt like a tiny impulsive root, proof of a mysterious force that exceeded me.”

Reading with Patrick appears to be a clear-eyed look at what a teacher can and cannot accomplish. If she had stayed at the school, Kuo admits, it still might not have made any difference. After all, our students go on to lead their own lives. But Kuo also avoids fatalism, exhibiting what the reviewers describe as “the kind of impassioned writing and hard-earned wisdom that set her book apart.” Rather than asking herself, “why did you ever think you could make a difference in a person’s life?” Kuo concludes,

But then what is a human for? A person must matter to another, it must mean something for two people to have passed time together, to have put work into each other and into becoming more fully themselves.

Patrick, who pleaded to manslaughter and was paroled two years later for good behavior, faces an uncertain future, despite his reading. Literature didn’t keep him out of trouble, and it may not land him a job. Literature doesn’t bring about miracles.

Then again, maybe we need to rethink miracles, which may not look like we think they’re supposed to look. Maybe literature has changed Patrick’s life in ways that aren’t measurable.

Teaching English is an act of faith.

This entry was posted in Baum (L. Frank), Lewis (C. S.), Robinson (Marilynne), Whitman (Walt) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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