Common Text choice engages timely social issues

'Reading With Patrick' by Michelle Kuo is a meditation on education, poverty, race and criminal justice

April 2, 2020
Mark Tarnacki
Staff Writer
Patrick cover

This image shows the cover of one popular edition of the newly chosen Common Text for Saint Michael’s College first-year students, “Reading with Patrick.”

The Common Text selection for incoming first-year Saint Michael’s College students in 2020-2021 will be Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship (2017) by Michelle Kuo, who taught in rural Arkansas as a Teach for America volunteer after graduating from Harvard.

Her book based on that experience is both an inspiring story of friendship and a moving meditation on education, poverty, race, and criminal justice, said Peter Vantine, director of the First-Year Seminar Program, professor of French and chair of the College’s Department of Classical and Modern Languages & Literatures, who announced the choice last week.

Vantine explained some of the Common Text committee’s reasons for the selection: “As Saint Michael’s College celebrates 50 years of having women at the school, and as the United States celebrate the centennial of women’s suffrage, we wished to mark these important anniversaries by selecting a book written by a female author,” he said. “Michelle Kuo’s stirring memoir further resonates with the legacy and ongoing work of the Edmundites, from their efforts in the South during the Civil Rights movement to their continuing ministry in Selma, Alabama. Similarly, the book aligns with the aim of the First Year Seminar (FYS) program to promote reflection on diversity and with Saint Michael’s College’s strong commitment to social justice. The text’s discussion of the criminal justice system also ties in well with the College’s new major in Criminology.”

Peter Vantine

Peter Vantine

“The poignant, probing exploration of education that is at the heart of Reading with Patrick reaffirms the focus in the First-Year Seminar program and within the liberal arts tradition at Saint Michael’s, on the value of meaningful reading and writing, and forging close connections between students and teachers,” Vantine said. “The example of Kuo’s work with Patrick illustrates how much a person can get out of reading and writing when given the opportunity and when guided with caring attention and patience. The author’s account is also notable for her humility in reflecting on her own assumptions, misjudgments, limitations, and failings. The book is clear-eyed and sobering but hopeful. It calls us to confront historical and contemporary realities of socio-economic inequality and racism, to serve others, and to engage deeply and honestly with those around us”

Christina Root of the English faculty served on this year’s Common Text Selection Committee with Vantine and William Ellis of the Fine Arts faculty. She said all three on the committee “found the book tremendously moving and honest.”

“Michelle Kuo never exaggerates her own role in her student Patrick’s life, but through her vivid descriptions of their work together we see how transformative their bond becomes for both of them,” Root said. “The book achieves a real intimacy even as it illuminates the larger picture of economic and racial inequality in the United States. The story will inspire our students to put the ideas they learn to care deeply about in college in action once they graduate.”

A review in the prestigious magazine The Atlantic said of Kuo’s book: “Maybe there are prospective readers who noticed Kuo’s memoir on a bookstore shelf, leafed through its pages, and put it back, saying to themselves, ‘I know this story already.’ But in all of the literature addressing education, race, poverty, and criminal justice, there has been nothing quite like Reading With Patrick.” The reviewers make a similar point to Vantine’s about how Kuo wisely avoids the pitfalls of the common and misleading “teacher as savior” genre by dealing frankly with her failures and powerlessness many times, making the book therefore a more humble and therefore realistic account than is typical in such stories.

Vantine said one of his hopes that he will be working on is that Kuo might be invited to appear on campus next year and talk to Saint Michael’s students about the book.

Plot summary

In announcing the selection, Vantine shared the following synopsis of the book’s plot:

“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 enduring effects of slavery and Jim Crow. 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.

Other Patrick cover

This image shows the cover of another popular edition of this year’s Common Text selection “Reading With Patrick.”

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 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 novels, poems, and historical narrative. Little by little, Patrick grows into a confident, expressive writer and a dedicated reader. In her time reading with Patrick, Kuo is herself transformed as she contends with the ongoing impacts of racism and the questions of what constitutes a “good” life and what the privileged owe to those with bleaker prospects.”

About the author

Author Michelle Kuo, the daughter of immigrants from Taiwan, was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she attended public schools. After graduating with a degree in Social Studies and Gender Studies from Harvard, she joined Teach for America and moved to the rural town of Helena, Arkansas, located in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Kuo taught English at an alternative school for kids who were expelled from other schools.

Michelle Kuo

Michelle Kuo

At Harvard Law School, Kuo worked as a student attorney at the Criminal Justice Institute, a domestic violence and family mediation clinic, and the Education Law Clinic/Trauma Policy Learning Initiative. She received the National Clinical Association’s award for her advocacy of children with special needs.

After law school, Kuo returned to the Delta for several months to work with her former student Patrick as he awaited trial in a county jail. She then worked as an immigrants’ rights lawyer at Centro Legal de la Raza, in Oakland, California. She advocated for tenants facing evictions, workers stiffed out of their wages, and families facing deportation. Her clients included day laborers, restaurant workers, gardeners, nannies, and home care workers. Kuo clerked for the John T. Noonan at the Court of Appeals of the Ninth Circuit. Among the troubling cases that she worked on was U.S. v. Preston, in which the police coerced a confession from an 18 year old with severe disabilities who lived on a Native American reservation. She has also taught courses at San Quentin through the Prison University Project.

Currently, Kuo teaches in the History, Law, and Society program at the American University of Paris on issues related to race, punishment, immigration, and the law. She won the 2016 Board of Trustees Award for Distinguished Teaching. She has published articles, both independently and with her husband Albert Wu, in various newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times and the LA Review of Books. Reading with Patrick is her first book.

Follow us on social.