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

Reading with Patrick (Aug 2017) Maybe a record of someone’s private thoughts is worthless anywhere. Certainly in jail — contraband is worth more. But I wondered if it was especially worthless in the Delta, where a calm place to read was hard to come by; where there wasn’t a bookstore for a hundred miles and families couldn’t afford a book, anyhow; and where a teacher once burst into my classroom to scold me for having the kids write about the death of a classmate, not wanting them to feel sympathy for him.

I love this book so much. As Patrick would say, “It’s real.”

Michelle Kuo has gifted to this world such an extraordinary testimony — both hers and Patrick Browning’s.

It’s a beautiful literary work that is full of thought and introspection. It is a meditation on the great questions of the human experience and how books and writing and poetry impact how we see our world.

All that beauty is wrapped around the gritty reality of rural poverty, racism, history denied, mass incarceration, failed education policies, despair, addiction and violence. And yet – there is also faith, family, resilience and love.

This story of how a daughter of Taiwanese immigrant parents, born and raised in Michigan and educated at Harvard, ended up in the Mississippi Delta teaching at an alternative school, has more plot twists than you can imagine. Only this is no work of fiction. It’s an extraordinary personal journey.

I feel inadequate to the task of reviewing this book. There is not a “genre” for this kind of non-fiction literature. It weaves the well researched history of racism and poverty in rural Helena, Arkansas, together with the writings of Leo Tolstoy, C.S. Lewis, James Baldwin, Frederick Douglass and the poetry of Yeats, Tennyson, Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Ms. Kuo and Patrick explore Haiku together day after day in a jail visitors room. She has him write letters – to his daughter and to the man he killed. Those things may seem to be incongruous on their face, but it’s about the transformative power of words, ideas and the experience of those before us to help us see who we are.

“Bad conditions could impel one to leave, but they could also sap one’s strength to go.” I found so much in these pages that resonated. I felt the struggle of the place, of the people, and the determination of this teacher to help Patrick to find in himself the things he could not see.

I highly recommend this book to every reader as it a story deeply rooted in the power of education to change lives.

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