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 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.
Publication Date July 11, 2017