Dec 3rd, 2017, 03:25 PM

Honesty in the Discussion of Education

By Sara Moskowitz
Image credit: Kathy Huang
AUP Professor Michelle Kuo's life-changing journey to Arkansas for Teach for America.

After graduating from Harvard University in 2003, and receiving her masters from Cambridge University in 2004, Michelle Kuo traveled deep into the South for Teach for America. In rural Helena, Arkansas, Kuo was thrust into a classroom of students who had been expelled from their first high school. At Stars Academy Alternative School it seemed like the students, as well as their teachers, had given up. Kuo was teaching English to 7 to 12th graders in the same classroom. She hoped to teach them classic literature like Baldwin and Fitzgerald, but shortly after arriving, she realized she was overly ambitious about her students' educational background. Upon realizing this, Kuo knew the curriculum needed reshaping into something relatable as well as meaningful. She started by having the students connect to the literature they were reading and rediscovering themselves through writing. When they began writing poems and short stories she was amazed by their potential. 

Her book is an honest and raw account of her triumphs and tribulations teaching in Arkansas and her relentless fight to connect with her students. The book centers around one of her students, Patrick, a truant who had been held back several times. In the first part of the novel, Kuo shows up to Patrick's house alone, in a rough neighborhood and asks him why he isn't coming to school, and after that encounter, Patrick started showing up. He and his classmates began writing and reading and connecting with literature in a way they never had before. By the Spring, he had won the award for "Most Improved Student." In a filmed interview of Patrick, he gave Kuo credit for his incredible turnaround. He stated, "That's why I don't think I'd never flunk here at Stars, because, Ms. Kuo, she cares so much." 

“While her favorite student awaits trial for murder in an Arkansas jail ... Kuo steps in as Patrick's only support. Bonding over a shared appreciation for James Baldwin and Frederick Douglass, the two embrace the written word as a 'refuge, a separate place,' in this tender memoir of their time together.” —O: The Oprah Magazine ("10 Titles to Pick Up Now") 

Image credit: Vroman's Bookstore 

Heavily scrutinized by her Taiwanese immigrant parents for having gone to Harvard University only to join Teach for America, Kuo felt pressured to apply to Harvard Law School. After her acceptance, she decided to defer for a year and stay in Helena for another year. After two years teaching at Stars, Kuo left her students and went to law school in hopes of getting a more powerful position to help underrepresented minorities. Three years later, she received a call from a friend in Helena, Patrick was in jail for First Degree Murder. He had dropped out of school. Devastated by the news, she flew down to Arkansas to visit Patrick. His public defender didn't have the resources to do a necessary investigation of the murder's extenuating circumstances: Patrick's need to defend himself and his younger sister, mixed with alcohol, and the ambulance not getting to the scene soon enough. Kuo knew her work in the Delta was far from over, and she began visiting Patrick in jail and reading to him. She helped him avoid an unjust sentence and have what would be life in prison lessoned to three years. More importantly, she didn't give up on what she started with Patrick at Stars; Kuo gave him the hope he needed to keep going and understand the complex world he was living in through the books she read to him.

“…penetrating, haunting…unfolds with all the starkness and immediacy of a two-character play…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.” —James Forman Jr. & Arthur Evenchik, The Atlantic

Helena, Arkansas. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/Thomas R Machnitzki

Were there books that you hoped to teach but couldn't?

I mean in the book I talked about how we couldn't get through James Baldwin's stories. I loved his collection of short stories, The Price of the Ticket, but they were just not working at a high enough level to read that. There were classics that I had read at their age that they weren't ready for, as their reading level was low. I think you can get any kid to read it and understand it, but then the question is whether you want to spend nine months doing that when you can make them feel total ownership of another book that pushes them but is more at their level and more relatable.

What were the books you felt they connected with the most?

They connected the most to young adult books I think partly because young adult books make kids feel like kids. There's a genre of literature that is written explicitly for black teenagers, like Sharon Draper, Sharon Flake, Jacqueline Woodson, and a lot of the characters were people they felt were going through what they are going through, things that otherwise get overlooked. In Sharon Flake's books, the teenagers were deciding whether to reconcile with their mom, who's been doing drugs or dealing with the death of a friend whose death they blame themselves for. Traumatic stuff—I mean the books aren't sufficient by themselves, you need support groups, counselors, and systemic changes that can help a drug-addicted parent get help rather than penalize him or her and take the kid away. But, the idea that books could reflect their lives was revolutionary, and it also gave them most profoundly, an idea that they can write a book and they have stories to tell. I think when you realize that at whatever age you are at, a light bulb goes off that something about your life is worthwhile. 

Why did you decide to leave Helena, Arkansas?

I still don't know, and that's what I was trying to figure out when I went back. When I decided to leave it did feel like a kind of moral crisis or a realization that you have to put your money where your mouth is if you're going to be loud about your liberal ideas. It's hard, as before I had never really stepped foot in a rural area. People will often make jokes about never wanting to visit Arkansas or Mississippi which still really hurts me. Constant loneliness and dislocation, it was tough to be one of the few Asians there and feel conspicuous like you have to apologize. 

Let me put it this way, if my parents hadn't come down hard on me, I probably would've maybe stayed a couple more years. Perhaps not at that school because it closed down, but I would've found some other thing to do. But I think it's not just immigrant parents; it's parents who have a strong idea of what is a successful career. 

There is this part where it gets a little tricky, and it had nothing to do with immigrant parents, there's this liberal narrative that you can only change the world through systemic change. I did something very similar to history, law, and society in college called social studies and definitely, there's this idea that the people at the top were system-changers, and then if you were in a service position: teaching, mental health, nursing, social work, you were somehow perpetuating the system. 

Do you regret leaving your teaching position to attend Harvard Law School?

I think that's the gray area question I leave unanswered and up to the reader of the book. I leave it up to you, Sara. I recently started thinking Patrick could be doing a lot better now. We don't know what his life would've been like if none of this had happened but the thought has also crossed my mind that maybe it was already too late. I think that's what was so hard to swallow at the end of the book, because already at the point they were shaped. We can't know with the traumatic things that happened when they were younger, or the repeated failures of the school system to provide a real education; I don't know. Even if you see the person every day of the year, it's not enough. I definitely think the question in the book wasn't whether or not it was right to stay, but rather what I think could've happened if I had stayed. That's why I ended the book the way I did. It changes the question from self-judgment to self-possibility. 

In your book, it's clear that the education system in America failed Patrick as well as the criminal justice system; both heavily scrutinized throughout the country, especially regarding minorities. Which one is, in your opinion, a more significant threat to equality in the United States?

A friend of mine who read the book is the lieutenant governor of Washington now. He made a comment which I thought was interesting; he said that, in the book, you get the feeling that the education system failed him so much more profoundly than the criminal justice system did, just regarding how systematic and total its failure was. Then the criminal justice system refused to acknowledge or correct what the educational system failed to do and looked at his case not even in the most basic terms. I think the book makes it clear that they both failed him. It's tragic when a kid enters the system as an incarcerated person because they will have that stamped on their record for the rest of their life. There's no public document and moment between him and some representative of the state acknowledging that he was screwed from day one. It's not that we want the system to give him a second chance, but he was never given a first chance. 

Kuo's book, Reading with Patrick is available at Shakespeare and Company and will soon be available at the AUP bookstore.