Reading with Patrick

Author:  Michelle Kuo

Published By: Random House Books

Reviewed by Melissa Minners

                I read a description of a memoir written by about a teacher and a relationship she formed with a student that would become a life-changing bond for both and knew I had to read the book.  I requested a review copy of Reading with Patrick and was thrilled when my request was accepted, but would the book meet my expectations?

                When Michelle Kuo graduated from Harvard University, she decided that she wanted to be a vessel for change.  What better way to institute change in the world than by teaching its youth.  Thus, she signed up as a Teach for America volunteer and found herself in the rural town of Helena, Arkansas teaching in the STARS program.  STARS was a school for teenagers who had been given up on in other schools.  Some of them had been expelled due to attendance issues, others had been kicked out for fighting, others had bad attitudes and still others had very short attention spans.  The school’s budget was very low, a reality of life in one of the poorest counties in America.

                Despite all of this, Michelle believed she could make a difference.  Being the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, she felt a bond with these students, understanding what it is like to be different in the eyes of others.  Never having experienced slavery or Jim Crow laws, Michelle had still known prejudice from a very young age and could relate.  She could especially understand the labels these particular teenagers had been given and hoped to help them rise up and surpass the expectations of the schools that abandoned them.  It took a while, but she finally got her students interested in reading literature and poetry and writing.  One student in particular stood out in the crowd – Patrick Browning. 

                Intuitive, kind and willing to learn with the right teacher, Patrick was a role model to other students, helping to quell fights and teaching them morals taught to him by his own mother.  Thriving under Michelle’s teaching, Patrick showed great promise for the future.  Then, two things happened: Michelle was accepted to a law school and the STARS program was closed, forcing the students to attend a regular high school.  While Michelle struggled to find her way in her new chosen field, Patrick floundered.  On the eve of her graduation from law school, Michelle learns that Patrick has been incarcerated for murder.

                Feeling a sense of guilt at leaving a job unfinished, Michelle returns to Helena to find a way to help Patrick in the best way she knows how – resuming his education.  Every day for seven months, the two read classics, poems and historical literature by such notable authors as Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, Whitman, Merwin and more.  Patrick thrives with each assignment, finding a clear niche in the writing of letters and poetry, but will this be enough for Patrick to move forward in life.  With a murder charge hanging over his head, Patrick is looking at the possibility of life in prison.  And even if he gets a lighter sentence, what will the world have left to offer a convicted felon?  Could it be that Michelle is too late to help Patrick?

                I loved Reading with Patrick!  The story is captivating.  I loved that Michelle felt especially drawn to the civil rights movement in America and wanted to try to make a difference.  Of course, she begins her journey a bit naively, but once she really gets going, she actually gains speed.  While I first thought her decision to attend law school to please her parents was a bad move, her next decision to work at a not-for profit agency proved that she still had a yen to help those who have had their rights trod upon by others.  This gave me hope that she hadn’t abandoned her original dream to make a difference in the world; a hope that would be affirmed when she decided to return to Helena to help her former student.

                In the words of Patrick, this book is “real.”  If this book had one of those “and they lived happily ever after” endings where Patrick becomes a lawyer's assistant or an English teacher, the story would have been suspect, but the book doesn’t have one of those endings.  Patrick has a rough go of things and Michelle finds herself questioning what she meant to her student until she begins to read letters he had written to her from prison.  After all, education wasn’t the only thing that Michelle had to offer Patrick.  For someone society has given up on, one of the most important thing a person could offer them is friendship.  The friendship that blooms between Michelle and Patrick is beautiful.  Sure, things are not easy and there are pitfalls here and there, but that friendship will always help to boost both of them over the bumpy road ahead. 

                What a beautiful story, through and through.  The story itself, the included snippets of poetry and literature and the insights of both the author and of Patrick himself blend together to make for an enjoyable and uplifting tale.  I’ve been talking about this book to co-workers and friends, telling them that Reading with Patrick is one of those beautiful tales of friendship that can’t be missed.  Reading with Patrick is definitely a memoir you should add to your Must Read list.


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