After graduating from Harvard with an education degree, Michelle Kuo decided she wanted to make a difference in the world, … to do … straightforward, immediate work in places that needed people. As a result, she joined an organisation called Teach for America, and was sent to the Mississippi Delta, one of the poorest regions of America, where there was a dire shortage of teachers.
In this moving memoir, Kuo reflects the time she spent in a town called Helena, where she taught English to African-American teenagers, a dumping ground for the so-called bad kids. But, as Kuo puts it in the introduction of the book: Books had changed me … And I believed books could change the lives of my students. It was unashamedly romantic. I was twenty-two.
Her initial idealism was rudely smashed when she started teaching at the incongruously named ‘Stars’ school where the students swore at her (fuck you, Chinese bitch), got into fights, and arrived at school with bruises and welts on their bodies. Kuo was shocked by all of it, but she was more shocked by how she reacted: I yelled. I got mean, and she wondered what she was doing wrong. In a last ditch attempt to engage her students, she chose to teach them a play called A Raisin in the Sun. The reading level was not too difficult and the story centered on on a black family – and there it was, the students responded.
It was after this breakthrough that Kuo’s creative teaching skills shone through and, as a reader and sometime teacher, I found it a joy to read how the students responded to her and how they slowly opened up, writing about their dreams that extended beyond the Delta, and beyond the reputations that clung to them. She introduced the concept of free writing to them, writing that would not be graded or judged in any way, and in fact, would not have to be shown to anyone if they didn’t want. The students questioned her, disbelieving, but then:
… every student wrote. And during this strange time of silence – the heavy dark sounds of breathing, the arrhythmic scratching of the pencil, the surprising absence of talking – there was a palpable sense of desire.
One of Kuo’s students was a fifteen-year-old boy called Patrick Browning; a quiet boy who Kuo, by her second year of teaching, could see was a child who would respond to even a little adult interest: he wanted to try; he was thirsty for encouragement, yet he had failing grades. Discovering that the main reason he was sent to Stars was for failing to attend school, she went to find him at his home in the area of town called a ‘ghetto in a ghetto’. Patrick promised he would come to school more, and responded with passion to her teaching, reading more and writing voraciously and surprising even himself by winning the Most Improved Student award.
However, when Kuo got accepted into Harvard Law School, she left the Delta and immersed herself into university and work life. Three years later, however, she received a phone call to tell her that Patrick was in prison for having killed a man. She felt she had failed him, and a voice inside her said, If you hadn’t left, Patrick might not have ended up in prison. You owe him something, and, despite the fact she was to start a new job in three weeks time, Kuo chose to return to Helena to carry on teaching Patrick poetry, literature and history in prison.
This book isn’t a love story, nor is it a Hollywood-ised account of a teacher changing a person’s life, but it is an incredible reflection of how a person can flourish under another’s attention and how educational guidance can waken a person’s mind. The first bit of writing that Patrick gives Kuo when she meets up with him again is infantile and badly spelled: It was a shock. The writing looked crazed…I did not recognize his handwriting at all. Yet she perseveres, giving him homework and reading study to do after every visit, and loaning him books ranging from ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’ to haiku poetry to ‘The Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass’. She never is condescending; she challenges him; she gives him Larkin, Dylan Thomas, Pablo Neruda, Walt Whitman and gets him to imitate poems in his own words. The beauty of some of what Patrick wrote is striking.
Towards the end of the book, Kuo writes:
He had come so far, but what struck me then and for many years afterwards was how little I had done for him. I don’t mean this in the way of false modesty. I mean that it frightens me that so little was required for him to develop intellectually – a quiet room, a pile of books, and some adult guidance. And yet these things were rarely supplied.
Her comment made me reflect how this is applicable to so many children around the world, particularly in South Africa where the education system is abysmal. There must be so many Patricks who, with regular access to books, some teachers’ attention and regular instruction, would flourish.
This review merely reflects the story of Michelle Kuo and her interactions with Patrick, but there is more depth to the memoir than this, in that Kuo writes, too, about the failure of the educational and justice systems in America, and about the legacy of slavery as well.
To end, a poem of Patrick’s, written in April 2010 while he was in prison (as of now, he is no longer in jail):
I taught myself to feel free and alive/to wake up thankful to be here/and to know everything is a blessing/from my food, my family and visits./When the old man moans in his room/and the white guys tell sad stories,/I insist I’m fine./I have perfect health and happiness./I instantly realise the peaceful insects/flying across the room noiseless/and the bright light bulb/that shine like the sun for me every day/inside the county jail downtown/Only to a newcomer is it all startling./If you ask me I’m not here/Just in my own world.