A Memoir’s Humble Tale of Teaching (James Forman Jr. and Arthur Evenchik)

I have not published a book review on my blog in the eight years I have written posts. Usually I read the book and mention it in a post.

This particular review of a novice teacher re-connecting with her students as a lawyer years after her brief stint in a Helena (ARK) alternative school is unusual in its candor about relationship with students, and its insights into the linkage between schooling and poverty. Inspiration, dedication, and humility–particularly the latter–seldom appear in such books written by former teachers.

I have not yet read Michelle Kuo’s Reading with Patrick but am moved to do so after reading this review. Perhaps (or perhaps not) others might reach a similar conclusion.

The two authors of the review are former teachers in a Washington, D.C. charter school. James Forman Jr., who teaches at Yale Law School, is the author of Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.; Arthur Evenchik is the coordinator of the Emerging Scholars Program at Case Western Reserve University.

The review appeared October 20 on Atlantic Online

 

In books and films about failing schools attended by poor students of color, a suspiciously upbeat plotline has become all too familiar. A novice teacher (usually white) parachutes in, overcomes her students’ distrust and apathy, and sets them on the path to college and worldly success. Such narratives are every kind of awful. They make the heroic teacher the center of attention, relegating the students to secondary roles. They pretend that good intentions and determination have the magical power to transform young people’s lives, even in the most adverse circumstances. And they treat schools as isolated sites of injustice, never connecting educational disadvantage to other forms of inequality.

Michelle Kuo is a writer who resists the mythmaking impulse, with its clichés and wishful thinking. In her penetrating, haunting memoir, Reading With Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship, she confronts all of the difficult questions that the teacher-as-savior genre claims to have answered, and especially this one: What difference can a teacher actually make?

Her credibility stems, in part, from her willingness to make her misjudgments and failings an integral part of the story she tells. At age 22, after graduating from Harvard, Kuo frustrates her immigrant parents’ ambitions for her by joining Teach For America. She takes a job at an alternative school in Helena, Arkansas, a blighted Mississippi Delta town populated by the descendants of black families who stayed behind during the Great Migration. By her own admission, her first year in the classroom is a disaster. She arrives hoping to teach African American literature to her eighth-grade students, but she blinds herself to the fact that most of them read at a fourth- or fifth-grade level, and so they are bored and frustrated by her lessons. She wants the students to know “their history,” by which she means the history of racist violence in the Delta. But she knows nothing of the trauma they have inherited; when she passes around a picture of a lynching, a boy named David brings her lesson to a halt by putting his head on his desk and muttering, “Nobody want to see that.” Instead of defying her school’s authoritarian culture, Kuo initially succumbs to it. Once, she recalls, “I tore up a student’s drawing, which I’d thought was a doodle, in order to jolt him into paying attention; he never forgave me, and I will regret it forever.”

Eventually, Kuo does begin to reach some of her students, but she gives them most of the credit for their progress as readers and writers. When they perform A Raisin in the Sun in class, she looks on, amazed, as they compete for the part of the matriarch Lena Younger—a character they admire because “she don’t play.” When she creates a classroom library and schedules silent-reading periods, she sees their adolescent restlessness give way to concentration. Before they relinquish the books they like, the students inscribe endorsements on the inside front covers. Until now, Kuo points out, they had never been handed a play or allowed time to read books of their choice. Just look, she seems to say, at what they make of these opportunities.

Her descriptions of individual students are unusually perceptive and moving. A boy named Tamir, asked to write a poem about himself, looks afraid “and peers at a classmate’s paper, as though this was the kind of assignment one could copy.” A girl named Kayla, who had been removed from the district’s regular high school for fighting, writes herself a letter that says, “I hope that when trouble come your way, you would just hold your head high and walk away with a smile on your face.” Patrick Browning, a student with a history of absenteeism, seems lost as he starts eighth grade, “as if he’d gotten on the school bus by accident.” He sits at the back of Kuo’s class, quiet and easily overlooked. But over the course of his eighth-grade year, he develops eclectic tastes in reading—everything from Langston Hughes and Dylan Thomas to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—and wins the schoolwide award for “Most Improved” student. When rainwater leaks through the classroom ceiling and destroys much of the book collection, it is Patrick who says to the other students, “Stop crying, y’all,” and fetches a bucket and mop.

After two years in the Delta, Kuo decides to leave her job and go to law school. (“With a law degree, you can multiply your impact,” a friend assures her. And her parents are thrilled.) But what might seem the natural ending to her story proves not to be an ending at all. Kuo returns to Helena three years later when she learns that Patrick has been arrested and charged with murder. She begins to visit the county jail where he is awaiting trial, bearing books and writing assignments. Her account of the seven months she spends as his tutor and fellow reader occupies the heart of the book, and it unfolds with all the starkness and immediacy of a two-character play. Scene by scene, it asks what brought them to this place and what can come of their time together.

The night Patrick was arrested, he had gone out looking for his younger sister, but he couldn’t find her. Then she arrived on the family porch with Marcus, a man she was dating. Marcus was drunk and belligerent, and when Patrick ordered him to leave, he started talking loudly and acting aggressively. Believing that Marcus was armed, Patrick picked up a knife he had left on the porch earlier in the day. He just wanted to scare Marcus, he says, but then they fought. He can’t remember the fight itself—just the sight of Marcus limping away and then falling to the sidewalk.

Patrick doesn’t realize that he has a plausible self-defense claim. A white man fending off an intruder on his property could invoke principles such as “stand your ground” or the “castle doctrine.” But Patrick is a black man in the Delta, and the prosecutor goes for a massive overcharge: first-degree murder. There is no question of bail: for sixteen months, Patrick awaits his trial in a jail so unsanitary and poorly managed that the state of Arkansas later shuts it down. And though his public defender eventually gets the charge against him reduced, they never meet until Patrick has his day in court.

The first time Kuo comes to the jail, Patrick blurts out, “Ms. Kuo, I didn’t mean to,” in what she calls “a tone of supplication.” But she soon realizes that he feels an intolerable sense of guilt. Patrick imagines that all the mistakes he has ever made led inexorably to the act he is now locked up for. He is haunted by a litany of wrongs he has no way to redress. “The problem,” Kuo writes, “was not that he wouldn’t confess but that he had confessed too much; it wasn’t far-fetched to think he might spend the rest of his life confessing.”

And yet maybe he needed his guilt; otherwise the death would have happened for no reason, a result of senseless collision—of mental states, physical impulses, and coincidences. He needed, for his own sense of meaning, to knit his failures into a story. “Cause and effect,” as he put it. The thread was that he messed up by ignoring God.

But I didn’t believe the story he told himself. I wanted to break it. For me to do that, we needed to forge a connection. But what did I have that I could share with him?

All I could think of was books. There were other things he liked—he’d tended lovingly to his go-cart and said once that he wanted to be a mechanic. I didn’t believe that reading was inherently superior to learning how to fix a car, or that reading makes a person better. But I did love books, and I hadn’t yet shared with him anything I myself loved. Had I known how to sing, I would have had us sing.

The bond they establish during their jailhouse sessions eases his torment, as Kuo hoped it would. Yet Patrick never ceases to hold himself responsible for Marcus’ death. After he takes a plea deal and is convicted of manslaughter, Kuo asks him, “Do you feel guilty?” and he replies, “I know I guilty.” It’s not the answer she wanted. But she comes to see that if she had undermined his sense of himself as the agent of his own actions, she would only have deepened his despair. No teacher can “break” a student’s story, his understanding of his life, and replace it with her own.

In other ways, too, the course of the relationship between Kuo and Patrick diverges from her original intention. When she discovers that his literacy skills have deteriorated, she promptly resumes her English-teacher role—marking every last error in his writing, assigning “extra homework to eliminate future mistakes.” This makes her sound overzealous, and sometimes she is. Yet Patrick, who at first dismisses the idea of homework (“Nah, it’s over with,” he tells her), makes greater progress than she had anticipated. “For me and perhaps for him,” she writes, “the task of making a sentence perfect had the effect of containment: It kept unbearable emotions at bay.”

Once they begin reading, Kuo is continually surprised by Patrick’s responses. When she gives him C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for instance, she thinks of it as a diversion: “a magical book, where the heroes were children, and children on the side of good.” But Patrick doesn’t see it that way. He is drawn to the character Edmund, who acts wrongfully but makes amends, and who grows stronger and wiser in the process. The story matters to Patrick because it allows him to envision the possibility that a person can change.

Similarly, Kuo is not prepared for the intensity of Patrick’s reaction to Frederick Douglass’s Narrative. He reads it in a concrete stairwell at night, away from the other inmates, and persists even when he finds himself painfully identifying with the slaves Douglass describes. She half-expects him to deride the exuberance of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, but instead he writes lines imitating it, picturing landscapes and cities he has never seen. At such moments, Kuo recalls, “he appeared to me anew, as a person I was just beginning to know.”

For one of his final assignments, Patrick composes a letter inspired by a passage from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead. Addressed to his baby daughter, it describes a journey they might one day take together. The writing is so evocative that it humbles Kuo to read it. “I was searching for myself,” she admits, “for deposits of our conversations, memories he’d shared or words I taught him. But I was barely there. Each word felt like a tiny impulsive root, proof of a mysterious force that exceeded me.”

* * *

Back when she was a classroom teacher, Kuo engaged in a sort of triage. “There are just certain kids for whom you bring all your hope,” she writes, and Patrick was one of them. It makes sense, then, that news of his plight would have drawn her back to the Delta. But Kuo doesn’t allow us to forget that his tragedy is not the only one. She hears, soon after her return, that her former student Tamir is living on the streets in Little Rock, a crack addict begging for money. On a school-district report listing the students who dropped out of school in Helena the year after she left, she recognizes a long series of names along with Patrick’s. And when he finally appears in court, she sees many of those names again on the crowded docket of criminal cases:

I tried to count the number of black males of my sixty-something students over two years who had at some point gone to jail, and I ran out of fingers. The docket was the coda to the STUDENT DROPOUT REPORT—the county jail was where the dropouts landed. There were no jobs in Helena. They had no skills. Most had a disability or an emotional or mental disorder. Where else had I thought they would go?

 

Nothing Kuo has done for Patrick frees him from this dynamic. After the plea bargain, he is sent to an overcrowded prison. Two and a half years later, when he is paroled for good behavior, he returns to Helena with all the liabilities that come with having a violent felony on his record.

By then, Kuo is working as a public-interest lawyer in California. “I begin to think,” she confesses, “that those seven months didn’t really happen, that I had imagined the mystical silences we shared while Patrick wrote. I must have dreamed the poems we memorized, because I cannot remember the lines anymore. On the way to work, holding the metal bar of a subway, I wonder what it was all for and consider the idea that once you stop thinking about something, it disappears.”

But this is not her final word on the subject. If Kuo distrusts the romanticism of the teacher-as-savior narrative, she also resists the kind of fatalism that would have prevented her from becoming a teacher in the first place. She does wonder sometimes what would have happened had she never left Helena. Could she have kept Patrick from dropping out of school or confronting Marcus? Not likely, she says. Besides, she is wary of talking about Patrick “as if I think I could have saved him, as if I think I’m so important in his life. It’s not like that.” But then, exhibiting the kind of impassioned writing and hard-earned wisdom that set her book apart, she adds:

Or maybe it is, in the sense that the alternative, the rational thought, would be to say to myself, You can’t do that much, you’re not that important, there are so many forces in a person’s life, good and bad, who do you think you are? That’s what I said to make myself feel better after I left the Delta, and sometimes I still say it. But then what is a human for? A person must matter to another, it must mean something for two people to have passed time together, to have put work into each other and into becoming more fully themselves.

Maybe there are prospective readers who noticed Kuo’s memoir on a bookstore shelf, leafed through its pages, and put it back, saying to themselves, “I know this story already.” But in all of the literature addressing education, race, poverty, and criminal justice, there has been nothing quite like Reading With Patrick.

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5 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

5 responses to “A Memoir’s Humble Tale of Teaching (James Forman Jr. and Arthur Evenchik)

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for sending along link to Peter’s comment.

      • larrycuban

        You might be interested in the response of the authors’ review to Curmudgucation’s comment on Michelle Kuo’s book. Here it is:

        Dear Larry,

        Thanks for offering us the chance to respond to Peter Greene. I consulted James, who wrote back with an essential point.

        This past spring, James published his first book: Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. The book was widely (and deservedly) praised, and reviewers were especially impressed by James’s stories about clients he represented during his six years as a public defender in Washington, D.C. Eventually, James left the Public Defender Service to become a law professor, but his experience there has deeply influenced his subsequent career and his scholarship.

        With this in mind, James wrote (regarding Greene):

        How many years is enough for you to be allowed to write? Nobody attacks me for only having 6 years as a PD. Matthew Desmond [the author of Evicted] won a Pulitzer and he was never homeless. I’d rather consider writing for what it says.

        This way of thinking ought to appeal to Greene. On the “About” page of his blog, he declares, “I never automatically rule anything out or in just because of the source.” But he hasn’t followed this principle in his response to our review. He rules out Reading With Patrick because Michelle Kuo is a former Teach for America recruit who left the classroom after two years. She has no right, he insists, even to call herself a teacher, let alone to write about teaching. Nothing she says will come as news to genuine teachers — the only ones who deserve to be heard. And “The fact that Kuo tells a tale more nuanced than the infamous Onion TFA pieces doesn’t mean she isn’t working the same old territory.”

        To James’s point, I would add these thoughts:

        1. Greene comments sardonically about “an ivy league grad” who “signs up for Teach for America and discovers that her degree and a few weeks of training don’t make her effective in the classroom.” If only Michelle Kuo had completed an accredited teacher education program, she could have avoided all those rookie mistakes she confesses to!

        I don’t think this is right. As James and I read Kuo’s book and worked on the review, it seemed to me that teachers in struggling schools, credentialed or not, could identify with her and remember making blunders similar to hers.

        It is obvious, for example, that many licensed teachers have trouble, early and even later in their careers, with classroom management. (Otherwise, there wouldn’t be so much professional development on this topic, or so many articles about it in Education Week.) If I were preparing a set of readings on behavioral issues in the classroom for a teacher ed course, I would include the opening chapter of Reading With Patrick — not with a snide, “Look what happens to amateurs in this profession!” air, but with the hope that my students would see that they, too, might fail to maintain their idealism and compassion at moments when they feel that their authority is at risk.

        There is one other problem with Greene’s derision. He divides the world between untrained TFA recruits who leave education and credentialed teachers who stay. But as I understand it (you’ll correct me if I’m wrong), a significant percentage of graduates of teacher education programs leave the profession after only a few years — and this is especially true of those who start out in struggling schools. I think that Kuo’s story sheds an instructive light on this problem. But Greene cannot imagine this possibility, because he has already decided that TFA recruits are a separate species whose experience is insignificant.

        2. Greene is not interested in a book in which students “turn out to be complex and deep human beings who experience a (apparently surprising) full range of emotions and are capable of deeply touching moments of humanity.” Didn’t we know this already?

        To this, I would say there can never be too many books that faithfully evoke the humanity of devalued young people like the students Kuo taught in the Delta. But I’d also maintain, as James and I suggested in the review, that Kuo offers an exceptionally rich and compelling portrait of Patrick. I don’t understand a mindset that would dismiss such a portrait, out of hand, as a return to old territory, as inherently condescending and redundant. If it is, then every attempt to capture human character and experience in writing is redundant. Why bother?

        3. One of the passages James and I wanted to quote, but couldn’t make space for, occurs midway through Reading With Patrick. We learn, early in the book, that Kuo and Patrick appeared in a PBS documentary, Delta Dreams. After she returns to Helena to tutor Patrick, she encounters a man in a grocery store aisle — an educational consultant from out of town, accompanied by two friends — who recognizes her from the film:

        “I showed it to teachers in a workshop and used it as an example of the key of keys — care. The student in the movie, he used that word to talk about you, to explain why you made an impact on him. I told them a teacher’s care could change someone.”
        At this, his friends nodded gravely, as if this were an original thought. I nervously guessed at what was to come next: What kind of consultant session involves showing some film and telling teachers to care? Few teachers like to be told that other teachers care more than they do. And I didn’t care more; I had left.
        “So then one teacher got offended; she thought I was saying something about her.” Now the man grew agitated, the conflict surging in his memory. “She said that kid didn’t change at all. She said he murdered someone and is in jail now. Then she got up and left the room.”
        Expectantly, the three faces turned to look at me. They were waiting, I realized, for me to confirm or deny that disgruntled teacher’s account. This is what it came down to — true or false. Patrick had either killed someone or he hadn’t. Caring could change a person or it couldn’t. I thought they were naive, but maybe I was no different.
        I had not intended to talk or even think about anything that mattered to me this morning. Now, in my gym shorts and silly headband, I had been ambushed in a fluorescent aisle of Food Giant by a stranger who wanted to know what happened. What happened was just facts; it was nothing of the inner life, nothing of a person’s complex regrets or intentions. But for them, what happened was a shorthand for understanding who he was.

        For Greene, “Teach For America” is a shorthand for understanding who Michelle Kuo is, and what sort of book she could possibly write. He is mistaken, and the source of his error is not hard to discern. He has refused to venture out of his territory: the curmudgeon’s den. But nothing he has said diminishes our respect for Kuo’s achievement. —

        Best,
        Arthur

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