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.”