The story seems familiar, reminiscent of Dead Poets Society and Dangerous Minds, one expects a story of one heroic teacher and how she saved this boy from a life of violence through literature. I initially expected an inspirational story, what I found is a very human account of a friendship between a teacher, her student and the books they read.
Michelle Kuo doesn’t take on the position of hero, nor does she pretend to have had all the answers. The transparency of her story telling is refreshing. She allows the reader to look through her idealism, her self-doubt and her own attempts to become the teacher she wanted to be. These elements allowed the book to speak to me—one that was once a Patrick and is now a teacher.
School was escape. It was the one place I didn’t have to deal with the issues at home. I remember always wanting to be in school, less for academic reasons more for a sense of peace. Reading with Patrick brought me back to that, while my circumstances were not the same as the kids in Helena, I knew exactly how they felt about coming to Ms. Kuo’s class.
“Kids never forget a class where they feel expected to succeed at a deep level and are given the means to do so. The memory of feeling smart, even if only for a day or week doesn’t even go entirely away.” (p. 125)
While the best classroom experience would not necessarily save us from the difficulty we are in, it offers reprieve. It offers something less tangible–a lift in our spirit that maybe, just maybe makes us less hopeless. I remember my teachers, the days they saw me, the moments they touched my soul and knew exactly how to get me to work at my best. Those teachers are what made me a teacher. Those teachers helped me build my own teaching Philosophy.
Like the author, in sincerely believing that my students can succeed, in pushing them where they have never been pushed before, and in breaking the idea that ‘they aren’t good enough’ I hope to create a memory that they are smart, one they may come back to in moments of self doubt.
This is the classroom, it could be more than just a lecture, but it could be a revelation—even the tiniest bit.
“They believed me. That they believed me—that they didn’t think I was just being nice, or trying to get paid, or trying to get them to do something—struck me. In the grand scheme of things, a year wasn’t long. But we’ve spent everyday together, and had some to trust each other”
I was the student who was wary of teachers. They were adults and I had issues trusting adults, but there were teachers who just saw me, who knew I was capable of more and pushed me. It was Kuo’s sincerity, her desire to figure out how to navigate her students’ world. She struggled, not knowing what was the best approach, but her struggle was palpable and that counted for something.
A teacher who struggles to connect, to find a way to get through, are the best kinds of teachers. It’s easy to lord over students or to not put effort, because they don’t. Teachers who choose to struggle are teachers who care enough to struggle. This was a lesson I learned in my first year of teaching. It wasn’t about being perfect, it was about being sincere enough to try.
There was something innately wise about Patrick, his quiet and bursts of wisdom struck me. How I rooted for him to be the fairytale, but like Kuo, I too was surprised to find he wasn’t spared the consequence of living in such a difficult community. Yet, this is something we also forget, that life is a composition of many variables, that the choices we make and the life we lead is influenced by the many variables we are exposed to.
Patrick was a complex character, one where stereotypes do not necessarily apply. He was wide awake to his situation, making choices the best way he could, but none of them necessarily mean running away from his life. I think about my own life: I wonder, would having an inspirational teacher make me leave my home and stay away from the hardest things in my life. Truth, is, it wouldn’t. It didn’t. It did, however, make me go to school. None of my teachers saved me from attempting to kill myself, none of them saved me from all the choices I made; but the school, the learning was a joyful experience. A good thing in a series of bad things. When I read about Patrick, this struck me. He was open to the opportunity to learn because it was there, but he also knew a plea bargain was a better option over a jury trial.
It was Kuo’s very human realization that there are other variables that affect a student’s life: while her class didn’t prevent the natural trajectory of an at-risk student, her re-entering into his life provided a constancy that allowed the student to be at his best, even in prison.
There is something wonderful about Kuo’s passion for social justice and racial issues. Here she was, an Asian American, moved so greatly by Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin. She wanted to talk about the racial issues and share this passion to her target audience—at risk, African American teens in rural America, only to be met by disinterested stares. Does being African American necessarily mean a concern for the fight for racial equality?
Yet, here, as Kuo reflects, is where we fail to see the other. To assume that these stories are what move every single person of color is to fail to see the person. In a town where African Americans were the majority, race was not the issue. For Helena, the poverty and the violence were more palpable and real than Racial Discrimination.
It was a story about ‘getting out’ of a poor town that moved these kids, because this was the story that was close to home. When I started teaching two years ago, I was assigned to Grade 11 and 12 students—teenagers. An assignment I wasn’t ready to take. But listening to their stories, their examples, making adjustments to my content allowed me to connect. Rather than read literature I thought was great, I looked for literature that spoke of their concerns, in the language they understood. In doing so, the classes were transformed.
To see the other, is to not make assumptions about them, but to listen.
“One can only face in others what one can face in oneself, he (Baldwin) had written. This belief in an ideal of common humanity, in love, wasn’t the right starting point—belief was something you earned. You gutted yourself, were gutted. You put in work; you confronted pain. You wrested your despair, as he did, into a belief of inseparable destiny.”
The friendship that unfolded between Michelle and Patrick is an unusual friendship, one that develops in the duration Patrick was in prison and in a process that is reminiscent of teacher and student. The teacher is surprised about how much of what she taught Patrick in his schools days seemed to have disappeared; while the student remained amazed and ashamed by the teacher who came back to see him. These two perspectives converge. But here lies the beauty, the connection between two people through literature (mostly poetry).
It was literature that created that space beyond teacher-student dynamics. The simple question of “what’s your favorite line/part?” brought forth conversation and experiences. Here lies the work, the discovery of common humanity. It is in friendship that the other becomes a person—a friend, and no longer a stereotype. The stories that flow between two people that spell out each other’s pains removes the inequality and puts us in equal footing: HUMAN.
The job of a teacher, I’ve come to realize, is not to merely impart a lesson to their student, but to have the student realize their own greatness within the four walls of the classroom. Every time they over come a math problem, write a 5 paragraph essay, and understand a piece of literature, they discover their own strengths. Reading with Patrick reminds me of this, because at the heart of this is care.
“And yet to know a person as a student is to know him always as a student: to sense deeply his striving and in his striving to sense your own. It is to watch, and then have difficulty forgetting, a student wrench himself into shape, like a character from Ovid, his body twisting and contorting, from one creature to another, submitting, finally, to the task of a full transformation. Why? Because he trusts you; because he prefers the feel of this newer self; because he hopes you will help make this change last.”
This is the task teachers signed up for. This is what I signed up for. And I find, the only way I care enough to take on this seemingly impossible task is because I, too, was once, a Patrick.
Reading with Patrick is a raw, human memoir of a friendship between a teacher and student. While the literature and poetry in the book is beautiful, I find the sincerity of its narrative is what made this book worth every second of my time.