Full disclosure: This book is not really a crime and thriller novel. BUT… a murder (make that manslaughter) has been committed, and this brought a teacher and a student back together again – forged as they are through the power of literature. Iphigene has actually written a moving review about this book, but I can’t help but to also share my own ruminations about this deeply affecting memoir.
Written by: Michelle Kuo
Published by: Random House (2017)
ISBN: 081299731X (ISBN13: 9780812997316). Literary Award: Reading Women Award Nominee for Nonfiction (2017). Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book quotes laid-out using Typorama.
I was reading the Introduction of this memoir when I felt a visceral reaction by reading Kuo’s voice: at once urgent, earnest, and bleeding with the pain of injustice. I have read quite a few reading memoirs that left me feeling invisible (see my thoughts on Susan Hill’s Howards End Is On The Landing here) or alienated (see my reflections on Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris here). Yet Kuo’s voice was so familiar, it felt as if she wrenched it from inside my gut, fashioned words out of my innards, and made a book that is a must-read for all teachers.
Michelle Kuo graduated from Harvard. She could have had her pick from a variety of money-making job offers that would reasonably assuage the Asian-American need for financial security. However, instead of taking the predictable route, the wide-eyed Taiwanese American idealist opted to become a Teach for America volunteer in the rural town of Helena, Arkansas.
I admired Kuo’s resolve – although it was clear she had no need for the reader’s adulation. It was irrelevant in the face of her ultimate goal to derive some kind of meaning from her existence. She reveled in identifying herself with activists, most of them African American, mainly because an Asian American voice such as hers is unfortunately lacking in the literature. Most of those missing voices are probably driven by the intention to secure the future of their family by working two jobs, or chasing the elusive tenure by churning out meaningless research projects that would potentially attract funders with their own agenda, or simply doing their best to keep a low profile so as not to be noticed.
Kuo’s initial frustration came from the fact that what fired her up, did not matter all that much to her students. Her indignant righteousness about civil rights and the inherent inequality of a flawed system – went over the heads of her students who could not care less.
Her big, lofty words – were lived realities to young people who were indifferent to philosophizing or theorizing: they simply wanted to get through the day, and the next one if lucky.
Her fumbling attempts at establishing a connection with her students, her brutally honest, self-disparaging assessment of herself that was never self-pitying but matter-of-fact – disarmed me as an educator. Her expectations and her metric of success gradually began to change, as she realizes how interactions with her students changed her for the better and for the worse – as a human being, as a teacher.
Kuo eventually left the Delta to pursue Law at Harvard, to the relief and delight of her worried and anxious parents. On the eve of her law-school graduation, she learned that one of her more reflective and thoughtful students, Patrick, was in jail for killing someone. This was when she knew, in her gut, that her time at Helena was not yet over. Meeting Patrick again in jail, several years after school, also sobered Kuo, as she witnesses firsthand the many things that can contribute to a person’s lot in life – over and beyond a teacher’s minor influence in the larger scheme of things. And so, rather than continue with her life as per normal, Kuo decided to go back to Helena, keep Patrick company until his trial, and reconnect with each other through literature.
I was also very interested with Kuo’s choice of books as she visited Patrick in jail. While fiction worked (The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe resonated with Patrick) and non-fiction (James Baldwin, most naturally), poetry worked even more. Personally, I thought that she could have leveraged on picturebooks more, despite Patrick’s age – as there are truly powerful and incredibly complex ones that, I feel, could have worked immensely well, given Patrick’s life circumstances.
I also googled Michelle Kuo and Patrick after reading this memoir, and found this engaging conversation between Kuo and Eric Dailey that is definitely worth reading. But more than that, I chanced upon Patrick reading his original poem here:
This was what I wrote after reading Part One of Kuo’s memoir:
May this book find you and inspire you. I also hope it changes the way you view literature and its capacity to transform one’s life.