In 2004, a Harvard graduate, Michelle Kuo, arrived in the Mississippi Delta town of Helena-West Helena as a volunteer teacher. While spending two years teaching at an alternative school for students with disciplinary issues, Kuo struck up a friendship with Patrick Browning, a quiet student who did well in her class. A few years later, Kuo returned to Helena to read with Patrick again: this time in the visitation room of the county jail, where Patrick was being held on a charge of murder.
The birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement was once famous for its blues singers and integrated public schools, but now, Helena-West Helena is one of the poorest and most segregated towns in the United States.
Reading With Patrick offers both a personal story of a teacher's efforts to reconnect with her student, as well as a glimpse into the oft-forgotten stories of America's poor, rural communities.
Kuo sat down with Arkansas Public Media to discuss the impetus for the memoir and says the Delta is sadly too absent from our American consciousness.
RENEA GODDARD, ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA: What led you to eventually publish a memoir about these experiences?
MICHELLE KUO: I really wanted to tell a story of how it is that a talented, peaceful kid who keeps to himself, who breaks up fights, who loves to read ... how he ends up in jail, incarcerated, for a violent crime, for killing someone. It seems shocking, but it shouldn’t shock. For anybody who knows the Delta, where I taught in Helena, Arkansas, you know that violent crimes come and arise from poverty, and I wanted to tell the story of my student, Patrick, and how much promise he had, and tell the story of justice and education in one of the poorest counties in America.
KUO: So Patrick is a student who I met when I was first teaching. He was 15, he was very quiet and introspective, and he made incredible gains in my classroom. I taught at an alternative school for the so-called “bad kids”. Like a lot of the kids there, they weren’t bad. They were thirsting for creative activity. They all loved silent reading, the chance to write and express themselves, the chance to talk about their lives. And Patrick was one of those students who actually made a lot of gains in class.
The story is about — it hinges around my decision to leave. If you know the Delta, if you know the rural area, you know what I’m talking about: this ethical dilemma of whether to exercise your privilege to leave. You know that the people who stay tend to have less means. They tend to be the people left behind. Historically, both black and white people who left the rural areas tended to have more resources and education. So when I decided to leave when I was 25, after doing my two years of teaching, I wasn’t sure if that was the right choice. I really felt like I was prematurely leaving.
And then I find out three years later when I’m in law school that Patrick has gotten arrested for getting into a fight and killing someone. And I really was devastated. I wanted to know what had happened. I wanted to come back and see him. I wanted to know what the criminal case was. All of these things led me back, and then, you know, I didn’t even know this would happen, but Patrick and I ended up reading and writing every day for seven months in the Arkansas County jail. I think we both really changed during that time. We became different people, reading together.
GODDARD: How did your experiences in Helena change the way you felt about your own privileges and your own experiences with activism?
KUO: I love that question. I think the biggest way is — I think when you fill yourself up with other people’s stories, with what they go through, you cannot unremember their stories. I also think there’s so much noise in American politics today, there’s so much polarizing noise, you know, young liberals are always trying to prove who is more credible by being more polarizing.
I want there to be more humility, more genuine desire to understand one another, and some belief in crossing racial and class lines, even if we know that we’ll fail, even if we know there are some impenetrable barriers—I think we have to try. And this book is about attempting to have mutual knowledge of one another—it’s an intimate story of trying and failing.
GODDARD: You kind of outline all of the obstacles your students face in their school system and even just in their neighborhoods in the book, but for our listeners, what were those obstacles?
KUO: Oh, there are so many ... the first is how much violence there is. I think when we think about violent offenders, we think somebody who’s remorseless, we think of a psychopath, we all watch TV shows where it’s the really tricky criminal who’s been plotting.
In reality, most violent offenses arise from poverty, and they arise because there is such low successful prosecution of murders. So if you’re 15 and you know several of your friends or family members who have gotten shot or killed or violently bullied, and the police hasn’t done anything, how are you going to react when somebody threatens you, somebody threatens your sister? You are going to react with the idea that only you can protect them, because the police won’t protect you. So that’s one reality that we have to know about poor neighborhoods.
The story that I also wanted to tell was that, no, Patrick was never violent in my class—he broke up fights. And I think we need to understand that there are just people who get trapped or sucked into this environment. That’s not to excuse what happened: another part of my story that I wanted to tell was Patrick’s own guilt of what he had done. I don’t think we talk enough about what the person goes through after he’s done something like this. Patrick asked me if he would get into heaven—he’s very Christian—and he wanted more punishment. He didn’t want to talk about the legal defenses, although there were many.
GODDARD: Before you got involved in Teach for America, you tried lobbying for nonprofits. Why the switch?
KUO: You know, everybody’s meant to do different things. I really wanted to work with people in a place that needs people. There are some people who are really good at being extremely confident about telling other people what to do, and that is an awesome job for somebody who’s good at it. I wanted to be in a classroom with kids, and help them tell their stories, and help them realize that they have something to share, something that’s worthwhile.
GODDARD: From your experiences in Helena, is segregation still an issue in Arkansas and other areas of the rural South?
KUO: It is, absolutely. I should say, though, that I think northerners and coastal elites tend to have this superior attitude towards the south as if they don’t have those problems, and it’s really interesting, there’s---I mean, I’ll get into the bad stuff, but I want to say—that my experience in Helena was that the elderly white people were more comfortable with black people than elderly white people I met on the east coast and west coast. And that’s really interesting to me because the stereotype is that they aren’t.
So that’s good, but across the Delta we know that private schools opened in 1969 and 1970 to avoid federal law requiring schools to integrate. And that is devastating to me. That is devastating to black students and black teachers who know that that means that they aren’t wanted.
In Helena, a story that isn’t told as often, is that there was a flourishing of an integrated public school in the 1970s, that even in spite of the private school that was created, DeSoto, Central was integrated. It had a great basketball team, and black and white students who graduated during that time remember it with some pride.
GODDARD: Do you think the Mississippi Delta is sort of absent from the American consciousness?
KUO: I love that question. Thanks for asking that. Absolutely. It is absent. And it's really fascinating to me because the Civil Rights Movement is so present in people's consciousness. So you would think that people would want to know what the legacy, the modern legacy is, of the Civil Rights Movement, by going to the Mississippi Delta ... but I think it's too painful. I think it violates this idea of progress. I think if you actually come to the Delta and still see that it's dramatically poor and dramatically segregated, it crushes this idea of American progress. It crushes this idea of the Civil Rights Movement as being a great beacon.
GODDARD: What was it like returning to Helena and finding out about your former students?
KUO: You know, it was really joyful in some instances. In one case, a student had done really well. That was wonderful. In other cases, it was really devastating. So many of my students at the alternative school were now on the criminal docket for various crimes. And when you know a student as a student, you cannot undo that sense of hope you feel for them, that look that they gave you when you said “This is a really good poem.”
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media. What's that? APM is a nonprofit journalism project for all of Arkansas and a collaboration among public media in the state. We're funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK. And, we hope, from you! You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media's reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.