Classroom failure drives memoir about the power of teaching

Written by a onetime Teach for America recruit, a new memoir offers a powerful meditation on how one person can affect the life of another.

(Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of “What We’re Reading” posts on books, magazine pieces or other significant stories about education.)

In her new memoir, “Reading with Patrick,” Michelle Kuo spares herself no criticism.

She’s a shamelessly idealistic Ivy League graduate, desperate to make a difference in the world; meaning she’s a perfect Teach for America recruit.

The controversial program that stations highly educated young adults in the nation’s neediest schools has been criticized as a wading pool for academic elites who dabble in grit for two years, and then move on to high-gloss careers.

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Not Kuo.

“I went to the Mississippi Delta with a specific project: to teach American history through black literature,” she begins.

Richard Wright, Maya Angelou and Alice Walker had been her role models, and Kuo assumed they would have a similarly life-changing effect on her students.

The question of impact — where and how best to make it — is a central tension in Kuo’s story, and it will echo for readers in every profession. Do you create change at the ground level, by working with individuals, or within systems, improving lives by changing laws?

Sensitive as a grasshopper’s antenna, Kuo lands in Helena, Arkansas, a place so remote she has to drive 100 miles to see a movie. The funeral industry offers the steadiest work around, and graduation day is the saddest of the year because it augers mass departures.

At the alternative high school where Kuo is stationed, the 22-year-old teacher meets Patrick, a quiet kid who rarely pushes his face beyond a half-grin, “as if he’d once trained himself to smile fully but had since abandoned the project.”

Patrick’s life outside of school, revealed…

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