I devoured this book in a few days. Recommended (and purchased) for me by a former student, it captured my heart, but part of what I loved about it is the honesty. This is the story of a teacher and one particular student. But it’s not a save the world kind of story–at least not exactly. Michelle Kuo, a Harvard graduate, joins Teach for America and lands in rural Helena, Arkansas (aka: the Delta) where the challenges of teaching in one of the poorest counties in America are many, especially because her students are in an alternative school, having already been kicked out of the “regular” public high school. After many failed lessons, she finds success in small moments and in tiny victories, but after her allotted time is up, she leaves and goes to Harvard Law School and afterward earns a fellowship at a nonprofit in Oakland, California.
But before starting the fellowship, she returns to the Delta. Why? Her parents wonder. Why? She wonders. She had previously received news that her former student with whom she had connected, was arrested and in jail for murder. She had visited him while in law school and again before starting her job, and she had already started writing about her time teaching in the Delta. But after leaving the jail and planning to return to California, she realizes just how far the separation between Patrick and her had spread. How their worlds were even farther apart. How his dropping out of high school and giving up on life may have taken a different course had she stayed in Arkansas.
For the next year, she spends time with Patrick at the jail every day: reading to him, assigning him homework, requiring him to write, discussing literature and poetry, visiting his family, helping him with his case, understanding the complexity of growing up in a place still crippled by the Jim Crow laws of the South. There are no easy answers here, and this is no hero story. It’s a story of hard work, courage, failure, and steps forward as well as backward. She offers no clear cut answers, but her extensive research of the South, its culture, its prison system, its vacancy for people of color offers us some insight into the lives of people like Patrick. Kuo struggles with her own role as well: she is awakened just as Patrick is, but it is a bumpy road, and by the end of the book, she is still figuring it out. She has returned to her fellowship at the legal nonprofit. Patrick is twenty-five, out of jail, and is working on his resume, hopeful for a job at a new chemical plant coming to town. She still wonders if she could have altered the course of his life had she never left the Delta, but ultimately she comes to peace that “two people can make a powerful impression on one another, especially in a certain kind of place, where so many have left, and in a certain time, when we are coming of age, not worn down or hardened. In these times and places we are fragile and ready” (278-9). This is a beautiful story.