Every teacher dreams of Walt Whitman’s exhortation: “My words itch at your ears till you understand them.” Michelle Kuo was no exception when she graduated from Harvard and signed up for Teacher for America in rural Arkansas. Her initial optimism quickly eroded as she saw how deeply the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws were rooted in one of the poorest counties in the United States. But the tenacity of her students, including 15-year-old Patrick Browning, showed her the profound effect books and creative writing can have on self-expression.
Years later, having left education to become a lawyer, Kuo heard that Patrick was now in jail and on trial for murder. Over the next seven months, the two resumed their student-teacher relationship, reading works by Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, W. S. Merwin, and Walt Whitman.
The groundwork had been laid at the beginning, when as a young teacher Kuo tried to figure out how to create an interest in reading. The excerpt below shows how she laid the foundation.
I had asked the students to tape their “I Am” poems on the walls, to make them proud of their own writing. Then I noticed something surprising: They wanted to read one another’s work. Certain students—who, during my attempts at collective reading, put their heads down or slapped the head of a studious classmate, trying to keep him from “being good,” as they called it—would now stand attentively in front of a classmate’s poem, tracing the line methodically with an index finger, not saying a word.
“This is good,” one of them would finally say. And then, often, they gave the same reason: “This is real.” Patrick, like many of the others, read every piece of student work.
After I’d watched them do this for a few days, I suddenly realized what I had been doing wrong. I had not tried to sell reading. I had not spelled out how a book could be personal and urgent—that it was like an “I Am” poem. Besides A Raisin in the Sun, students still had not connected with any book I had assigned. So I tried a new tack.
“You all talk about fronting,” I said to them. “What do you mean when you say that word?”
“It’s when someone pretends to be all that.”
“It’s like being fake.”
“It’s when somebody tells you one thing but doesn’t do what they say.”
“It’s when somebody clowns, trying to get attention.”
I wrote on the board, People think I’m______but I’m really______. I asked them to fill in the blanks. They wrote:
People think I don’t care, but I really love my mom and want to make her proud.
People think I don’t want to learn, but I want to get my education.
People think I’m dumb, but I’m really smart.
People think I’m evil, but I’m not.
Patrick wrote, People think I don’t care, but I do.
“We all front,” I said. “You know why I love to read? It’s because books don’t front.”
They were listening—it was working.
From the book READING WITH PATRICK: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship by Michelle Kuo. Copyright © 2017. Published by arrangement with Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
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