This is a lovely memoir about a mutually transforming friendship between a teacher and a pupil, but also an indictment of the state of education, the justice system, the health system, and the social support system in the largely forgotten impoverished areas of the black South.
Michelle Kuo, a volunteer for Teach for America at age 22 in 2004, was assigned to Helena, Arkansas, a poor, mostly black city in the Mississippi Delta. Her original goal was to teach American history through black literature. She had the romantic notion, as she herself characterized it, that she could change the lives of her students through books. She was sent to a school named Stars, where the local administration placed the so-called bad kids: “These were the truants and the druggies, the troublemakers and the fighters who had been expelled from the mainstream schools.”
Moreover, this area of the Delta was:
” . . . a place that you cannot leave, where you can’t travel or work if you can’t afford a car, where land is endless space that’s been denied you, where people burn down their houses because the insurance money is worth more than the sale price, where the yards of shuttered homes are dumping grounds for pedestrian litter, where water is possibly polluted by a fertilizer company that skipped town….”
This is definitely part of forgotten America. This subset of the American population bears an unequal burden of hardships. Helena specifically is the seat of one of the poorest counties in the country. During the time Kuo was there, there were few jobs and many of the residents had no skills in any event. In the schools, the feeling of having given up, shared by both by students and administrators, resulted in a lack of education or interest in learning.
In addition, Helena not only ranked last in the state in public health, but its teenage birthrate was higher than that of ninety-four developing countries. Many residents had disabilities or emotional or mental disorders. And if someone got in trouble, the police were the last people they would call: as Patrick put it:
“Naw, naw, ain’t no one call the police. The police here ain’t no police.. They out smoking weed and dealing drugs. How they gonna come to your house?”
Kuo astutely observes that while a lot of attention is given to blacks who left the South in the “Great Migration,” not so much is devoted to those who stayed, often not having had the means to leave. They had no money, or no connections up north. Or they could not read or write. Or they were afraid of reprisals against family who did not leave. And naturally there was a fear of places unknown and unfamiliar; how would they support themselves? What if they couldn’t? The ones who stayed, Kuo points out, were likely among the most destitute, the ones most accustomed to defeat.
Kuo found she had to modify her grandiose dreams. The students she encountered in her eighth grade class had limited vocabularies and a circumscribed grasp of history. She reports that “they hadn’t known, for instance, when slavery ended or recognized the vocabulary word emancipation..” They were only vaguely aware of the legacy of violence against blacks, and only knew that Martin Luther King, Jr. was dead, not so much who he was or why he was important. In any event, she found, they didn’t want to think about all those painful things; they wanted school to be a refuge.
Kuo began to bond with Patrick Browning, who was 15 when she first met him. He seemed kind and mild-mannered, and when he stopped attending school, she went to his house to talk to him. She promised him to work hard for him, if he would work hard too.
Thus began a relationship that lasted not only until Kuo left for law school, but afterwards. She visited him intermittently, but then a couple of years after she had stopped teaching in Helena, she found out Patrick was in jail for murder. She felt bad for him:
“Now you see Patrick in jail, Patrick alone, Patrick not expecting anything of you or anybody – Patrick blaming himself, Patrick not knowing what he was charged for, Patrick not even knowing how many times he stabbed a person, just knowing he took away a life.”
Kuo decided the only way she could live with herself was to return to Helena and help Patrick. She also contacted a public defender on his behalf – there were only two in Helena, and both had to do other work on the side because of low pay. Not only were their salaries inadequate, but they had to buy many supplies out of their own pockets. They also had zero funds for investigating cases, and over a hundred clients each.
Kuo bemoans the state of criminal justice in the South, excoriating the long sentences for drug-related crimes, lack of legal aid, and resulting mass incarceration. She contends that measures targeting the black poor were part of a massive backlash against the Civil Rights Movement. She cites historian Elizabeth Hinton who pointed out that as overt racism became less palatable, “crime” became the politically acceptable way for politicians to make statements about race. Money was allocated to combat crime, but not to improve the education, employment opportunities, or housing, the lack of which helped contribute to that crime rate.
Back in Helena, Kuo visited Patrick almost every day in jail, bringing him books that they reviewed and discussed together. They read everything from Derek Walcott to Richard Wright to Emily Dickinson. Kuo was heartened that Patrick noticed things and made connections, and that his own writing improved so much. He was especially moved by James Baldwin’s A Letter to My Nephew, saying to her, “It’s real.”
James Baldwin with his nephew
After seven months, Kuo had to leave to take a job to which she had previously committed. She noted how far Patrick had come: “. . . it frightens me that so little was required for him to develop intellectually – a quiet room, a pile of books and some adult guidance. And yet these things were rarely supplied.” But she thought it was time for her to go. Did she change his life, she wondered? Could she? She mused:
“I met Patrick when he was fifteen. He’d watched dope deals at age five, accidentally set himself on fire at eleven, and seen a lot that I can’t know. It may seem crazy to believe that I, or any educator, could have decisively reversed his fate. In the complex portrait of a person’s life, it’s possible that a teacher is just a speck.”
And yet, it’s clear she did change him, perhaps in ways which she isn’t aware of herself. I know in my own life, I was deeply influenced by a teacher. Yes, the teacher couldn’t change the basic trajectory of my life that came from other factors, but my internal world – my capacity to see and hear and appreciate, was radically altered thereafter.
Evaluation: This excellent book is so thought-provoking; it would make a great choice for book clubs. It sheds a great deal of light on “forgotten America”; follows a woman’s journey to realize her own identity; and interrogates the efficacy of trying to make a difference in someone’s life through the beauty and power of words, and the career path of teaching.
Published by Random House, 2017