The story of a mutually transformative friendship between the author and a black student she met as a Teach for America volunteer in Arkansas.
Kuo (Race, Law, and Society/American Univ. of Paris) knew that her post-college plan to teach underprivileged students “American history through black literature” in the tiny Mississippi Delta town of Helena went against what her ambitious Taiwanese parents wanted for her. Yet the need to obey the dictates of a strong social conscience was stronger than the desire for material gain and success. Once in Arkansas, Kuo quickly discovered that her assignment at an underfunded alternative middle school was far more difficult than she had imagined. Most of her students had never encountered an Asian person before, and in her more disillusioned moments, the author found herself thinking that she was just a “cliché [of the] middle class outsider.” Her friendship with 15-year-old Patrick Browning, a quiet young black man in her eighth-grade class, became her saving grace. Patrick thrived under Kuo’s tutelage, revealing a profound sensitivity and intelligence that moved the young teacher. Acceptance to law school took Kuo to Harvard, where, during the course of her studies, she learned that Patrick was in jail, charged with murder. Desperate to find a way to help her former student, she put off building the legal career she now realized inspired no passion to return to Arkansas. As the author helped Patrick’s lawyer find justice for her client, she visited Patrick—who committed the crime in order to protect a family member—in jail every day. The two read classics by such writers as Frederick Douglass, Derek Walcott, Rita Dove, and Walt Whitman while confronting painful questions about race and belonging. In the process, Kuo helped Patrick come to terms with his troubled past and learn to look toward the future with greater hope. Honest, thoughtful, and humane, Kuo’s book is not only a testament to a remarkable friendship, but a must-read for anyone interested in social justice and race in America.
Thoughtfully provocative reading.