Michelle Kuo taught English at an alternative school in the Arkansas Delta for two years. After teaching, she attended Harvard Law School as a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow, and worked legal aid at a nonprofit for Spanish-speaking immigrants in the Fruitvale district of Oakland, California, on a Skadden Fellowship, with a focus on tenants’ and workers’ rights. She has volunteered as a teacher at the Prison University Project and clerked for a federal appeals court judge in the Ninth Circuit. Currently she teaches courses on race, law, and society at the American University in Paris.
I discovered an intense thirst to read in Patrick, a sensitive and thoughtful fifteen-year-old, when, a year out of college, I traveled to the Arkansas Delta as a teacher. In Helena, a river town, the closest bookstore was eighty miles away and, at that time, the public library was falling apart. Patrick was not alone in his desire: Many of my students asked to take home books from our classroom, wanting to share them with their families. But Patrick, in particular, flourished. He read more books, he said, than he ever had in his life.
The change would not last. The next year, he dropped out, and two years after that, at age eighteen, he got into a fight and killed a person. When I visited him in the Phillips County Jail where he was awaiting trial, I realized that he had become functionally illiterate. A person, I learned, can regress in his literacy skills as quickly as he can obtain them.
I made it a goal to help him become literate again. For seven months, I visited Patrick every day, toting a bag with an eclectic mix: anthologies of poetry; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; essays by James Baldwin; and a dictionary. I thought of literacy in practical terms: he needed to read, he needed a “positive activity” that would distract him.
But I did not expect that reading with him would profoundly transform the way I saw the world.
I discovered that the sun rose “a ribbon at a time.” Patrick was struck by that image, and because it struck him, I started to find ribbons in the sky everywhere.
We read of a garden where loved ones can stay the same age forever, and I thought of my mother, because Patrick said the poem made him think of his.
We read a poem that suggested you can’t get into heaven if all you do is moan and grieve. He laughed, and I laughed too.
I had viewed reading functionally – spelling, punctuation, “skills,” some good stories – but I did not expect it could nourish him in the most crushing circumstances. Reading could absorb his attention and cause him to lose track of time. Patrick loved especially a brief Derek Walcott poem about days we hold and lose, days that outgrow, like daughters, / my harboring arms. Reading this, he got very quiet; his own baby girl was one year old. He began to write poems for her.
And for me, reading with Patrick accentuated the most vital quality of reading alone: It deepens the feeling that we “are such secrets to each other,” as Marilynne Robinson writes, containing a “little civilization” that is unknown. Often I could not guess what lines would give Patrick joy or stop him cold. Nor could he, for me. That this could remain true even after weeks and then months spent reading together moved me.
In our turbulent political moment, the nurturing of a private life may seem like a luxury, rather than a necessity. But it is not. There is a reason why demagogues despise books and fear a reading public. Books and poetry remind us of what humans share in common: Interior lives that are mysterious and unpredictable, capable of humor and wonder, and thirsty for compassion.
The most uncomfortable aspect of reading with Patrick was my awareness of the inequality of access to it. I had grown up with an abundance of quiet, uncrowded spaces where reading could flourish: in private nooks, in spacious rooms, in a public school district where teachers were well-paid, and in classrooms where my safety was assured. These places, and the practices they nurtured, were, for Patrick, a luxury and a gift. He’d grown up without books in the house and dropped out of school in part because of the violence there. At the county jail, there was no library and no yard. Cells had broken doors, so inmates walked in and out of his cell. He read my copy of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in a concrete stairway that had no light, a spot he preferred because nobody bothered him there.
In the African American tradition, the quest for literacy is itself a quest for freedom. I mean freedom in the most concrete sense – Frederick Douglass famously forged a pass to escape slavery, writing and signing in his master’s hand – but also in a deeply spiritual way. Books give readers a sense that they are choosing to be alone; that they can enter new and foreign places; and that their own experiences belong to a vast human history of experiences. Yet in the Delta, where over half the African American children live in poverty, access to books and to quiet places of reading is difficult. Imagine the readers we lose, and the freedom along with them.
Emily Dickinson, “I’ll tell you how the Sun rose—”
Langston Hughes, “Fire”
W.S. Merwin, “To Paula in Late Spring”
Derek Walcott, “Midsummer, Tobago”