Michelle Kuo (R317)


Michelle Kuo was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to immigrants from Taiwan.

After graduating with a degree in Social Studies and Gender Studies at Harvard College, she joined Teach for America and moved to the rural town of Helena, Arkansas, located in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.

She left this teaching post to pursue the study of law and is now a graduate of Harvard Law School.

Her book, Reading with Patrick, is a true story from her time as a young English teacher in the Delta, the land of cotton and extreme poverty, and the stomping ground of the early civil rights and Black Power movements.

Under pressure from her parents to further her career and settle down, Michelle resisted and wanted to "make a difference".

She was 22 and believed that books could change the lives of her students.

“Books had taught me to admire a person’s will to confront the world, to evaluate his experience honestly”, as Ralph Ellison wrote.

Kuo was assigned to an alternative school called Stars. It was being used by the local administration as a dumping ground for the so-called "bad kids". It was here that she met Patrick, who at the time was 15 years old and in the eighth grade (our Form 2). Mild-mannered, Patrick was a listener and a reluctant speaker.

“He seemed lost, as if he’d got off the school bus by accident.” In spite of everything, many of Kuo’s students, including Patrick, remained optimistic about their futures. She worried about her teaching tasks, including how to get them to read and write - and talk.

“There are certain kids for whom you bring all your hope.” Patrick was one such kid.

Through teacher Michelle, for the first time, the children in her class began to engage with ideas and dreams beyond their small town, and to gain an insight into themselves.

She read to them and got them reading too and, in even a small way for some, the engagement with literature became a tool for healing and for growth.

Reading with Patrick is an inspirational book.

It is beautifully written and, as its base, it tells the story of friendship between a young teacher and a student.

But it delivers so much more, much that could easily resonate with the South African experience dealing as it does with race education and justice.

Michelle eventually leaves her teaching post to further her studies in law. After a couple of years, she reconnects with Patrick, whose circumstances have undergone a dramatic change.

For readers who, like Kuo, believe in the power of reading books or for those who are happy to read a heart-warming, poignant and moving true story, Reading with Patrick is to be cherished.

That early desire to "make a difference" never left Michelle Kuo. Today she is a professor at the American University of Paris and teaches in its history, law and society programme on issues related to race, punishment, immigration and the law.

She is married to historian Albert Wu.

Pretoria News