The Healing Power Of Reading
She believes in the power of reading to connect us by creating a shared universe.
Michelle Kuo is a teacher, lawyer, author and passionate advocate of prison education. He taught English at an alternative school for children expelled from other schools in rural Arkansas in the Mississippi Delta. While at Harvard Law School, she received the National Clinical Association's award for advocating for children with special needs. Later, as an attorney for undocumented immigrants in Oakland, Kuo assisted tenants facing evictions, workers being deprived of their salaries, and families facing deportation.
She also volunteered at a South Texas detention center, helping families apply for asylum, and taught courses at San Quentin Prison. He currently teaches in the History, Law and Society program at the American University of Paris. Where she works to inspire students on immigration justice and criminal justice issues. This fall, he is helping launch a prison training program in France.
In 2017, Kuo published Reading with Patrick , a memoir of teaching reading in a rural county jail in Arkansas . Second to the Goddard Riverside Prize for Social Justice and the Dayton Prize for Literary Peace, the book explores questions about what we owe each other and how economic and racial inequality determines our life outcomes.
Today I want to talk about how reading can change our lives and the limits of that change. I want to talk to you about how reading can give us a shareable world with strong human relationships. At the same time, I want to talk about the fact that communication is always biased. What a lonely, peculiar undertaking to read.
The author who changed my life was the famous African-American novelist James Baldwin. Growing up in Western Michigan in the 1980s, there weren’t many Asian-American writers interested in social change. I guess the reason I felt close to James Baldwin was as a way to fill that void and feel racially conscious. But perhaps because I knew I was not African-American myself, I felt blamed and challenged by his words. Specifically, these words: There are liberals who have all the appropriate attitudes but who have untrue beliefs. Whenever there is an important situation and you expect them to somehow save the situation, they are not there.
They are not there. I took these words literally. Where should I put myself? I went to the Mississippi Delta, one of the poorest parts of the United States. A place shaped by a strong history. In the 1960s, African-Americans fought, risking their lives for education, for the right to vote. To be a part of this change, I wanted to help young people graduate and go to college.
When I got to the Mississippi Delta, it was still poor, still racist, still in need of serious change. My school did not have a library and guidance counselor.
but there was a police officer. Half of the teachers were temporary, and whenever students got into a fight, the school would send them to the local county jail. This is the school where I met Patrick. He was 15 years old and failed the class twice; It was eighth grade. He was silent, turned inward. It was as if he was in deep thought all the time. He hated to see other people fight. I once saw him jump between two girls fighting and make him fall to the ground. Patrick only had one problem. He wouldn’t come to school. He said that sometimes school was very frustrating. Because people were always fighting and teachers were quitting. At the same time, her mother worked two jobs and was tired of trying to persuade her to go to school.
So I saw it as my job to convince Patrick. Because I’m crazy, 22 years old, and incredibly optimistic, my strategy is to go home and say, Why don’t you come to school I mean’t. This strategy really worked. He started coming to school every day and his star started to shine in my class. He wrote poetry and read books. He used to come to school every day. At that time, when I figured out how to communicate with Patrick, I got into law school at Harvard. I faced the same question again. Where should I put myself? Where should I put my body? I thought the Mississippi Delta was a place where people had money, people had opportunities, and these people were leaving. Those left behind were people they had no chance of leaving.
I didn’t want to be the person leaving. I wanted to be a human remaining. On the other hand, I was alone and tired. I convinced myself that if I got a prestigious law degree, I could change more things on a larger scale. That’s why I left. Three years later, when I was about to graduate from law school, a friend called me and said that Patrick had gotten into a fight and killed someone. I was devastated. Part of me didn’t believe it, but part of me knew it was true. I went to see Patrick. I visited in prison. He said what happened was true. He said it was true that you killed someone. He didn’t want to talk any more.
I asked her what was going on at school and she said she dropped out a year after I left. Then he wanted to tell me something else. He looked at the ground and said that he had a little daughter, just born. She said she felt she had let him down. That was it. Our conversation was hasty and awkward. When I got out of the prison, a voice inside me said: “Come back. If you don’t come back now, you’ll never come back.” I graduated from law school and came back.
I went to see Patrick, thought I could help him with his case. The second I saw him, I had a good idea and I said, “Patrick, how about writing a letter to your daughter? So you can keep it in mind.” I gave him a pen and a piece of paper and he began to write. When he handed me the paper back, I was shocked when I looked at the paper. I couldn’t recognize the handwriting. He made very simple typos. I remembered this from my time as a teacher; a student can gain great momentum in a very short time. But I never thought that a student would seriously regress. The main thing that upset me more was seeing the things he wrote to his daughter. He wrote:
“I’m sorry for my mistakes, I’m sorry I couldn’t be there for you.” That was all he needed to say. I asked myself how I could persuade myself to write more about aspects of him for which he did not need to apologize. I wanted to make her feel like she had something worth sharing with her daughter.
Every day for the next seven months, I visited him and bought books. My bag had turned into a small library. I took James Baldwin, Walt Whitman, CS Lewis.
I brought guidebooks about trees and birds. In the end, his favorite book was the dictionary. Some days we would sit for hours in silence and we would both read. On other days, we would read together, read poetry.
We started with haiku reading, hundreds of haiku, a deceptively simple masterpiece. “Share with me your favorite haiku” I would say. Some were very funny. For example, from Issa: “Don’t be afraid, spiders, I keep the house comfortable.”
And this: “took a nap for half the day, no one punished me!” Here’s a wonder about the first days when the snow fell: “The deer were licking the first ice off each other.” There is something hidden and magnificent about how a poem looks. An empty space is as important as the words themselves.
We read this poem from WS Merwin that he wrote after seeing his wife working in the garden and realizing that they must live together for the rest of their lives: “Let me imagine that we will come again whenever we want, and that there will be spring We will never be older than we were The weary grief will have subsided like the first cloud in the morning. “I asked Patrick about his favorite part and he said: “We will never be older than we are.” He said it reminded me of a place where time just stood still, a place where time didn’t mean any more.
I asked him if he had a place like this, if he had a place where time goes on forever. “With my mother,” he said. When you read a poem in front of someone else, the meaning of the poem changes. Because its meaning will be unique to that person and unique to you.
Then we read books, lots of books. We read Frederick Douglass “memoir. An American prisoner who taught himself to read and write and was freed by his literary culture. I grew up seeing Frederick Douglass as a hero and thinking of this story as an uplift and hope. But this book put Patrick in a state of panic. Patrick was obsessed with the story over New Year” about how the masters had given the captives demons and proved to them that they could not deal with freedom. For the captives would stumble on the pastures.
Patrick compared his situation to this. He said there are people in prisons who don’t want to think about the situation they’re in, like a prisoner. Because it was so painful. It’s so painful to think about the past, it’s so painful to think about how far we still have to go.
His favorite line was: “Whatever happens, stop thinking! What tormented me was the never-ending thought of my situation.” Patrick said Douglass had the courage to think and write. But Patrick wouldn’t know how much he looked like Douglass to me, as he continued to read despite his panic. He finished reading before me, while reading on an unlit, concrete staircase.
Then we started reading a book that I love very much: “Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. An extended letter from a father to son. He loved this line: I’m writing this letter to ask you if you’ve ever wondered what you’ve done in your life, you were a gift from God, a miracle, more than a miracle.”
Something about that language, his love, his longing, his voice, fueled Patrick’s passion for writing. He filled notebooks and notebooks with letters he wrote to his daughter. In these beautiful, jumbled letters, he could imagine going canoeing on Lake Mississippi with his daughter. He could imagine they found a mountain river with clear water. While watching Patrick, I thought to myself and now I ask you all; How many of you wrote a letter to someone you felt you had let down? It’s much easier to get these people out of your mind. But Patrick showed up every day, confronting his daughter, feeling responsible for her, word for word, with intense concentration.
I wanted to put myself, in my life, at such a risk. Because this risk shows the strength of one’s heart. Let me come back a little and ask a disturbing question. What is my role in this story to tell Patrick’s story? Patrick, who has been through this pain, and I have never starved a day in his life. I’ve been thinking about this question a lot to myself, what I mean is that this story isn’t just about Patrick, it’s about us, about the inequality between us.
There are many people in the world who suffer from disability, such as Patrick, his parents, grandparents. In this story, I represent that part. I didn’t want to hide myself by telling this story. I didn’t want to hide my own strength.
By telling this story, I wanted to reveal this power and ask. How can we reduce this distance between us? Reading is a way to bridge that distance. Reading gives us a universe that we can share together, that we can share equally. Now you’re wondering what happened to Patrick. Did reading save your life? He saved and did not save.
When Patrick got out of prison, his adventure was grueling. Employers turned him down because of his track record. His mother, his best friend, died at the age of 43 due to heart disease and diabetes. He was homeless, he was hungry.
People were saying things about reading that sounded very exaggerated to me. Being literate did not prevent her from being discriminated against. He didn’t save his mother from dying. So what can reading do? I have a few answers to end today.
Reading filled her inner life with mystery, imagination and beauty. Reading gave him images of pleasure: mountain, ocean, deer, ice. He gave words with the taste of a free, natural world. He gave language about the things he lost. How precious are these lines from the poet Derek Walcott. Patrick remembered this poem. “The days I was detained, the days I lost, the days that didn’t fit, like girls, my arms that took refuge.”
Reading taught him his own courage. Recall that he continued to read Frederick Douglass, although it was painful. Although it hurt to be conscious, she continued to be conscious. Reading is a way of thinking. That’s why it’s hard to read because we have to think. Patrick chose to think rather than think. Finally, reading gave her a language she could speak to her daughter. Reading encouraged him to write.
The relationship between reading and writing is very strong. When we begin to read, we begin to find words. Patrick found words he could think of as being with his daughter. He found the words to describe how much he loved his daughter.
Reading also changed our relationship. It gave the opportunity to intimacy that allowed us to see beyond our own point of view. Reading took an unequal relationship and gave us instant equality. When you meet someone as a reader, you meet them for the first time, completely new, completely full of life. You never know what her favorite line will be. You don’t know what memories and sorrows they have. You face his highest secrecy regarding his inner life. Later you wonder: “Why did my inner life come about? What do I have worth sharing with someone else?”
I want to close with my favorite lines from Patrick’s letters to his daughter. The lake is dark in some places, but the light shines through the cracks of the trees. On some branches where many mulberries hang.
You stretch your arm out straight to get some. And in this beautiful letter he wrote: “Close your eyes and listen to the sound of the words, I know this poem by heart and I want you to know too.”
Thank you everyone.