An Urgent Call from the Delta, Years Later
Michelle Kuo returned to the Delta to help a former student in crisis. She spoke with Arkansas native Eric Dailey about leaving, returning, and the power of two people reading together.
The book is heartbreaking and hopeful in turn. And for both the student and teacher at its center, there are no pat endings.
On the first day of Kuo’s book tour, she met in Boston with Eric Dailey (Arkansas ’11), who taught in a similar Delta town before becoming a school leader. He and Kuo were eager to discuss the questions she raised in her book in a face-to-face conversation. The conversation that follows has been edited and condensed for clarity. They began by introducing themselves to each other.
Michelle: I was born and raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where I went to public schools until I was 17. My parents emigrated from Taiwan in the 1970s. When I went to Harvard for college, I thought I was going to be a doctor. There's this strange quirk of Taiwanese history that doctors have the high status, so all the Taiwanese immigrants want their kids to be doctors. But I immersed myself in working at a homeless shelter, dropped pre-med, and took classes on equality and justice. Then I met a very persuasive Teach For America recruiter. I didn't have any question that the Delta was my top choice, so I was really excited about going there.
Eric: I was born and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, one of four boys. I matriculated through traditional public schools in Little Rock and then separated from my twin brother and went to Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, where I studied political science.
I joined Teach For America and was fortunately placed in my home state, where I taught fifth and sixth grade reading.
After spending three years in Blytheville, Arkansas, I left to become a founding assistant principal of KIPP’s first elementary school in St. Louis. I eventually moved back home to Little Rock to start my own school, the first charter school in North Little Rock, in the neighborhood where my grandparents used to live. So many of the names and faces of the children and families stick with me, and they’re what brought me to the work that I’m currently doing as a managing director of TFA’s association for alums of color, The Collective. In a nutshell, my job is to set up systems and structures to help alums of color have impact after the corps.
Michelle: One of my great regrets from teaching in Arkansas is how little I brought in local history to my classroom. When I went back last year to see the school where I had taught, it had been shut down and vandalized. I met an older African American man who had bought the property and was fixing it up, and I asked him, “Hey, what’s your story?” He had gone there during the time of segregation and said it was a wonderful school where you felt cared for by the teachers. [He said] that there was a straight line from my students to their fathers and grandfathers who had gone to that school and succeeded there. I should have brought that man in to speak to my students.
I’m wondering, did your parents and grandparents tell you a lot of stories when you were growing up? Were you able to talk to students about sources of local pride?
Eric: My grandparents lived in the first community where African Americans could purchase homes in North Little Rock. Dr. Joycelyn Elders, who was the surgeon general under President Clinton, lived across the street. But I’d say the biggest source of pride was the church. Our family has been AME [African Methodist Episcopal] for generations, and it was really through the history of the black church that my parents and grandparents began to understand how to situate themselves in a society that was unjust. I can vividly remember going to the church library and seeing old pictures of my grandparents and great-grandparents, whether they were marching for equal rights or leading a “mortgage-burning” at church. I really wanted to bring those experiences and their passions into my classroom and my school, because there was richness there, and oftentimes that richness is never seen or experienced by our students.
Editor’s note: The conversation turned to how Michelle met the “Patrick” of her book’s title, a student named Patrick Browning.
Michelle: In 2004, I went to teach at an alternative school in Helena, Arkansas. It was basically the dumping ground for kids who had been kicked out, arrested on charges, or who were too old at the middle school and therefore would be a "bad influence" on the younger kids. Patrick had already been held back twice when I met him. He was 15 and in the eighth grade and very eager to learn.
He had a feeling of being somebody who was often observing his peers, rather than getting sucked into their world. And he also just was naturally drawn to poetry and writing. Sometimes I had to sell poetry to students by talking about how it was a lot like hip-hop, but Patrick understood that intuitively. And I loved that about him—he was very quiet, very introspective. And he flourished at reading. He won the award at school that year for “Most Improved.”
I left the Delta after my two years, and I was in my third year of law school at Harvard when one of my dearest friends, who had decided to stay in the Delta, called and told me that Patrick had been in a fight and had been arrested for killing someone.
I was devastated and honestly just didn't believe it because Patrick had never been violent in my class or at the school. He even broke up a fight outside of our classroom because he didn't want to see people hurting each other.
I was in the middle of classes, I had exams coming up, I had a fellowship in legal aid lined up—but I needed to go back to Helena and see him and figure out what had happened. And so, I flew to Arkansas and visited him in jail.
Eric: One of the reasons, Michelle, that your book resonated so with me is because seven months after your re-entry into the Delta, I also found myself in the Delta, as a teacher. I had a student who, by all accounts, was very similar to Patrick. I’ll read to you something that I wrote about him:
The first words I heard from my student, belted from a humid, crowded classroom, were, “My name is Devonte, and I don’t want to be here.” Fast-forward six years later. The young man who rocked my world, and subsequently the way I would view and interact with it, is a current inmate at a local juvenile detention facility.
My mind was blown. Did I fail Devonte? Did I fail my community? I remember walking Devonte home, entering a home that was dark, filled with smoke, and bustling with six children, none of whom were in school. I expressed my frustration to his parents and offered a few solutions to support Devonte. Needless to say, I failed to fully accept and understand the depth of his struggle.
It wasn’t academic, as he was two grade levels above. It wasn’t for lack of access, as he was fortunate to attend a school with tremendous resources, and his immediate family was well connected in the community. Instead, the gap that I failed to address was one of community, family, and school alignment… I never made certain that what I was trying to accomplish as a teacher with Devonte and what his family wanted to be true for him were identical.
I'm sharing that with you, Michelle, just as a means for you to understand how I'm approaching your text and why it resonates with me. I'd love to hear a little bit about why, after leaving the Delta and then finishing law school, you decided to come back for those seven months and be Patrick’s teacher again?
Michelle: I realized that I had left to go to law school too prematurely. That in a way, I had been running away from the systemic problems and injustice that I was just starting to understand. In the Delta, there are such tremendous systemic battles to fight. And when you decide to leave a place like that, you feel like you're choosing a more ordinary life with ordinary comforts. You feel that you've fallen short of your convictions. You believe that you can fill a need somewhere and you haven't done it. You want to right your wrong. I think that's why I came back.
There was this sense that I had left behind some of my students. And I know it’s patronizing to think, “Oh, I'm so important to these students.” But when I took that trip to visit Patrick in jail, it really did feel like there was nobody else. He had his family, but they were too traumatized to be there. And he didn't have any adult figures in his life who had any access to resources. I mean, his lawyer hadn't even called him, and he had been in jail for months.
I went back to law school and enrolled in a criminal justice clinic where you learn how to defend people arrested. I wanted to know more about how criminal law worked. And then, after graduating from law school, I went back to Arkansas.
I started visiting Patrick in jail every day, trying to figure out what was going on in his legal case. And while I was visiting Patrick, I discovered that his literacy skills had regressed severely. I knew from my classroom that a kid could advance very quickly in his reading and writing. But I just never considered how quickly he could also fall behind. I thought to myself, OK, we're going to finish what we started. We're going to start reading and writing all the time.
We started to read poetry and literature every day. We read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. We read W.S. Merwin. We memorized poems in the Bible, because Patrick is very religious. We also wrote. He wrote letters to his daughter that were really beautiful, imagining them going canoeing down the Mississippi, imagining them reading together. And by the end of our time together, seven months later, these letters that he was writing were remarkable. I think we know this intuitively, but those seven months taught me how closely reading and writing are linked: When a person reads every day, deeply, knowing intimately the sounds of a line of poetry, their writing improves very quickly as well.
Eric: Can you talk a little bit about what the experience in the Delta was like for you as you began to see injustice, not only when you were teaching, but also as you began to work with Patrick within the legal system?
Michelle: The criminal justice system in rural areas is something that hasn't gotten much press or attention at all until the past couple years. When I was at Harvard for law school, I was a student attorney in the criminal justice program. They have court every day of the year. That seemed normal, right? Monday through Friday.
In rural areas like Arkansas, because they are so spread out, because resources are so scarce and the public defenders are so lowly paid, they sometimes have just four court sessions a year that are about three weeks long, and that's it. The rest of the time, the inmates are just waiting in jail for their next court date. One thing that I encountered with Patrick is that he didn't take his plea until 15 months after he had been charged and sent to jail. That is unjust.
Another thing that I encountered there was that the county jail was incredibly unsanitary. The jailers weren't trained. Patrick told me stories of a schizophrenic who wasn't given his meds, of doors that didn't have locks, of a yard that wasn't available for recreation. Of course, there were no services whatsoever in terms of education or mental health. And indeed, his story was confirmed a couple years later when the state of Arkansas shut down that county jail in Helena for lack of sanitation and lack of training of jailers. The Vera Institute recently released a report on county jails in America and how they're a source of mass incarceration and of injustice.
Eric: You reflect in your book about the gulf between you and Patrick, including the gulf in privilege. But you were also both technically members of minority groups. Did you view yourself as a teacher of color in the Delta?
Michelle: I did. There was this one moment where a student was saying something racial, maybe he was making noises like “ching chong,” and the teacher I was with, who's African American, said, "Why would you say that to Ms. Kuo? She's a minority like us." And that made the student stop. It occurred to me that perhaps they didn't think of me as a minority like them, and I felt this moment of solidarity that I always wanted to feel between Asian Americans and African Americans, who have a difficult relationship in some ways.
I wish I'd shared more about being Asian American and leaned less on teaching African American literature. I mean, my students loved all the YA literature on black teenagers. But my students were also eager for contact with a person from another world. They had never met an Asian person before. Whenever I said a word in Mandarin, they were captivated. I should've taken advantage of those fun moments instead of thinking of them as off the curriculum or less relevant.
But I feel like I've only embraced being Asian American in the past five years, since I married somebody who grew up in Taiwan. I've come to realize that I myself internalize a lot of messages about Asian Americans, like perceptions that they are passive and politically disengaged. And when I was growing up, I was one of the few Asians in class. My parents didn't tell me any stories about Taiwan because they had grown up in an authoritarian environment where silence was enforced. I think that made me much more eager to belong. I think it made me want to prove that I could move between different communities, and I think it made me keep my distance from Asian Americans.
Thank goodness that's changed, but I think my lack of knowledge of myself as an Asian American made me a worse teacher. I didn't take advantage of students' natural curiosity. One thing I realized is just how much teaching ought to spark self-interrogation. I didn’t know myself when I taught, and that impacted my teaching.
As I grow older, I've worked with more Asian American communities in immigrant settings as an immigrants’ rights lawyer. I've read more about how racism against the Chinese a hundred years ago is the foundation of our immigration law that excludes people now, whether they're from the Middle East or from Mexico. So, I see Asian Americans as part of this larger continuum of how immigration law has been made exclusionary—but I just didn't get that for most of my 20s, you know? Wow, Eric, you brought up some stuff there.
Eric: I’m wondering if Patrick’s embrace of his culture in reading African American authors served as an example for you to embrace your culture.
Michelle: That is a brilliant point. I’ve never thought about that.
Eric: So, your book raises a ton of questions about what it actually means to have impact after your two-year commitment. The research of course is clear, that black students have such a greater chance of staying in school and ultimately going to college by just having one black teacher. And the numbers are even higher when there's a black male teacher added to the equation. I can remember as a principal, as a black male principal, sharing that data all the time, and being strategic about having—I wouldn't even say a “racially diverse” staff, but a staff that represented the students in the school.
I would love to hear your thoughts about teachers of color and their opportunity to have added impact on students of color, particularly in rural communities. Did you see that with Patrick?
Michelle: It's something that I think about a lot. My answer to that is that it would be wrong to ask all African American males to teach and then tell everybody else to go make tons of money in some elite job. There's something really unfair in pinning the "burden/gift" just on the people who should have the most number of options, right? How do you feel about that?
Eric: All these questions are bubbling to the surface as we reimagine the work of The Collective. Who bears the heaviest burden? Whose responsibility is it to teach children of color? Where does shared accountability lie, given the disproportionate impacts that certain groups can have?
I think it's stories like yours that continue to color our perspective on what's really needed from a diverse coalition. You absolutely had an impact with Patrick. You were not a male, you were not black, you were not from Helena. How did that relationship bridge all of those differences to the point where Patrick was an incredible reader and writer? How did the breakthrough happen?
Michelle: I think Patrick and I broke through a lot of ground just by reading together every day. Just the act of showing up, I think, shouldn't be underestimated. But without a doubt, I think when you share a text, an essay, a poem, and you're both reading it together, there is something about that text that links you, because you have something to admire, to cherish, to disagree with, to think about, and it does become a way to bring you together. That's the most powerful thing that I learned.
You brought up that you’re a person of faith. To me, the most amazing thing that Christian communities offer is that language of humility and personal failure. In the national narrative of these times, it’s hard to say stuff like this, but I do think of my book as being in that vein of offering contrition, of saying, "This is what I failed to do," not "Look at how all of my convictions line up with the most fashionable ideas today of what it means to be a woke person," you know? I really wanted to get across the kinds of failures that a progressive, well-intentioned person can cause by not really doing that interrogation, without being cynical or denigrating anybody else's efforts. But what do you think? What do you make of our moment now?
Eric: We don’t have time for everything that I think. But I do think education has a role. And as I think through the lens of being an alum of color, I think this is a solvable problem.
For me, it's very personal. I've got three nephews. I'm sure I was on that list at some point of students who needed help, but somebody intervened. I see fixing this inequity as fixing myself. Solving this is solving myself, and so there is no separation here, yet. The question I ask myself is, how can I begin to support people across this country to do the very work, on a very large scale, that I wish I had done for Devonte and that you went back and did for Patrick?
Michelle: I feel like you got to the heart of it when you were talking about wanting to know Devonte better, wanting to understand his authentic passions. I guess the question is, what can we do to ensure that that happens, wherever it may be? What creates those opportunities for us to develop mutual knowledge of one another, but also knowledge of ourselves?
Editor’s Note: The full story of Patrick’s legal case and its resolution is detailed in Reading with Patrick. Patrick is currently out of prison. He enjoys spending time with his daughter who is in the fourth grade. Her favorite subjects are math and reading.
Upcoming Events with Author Michelle Kuo
September 25th, Arkansas Union 403, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Multicultural Center at 3:00 PM
September 26th, Little Rock, Arkansas, Clinton School of Public Service, at 1200 Sturgis Hall, noon
September 27th, Turnrow Books, Greenwood, Mississippi, at 5:30 PM
October 25th, Pound 101, Criminal Justice Policy Program at Harvard Law, noon
November 1st, Powell's City of Books, Portland at 7:30 PM
November 2nd, Elliot Bay Book Company, Seattle, at 7 PM