This book is the memoir of Michelle Kuo, whose parents immigrated to the US from Taiwan, settling in Michigan, where Michelle grew up. As an adolescent, Michelle became fascinated with the civil rights struggle of Blacks in America. She read the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. and Autobiography of Malcolm X.
She was very academically minded and graduated from Harvard, majoring in English Literature. As she was about to get her degree, she began to realize she didn't really know what to do after graduation. She happened to meet a recruiter for Teach America, a organization that sought to find teachers for really impoverished schools. They told Michelle about a very poor school of Blacks in the southern Delta town of Helena, Arkansas. Her interests in Black liberation led her to accept the job.
Like most first generation immigrants, her parents wanted Michelle to get some high status, well paying job, and they were appalled when she took the job in Helena. Helena was a very impoverished community, largely Black, and Michelle's job was in the small alternative school for students who had been kicked out of the regular high school.
Helena, Arkansas had a terrible racial history, which included the highest number of lynchings in any county in America. The high numbers of killings by Whites caused most Blacks to move away, and those that stayed learned to live in a subjugated society.
Needless to say, trying to teach there was an extreme challenge and it didn't help that she was a middle class suburban Asian woman who had been sheltered from the realities of poor rural blacks, whose subculture was now further deteriorating because of drugs and violence. Michelle was determined to change the direction of their lives, despite the overwhelming odds.
Among her favorite students was Patrick, a quiet 15 year old boy who always tried to calm disputes. She felt he was one of the few who seemed to be accepting of an education. When he stopped coming to school she visited his home in a bad section of town, and saw what he was up against, but the fact that she cared enough about him to visit, motivated Patrick to start coming to school again, and she began to see him progress.
After two years of teaching, Michelle left the job to get a law degree. It was hard for her to leave her students, but the pressure she was getting from her parents ruled the day.
As she was just about to graduate from a Harvard Law School, Michelle received a letter from a former colleague in Helena, that said that Patrick was in jail, charged with murder. This news was devastating to Michelle, and instead of taking a legal aid job in a Spanish nonprofit organization in LA, she went instead traveled back to Helena to see if she could help Patrick.
When she visited Patrick in jail, he was embarrassed to see her, and she was shocked at how his fragile education had deteriorated. He openly confessed to stabbing the man, who was drunk and with his mentally slow younger sister, saying he hadn't meant to kill him, just use the knife to threaten and make him go away.
Michelle abandoned her LA job, choosing instead to stay in Helena, and teach Patrick daily while he waited for his ever postponed trial date. She had him read novels, poetry, and black history and gave him writing homework.
Her dedication to this one poor black man was amazing. His achievements were surprising. I sometimes questioned his apparent understanding of complex wordy poems, because of his impoverished educational background, but that's what the book said.
Michelle Kuo's dedication to helping those in need certainly took her life in some unexpected directions and gave her an interesting story to tell.