“It ain’t safe here, Ms. Kuo.”

Dispatch from Helena

“TEACH FOR AMERICA assigned me to an alternative school incongruously named ‘Stars,’ which the local administration used as a dumping ground for the so-called bad kids,” Michelle Kuo writes in the introduction to her memoir, Reading with Patrick. “These were the truants and the druggies, the troublemakers and the fighters who had been expelled from the mainstream schools. Stars was a kid’s last shot at staying in the system before being banished, entirely, from public education.”

Recently graduated from Harvard University, Kuo had arrived in Helena equipped with that unflappable brand of idealism found so often in newly minted grads. More important, however, she believed in the power of the written word. “Books had taught me to admire a person’s will to confront the world, to evaluate his experience honestly, as Ralph Ellison wrote,” she writes. “Books had changed me, charged me with responsibilities. And I believed books could change the lives of my students. It was unabashedly romantic. I was 22.”

Upon entering the classroom, the resolve of that belief was regularly put to the test by difficult students. Of these, there was one in particular, Patrick, a 15-year-old eighth grader, who Kuo was drawn to—and for whom, over time, she became something of a mentor. Without giving too much away, there’s something of a shift as Kuo leaves the Delta after two years to return to the east coast, and Patrick again finds himself adrift—but through and through, this is a story worth reading. Here, we present an excerpt from an early chapter of the book.

I BEGAN MY SECOND year of teaching in the same fog of discouragement that I’d ended my first. Except now I was even more sick for a bagel, a bookstore, a movie theater, a coffee shop. Increasingly, I spent Saturdays driving the 72 miles to Memphis, Tennessee. Despite its storied history, what mattered most to me was that Memphis was a city. With traffic, and traffic lights! Coffee shops, happy hours, Thai food, parking lots, tower cranes, families out for walks, young people dressed up with somewhere to go, Asians! Cars honked, drivers lurched, the city sang; you knew, deep in your heart, that somewhere not too far away a store was selling tofu. In blighted areas, graffiti shouted joyfully from the walls; for all the poverty in Helena, you never saw it. Even a mediocre tag, I grasped with a jolt, suggested a loftier youth malcontent than the one in Helena: a spirit of public rebellion, a confidence about who your enemy was (property, society, state, the man), a thrill in using color to demand that people see you, even the wherewithal to get spray paint.

Meanwhile, the nicer pockets of the city offered a different kind of wasteland, where you could feel passionate about consumption and empowered by anonymity. At the cafe in a Barnes & Noble, a man cut me in line—in the rare cases where there was a line in Helena, nobody cut—and, recovering from my shock, I leapt to action. “Apologize!” I yelled at him, in a teacherly way. What did I care? I’d never see him again, which was probably what he’d been thinking. “Apologize!” I repeated, louder, unhinged. The man looked chagrined—it was unclear whether on my behalf or his own. “I apologize,” he said meekly. At the counter I greedily ordered a muffin. And a coffee. And a fizzy drink, just for the hell of it.

In this cafe, marveling at how spacious and airy and clean everything was, I pecked out law school applications on my laptop, occasionally stopping to eavesdrop. I’d decided that law school would give me a semi-respectable excuse to leave the Delta behind. My self-interest was not unmixed with idealism. Ever since I’d studied the Civil Rights Movement, I’d admired the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and wanted to work there; the stories of lawyers and their battle to desegregate the South in the 1950s and 1960s had drawn me to the Delta in the first place. But, also, I was just desperate to get out of there.

Then something happened. I started to like the Delta. One Sunday I went to a student’s church, a clapboard shack crammed with people in dresses and suits and big hats, and clapped and danced and sweated. Another time I spent all afternoon just taking pictures of the kudzu wilding up the telephone poles—strange, gorgeous, improbable triangles of thick green. I stopped going to Memphis every weekend. I added ice to my tea and drank from my mug on my porch, in arm’s reach of a blooming fig tree, from which I could pluck dessert.

In the classroom I had finally learned how to banter with students and assert authority with ease. In late September, a student interrupted a lesson to ask me if I was related to Yao Ming. I looked at him coolly, letting the silence hang. Finally I said:

“You related to Kobe Bryant?”

The other students started guffawing—at him, not at me.

“Ms. Kuo, that be racist,” he tried, affronted.

“Think about it,” I said. And I continued with the lesson.

When I called my parents to tell them I’d applied to law school, they were intrigued. They didn’t know any lawyers themselves, but they liked the sound of it. Nobody messed with lawyers. Getting sued was one of their chief associations of America before they arrived, and living here reinforced it. But it had never occurred to them that their daughter could be the one suing.

Now they asked, with enthusiasm, “If you get in, you’ll leave Arkansas, right?”

For me their excitement was a clue: If they liked an idea, maybe I should be suspicious of it.

“I guess I’d leave,” I said.

“Good. You won’t have kids making those Chinese sounds at you,” my dad said.

“They were bad kids,” my mother said, laughing, as if I had already left and the kids were just memories from my past.

I felt immediately that I had erred in portraying my students. I must have complained too much. I considered admitting to my parents that I hadn’t applied to law school for the right reasons, that I was starting to make a life in the Delta with my students, and that I’d begun to find ways to reach them. But it seemed like a lot of trouble to explain these little triumphs to my parents. I wanted them to like and respect me. Law school and the prospect of my departure seemed to have cheered them up, and I decided not to ruin it.

PATRICK HAD BEEN in my class since the beginning of the year, but he was quiet, and it was easy to miss quiet students. He always chose a seat in the back and kept his head low. His voice was low, too. “Patrick, could you speak up?” I often heard myself saying—at which he smiled slightly, as if I had said something funny. He seemed at once distracted and alert. His eyes searched the walls of the room, seeking a place to settle. A couple of times, from his seat, he reached his arm out to touch a nearby bookshelf, knocking on it softly to see what it sounded like. And he was empathetic. Once, a student slapped another, lightly, on the back of the head. Patrick winced and looked away, as if he’d been slapped himself.

There were students who no longer interested me, in whom I’d found a hard, mean edge. My fifteen-year-old student Ray was one of these. One teacher said, “He’s always got an ugly face on, don’t he?” Another told me, “Don’t even try—the devil’s already got him.” Even though what he needed was a counselor, I did try for a while. I felt hope when Ray stole a poster of mine, a Picasso Blue Period in which a blind man is eating; I thought it must have moved him. Once, I got him to write a poem. But those acts were anomalies; generally he was impenetrable. He never laughed, even if the whole class was keeling over about something funny. He put his head down a lot, and if you tried to talk to him, he called you a b*tch and told you to get the f*ck away. Rumor had it that his mother was an addict and, unlike a lot of the kids, he appeared to have no grandparents in his life. And still I got tired of trying to show him I was on his side.

By my second year teaching, I had started to regard students in a utilitarian way: Who would respond with enormous success to just a little adult interest? Few students answered that question better than Patrick. He wanted to try; he was thirsty for encouragement, yet he had failing grades. Patrick could excel if somebody was there to push him every minute. But he kept missing classes. Now I knew why he’d been sent to Stars; he simply did not come to school.

In December, he’d missed so many classes that I was worried, concerned he would fail his upcoming exams. I called Patrick’s house. I wanted to know why he was absent. A male voice said, “Pat’s sick,” and hung up. Worried that Patrick had dropped out, I decided to go find him.

Patrick lived in the “ghetto in a ghetto,” as my students called it, where the shootings were so frequent that the city council had threatened to impose a curfew. Most of the neighborhood’s house numbers had faded, and many of the houses were vacant. A group of teenage boys walked down the middle of the street, challenging cars to swerve around them. I drove back and forth, lost, until finally I gave up and pulled over. A boy rode by on his bike, and I asked him if he knew where Patrick Browning lived. “Pat stay right there.” He pointed to a small square house with a porch, just a few feet away.

I knocked on the screen door. It was dark inside. A man in an undershirt got up slowly from the couch and limped to the door.

“I’m Patrick’s teacher, Ms. Kuo,” I said, through the screen. “I think we’ve spoken on the phone before?”

He looked at me. “Yeah, yeah,” he said. Then he dropped back into the darkness.

Another figure approached. It was Patrick. His face emerged into the sunlight and, seeing it was me, he smiled—a huge, boyish glow at being noticed, at being favored. He suddenly seemed years younger. Then, with a twitch, he remembered he hadn’t come to school.

He said very fast, “The bus didn’t come.” Then he looked away. He knew he wasn’t a good liar.

“I missed the bus.”

Then, “I’m sorry, Ms. Kuo.”

We sat on the porch.

“Doesn’t … doesn’t anybody”—I turned to make sure the front door was closed—“make you come to school?”

“It ain’t on them, it’s on me. They tell me to, you know, but sometimes I just don’t really feel like …” He trailed off. “My mother, she real busy; she’s always at work. And my daddy, you know …”

He stopped, not wanting to say anything bad about his father.

“How did you end up at Stars, anyway?” I asked.

“I got in an accident when I was eleven,” he began. “Gas was cheap, a dollar for a gallon, and I had a whole gallon of gas. I was just playing in the backyard, pouring gas onto some sticks on the ground. Just pouring gas for fun, really. I wasn’t thinking about gas being flammable. It was real stupid. I ignited a whole jug; it flew into a fire. I looked down and my pants were burning. Pretty quick the whole yard was on fire. Lucky my sisters, they was there, and they got a towel.”

I had been in the Delta long enough not to be surprised that he was in the backyard casually starting a fire. There wasn’t much to do in Helena besides going to Walmart, and boredom kept you from thinking straight. It wasn’t malicious. It was the opposite. He was trying to find something to do that wouldn’t bother anybody.

It reminded me of Richard Wright, who, at the opening of Black Boy, starts a similar project. The son of a sharecropper, Wright had grown up in the Delta and spent several years in Helena in the 1910s. Four-year-old Wright had ached with boredom as he watched the coals burn in the fireplace. An idea of a new kind of game grew and took root in my mind, he wrote. He tore a batch of straws from an old broom. Why not throw something into the fire and watch it burn? … Who would bother about a few straws, he thought, tearing a batch from an old broom. The fire rewarded his attention; it crackled and blazed. My idea was growing, blooming. How would the fluffy white curtains look, he wondered, if he held lit straws against them? Soon, to his fright, the house was in flames.

Patrick looked down at his leg, stained by burn marks in large, irregular splotches. “I was in the hospital for maybe weeks, out of school for months. Teachers was supposed to bring work to my house but never did.” His voice was flat, not angry, as if such failure was ordinary. “The hospital got a TV, and I saw the towers go down.”

The towers: It was jarring to connect him to 9/11, or to any national experience, and for a moment I realized that, in my mind, the Delta existed as a place disconnected from the rest of the country.

“I had to learn how to walk again. Bed rest for two or three months. I got behind. I had to do seventh again. And then eighth. Then I got sent to Stars.”

I tried to imagine his life at home. His mother would have been at work during the day. Something was going on with his father. Maybe he had gotten used to a dull kind of freedom, looking out the window, flipping through channels, watching other dropouts on the street, getting cheap weed. The structure of school must have seemed alien.

“I saw you break up a fight,” I said. “Why did you do that?”

An immense line creased his forehead and he looked down. “May is my cousin. Liana was my neighbor. I don’t want to see my cousin get in a fight with my neighbor. I don’t like to see people fight. Why? And we’re all in alternative school, so it don’t make sense. Maybe they just ready to give up on life; that’s the only reason I can think of.”

I nodded, and then handed him a postcard of Rodin’s Thinker. I’d written him a note on the back, saying the statue reminded me of him.

He looked at the picture carefully, holding the corners with his fingertips. “Thank you, Ms. Kuo.”

I’d chosen him to go on a field trip that weekend. Would he like to join?

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. I handed him a permission slip.

“Thank you, Ms. Kuo,” he said. “Thank you.”

I told him to stop thanking me.

I told him I knew he could make it through the eighth grade.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, in a soft, low voice.

I told him I would work hard for him, but that he would need to work hard, too, through a lot of small steps.

“Yes, ma’am,” he repeated, this time turning his head slightly so that his eyes met mine. It was getting dark and there were no streetlights. Yet his eyes offered a small, certain source of light. I wondered if mine did, too.

I told him I’d like to see him in school tomorrow; did he plan to come?

From the way he nodded, in that serious way of his, I knew that he would.

I told him I would be at the ceremony when he graduated from high school. At that, he grinned. He had a gap between his front teeth that I hadn’t noticed before.

Hearing myself make this promise out loud stirred me, made me want to stay in the Delta. This was who I would be: a person who stayed.

When I stood up and started walking toward the street, he seemed surprised, as if he felt I was being careless.

“It ain’t safe here, Ms. Kuo.” He followed me past the porch, and I realized he was escorting me to my car.

From the book Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship by Michelle Kuo. Copyright © 2017. Published by arrangement with Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.