September 29, 2009
The following op-ed by Michelle Kuo ’09 entitled “The Lost Student” appeared in the September 27, 2009, edition of the New York Times magazine.
Patrick was the sort of student who made a teacher curious. There was something capacious inside him. He preferred listening to speaking. Others rushed, jostled, to get to the front of the lunch line. Patrick hung back. Patrick’s grin was a half-grin — as if he’d once trained himself not to smile but had since abandoned the project.
I met him the year before I left the Mississippi Delta — my second year as a Teach for America member in Phillips County, Ark., one of the poorest counties in the country. Patrick had flunked eighth grade twice; that year was his third try. He simply wouldn’t show up. He had no reason to; nobody made him. After he disappeared for two weeks, I asked a friend of his how to get to his house. When Patrick saw me at his door, he said, very fast, “The bus didn’t come.” He looked away. “I missed the bus.” Then: “I’m sorry, Ms. Kuo.”
We sat on the porch, across from a burned-down house. I handed him a postcard I’d been saving. It showed a statue, Rodin’s “Thinker.” The statue reminded me of him. I’d written a note on the back. He looked at it carefully, holding the corner with his fingertips. “Thank you, Ms. Kuo,” he said. “Thank you.”
I told him I knew he could make it through eighth grade. I told him that I would work hard for him, but that he would need to work hard, too. It would take a lot of small steps. 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.
When I stood up, so did he. “It ain’t safe here,” he said. I realized he was escorting me to my car.
Patrick began coming to class. Like a matchmaker, I helped him find books he might like. When he read, he laughed out loud. And reading made him want to write. It was painful, at times, to watch Patrick write, because half of what he wrote he erased. Every word that let him down he viewed as a personal failure — he wrote like a writer. I took away his pencil and gave him a pen.
His progress made me happy. By the spring, Patrick’s reading had jumped two levels. At a school ceremony, he won the award for “Most Improved.” He looked surprised. Sheepishly, he walked up to the stage. He turned to the students, who were still clapping, and then, suddenly, he raised both arms up in the air: a victory pose. Everybody laughed.
It was some two and a half years later, when I was at law school in the Northeast, that I learned Patrick was arrested for stabbing and killing someone.
I flew back to Arkansas and made it to the county jail on a Saturday. As I neared the glass window, I almost expected that gap-toothed half-grin, a mixture of wry and pensive. But Patrick’s face had thinned, and his mouth turned downward. His prison garb was two sizes too big. He looked older — he was older. Just the day before, two days after being arrested, he turned 19.
I picked up the receiver from the wall.
“Ms. Kuo, I didn’t mean to,” he blurted out. Again the words of a child who has done something wrong.
I asked him what happened. He’d gotten into a fight outside his house. It was with an older guy who was with his little sister. They looked high, he said. Patrick ended up taking a knife from the kitchen and stabbing him. Patrick shook his head: “Ms. Kuo, I don’t even know.”
We talked. He said he hadn’t been able to keep up at school. Just stopped going. He tried, he really did. He’d wanted to get a job in Little Rock. Or his G.E.D.
The officer came to get me. Time was up.
I haven’t been able to resist guilty feelings over Patrick. What if I’d stayed? And I’ve wondered if my sense of Patrick was faulty; whether I saw only the parts I wanted to see. But isn’t any teacher who tries to bring out the best in her students inclined to see them in the warmest light?
In my letters to Patrick, who is still awaiting trial, I tend to dwell on the past. His victory pose when he won the award; the way his classmates quieted when he read his writing. I want to remember those moments — those matters of the soul unrevealed by the public record.
One week in April when he was in my class, it rained every day. Water soaked through the roof, drenching my bookshelf. Christina fingered the swollen pages of “The Skin I’m In,” ready to cry. Cedric said, “We don’t got nothin’ down here, can’t even get a roof without a hole.” Patrick, from his desk, didn’t look up. “Stop cryin’, y’all,” he said. Then he stood up and walked out. A few minutes later, he returned with a bucket and a mop.
Michelle Kuo received a 2009 Skadden fellowship, given to law-school graduates. She is setting up a legal-aid clinic at a high school in Oakland, Calif.