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← The healing power of reading

Reading and writing can be acts of courage that bring us closer to others and ourselves. Author Michelle Kuo shares how teaching reading skills to her students in the Mississippi Delta revealed the bridging power of the written word -- as well as the limitations of its power.

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Showing Revision 6 created 06/18/2019 by Brian Greene.

  1. I want to talk today
    about how reading can change our lives

  2. and about the limits of that change.
  3. I want to talk to you about how reading
    can give us a shareable world
  4. of powerful human connection.
  5. But also about how that connection
    is always partial.
  6. How reading is ultimately
    a lonely, idiosyncratic undertaking.
  7. The writer who changed my life

  8. was the great African American
    novelist James Baldwin.
  9. When I was growing up
    in Western Michigan in the 1980s,
  10. there weren't many Asian American writers
    interested in social change.
  11. And so I think I turned to James Baldwin
  12. as a way to fill this void,
    as a way to feel racially conscious.
  13. But perhaps because I knew
    I wasn't myself African American,
  14. I also felt challenged
    and indicted by his words.
  15. Especially these words:
  16. "There are liberals
    who have all the proper attitudes,
  17. but no real convictions.
  18. When the chips are down
    and you somehow expect them to deliver,
  19. they are somehow not there."
  20. They are somehow not there.
  21. I took those words very literally.
  22. Where should I put myself?
  23. I went to the Mississippi Delta,

  24. one of the poorest regions
    in the United States.
  25. This is a place shaped
    by a powerful history.
  26. In the 1960s, African Americans
    risked their lives to fight for education,
  27. to fight for the right to vote.
  28. I wanted to be a part of that change,
  29. to help young teenagers graduate
    and go to college.
  30. When I got to the Mississippi Delta,
  31. it was a place that was still poor,
  32. still segregated,
  33. still dramatically in need of change.
  34. My school, where I was placed,

  35. had no library, no guidance counselor,
  36. but it did have a police officer.
  37. Half the teachers were substitutes
  38. and when students got into fights,
  39. the school would send them
    to the local county jail.
  40. This is the school where I met Patrick.

  41. He was 15 and held back twice,
    he was in the eighth grade.
  42. He was quiet, introspective,
  43. like he was always in deep thought.
  44. And he hated seeing other people fight.
  45. I saw him once jump between two girls
    when they got into a fight
  46. and he got himself knocked to the ground.
  47. Patrick had just one problem.
  48. He wouldn't come to school.
  49. He said that sometimes
    school was just too depressing
  50. because people were always fighting
    and teachers were quitting.
  51. And also, his mother worked two jobs
    and was just too tired to make him come.
  52. So I made it my job
    to get him to come to school.
  53. And because I was crazy and 22
    and zealously optimistic,
  54. my strategy was
    just to show up at his house
  55. and say, "Hey, why don't you
    come to school?"
  56. And this strategy actually worked,
  57. he started to come to school every day.
  58. And he started to flourish in my class.
  59. He was writing poetry,
    he was reading books.
  60. He was coming to school every day.
  61. Around the same time

  62. that I had figured out
    how to connect to Patrick,
  63. I got into law school at Harvard.
  64. I once again faced this question,
    where should I put myself,
  65. where do I put my body?
  66. And I thought to myself
  67. that the Mississippi Delta
    was a place where people with money,
  68. people with opportunity,
  69. those people leave.
  70. And the people who stay behind
  71. are the people who don't have
    the chance to leave.
  72. I didn't want to be a person who left.
  73. I wanted to be a person who stayed.
  74. On the other hand, I was lonely and tired.
  75. And so I convinced myself
    that I could do more change
  76. on a larger scale if I had
    a prestigious law degree.
  77. So I left.
  78. Three years later,

  79. when I was about
    to graduate from law school,
  80. my friend called me
  81. and told me that Patrick
    had got into a fight and killed someone.
  82. I was devastated.
  83. Part of me didn't believe it,
  84. but part of me also knew that it was true.
  85. I flew down to see Patrick.
  86. I visited him in jail.
  87. And he told me that it was true.
  88. That he had killed someone.
  89. And he didn't want to talk more about it.
  90. I asked him what had happened with school
  91. and he said that he had dropped out
    the year after I left.
  92. And then he wanted
    to tell me something else.
  93. He looked down and he said
    that he had had a baby daughter
  94. who was just born.
  95. And he felt like he had let her down.
  96. That was it, our conversation
    was rushed and awkward.
  97. When I stepped outside the jail,
    a voice inside me said,

  98. "Come back.
  99. If you don't come back now,
    you'll never come back."
  100. So I graduated from law school
    and I went back.
  101. I went back to see Patrick,
  102. I went back to see if I could help him
    with his legal case.
  103. And this time,
    when I saw him a second time,
  104. I thought I had this great idea, I said,
  105. "Hey, Patrick, why don't you
    write a letter to your daughter,
  106. so that you can keep her on your mind?"
  107. And I handed him a pen
    and a piece of paper,
  108. and he started to write.
  109. But when I saw the paper
    that he handed back to me,

  110. I was shocked.
  111. I didn't recognize his handwriting,
  112. he had made simple spelling mistakes.
  113. And I thought to myself that as a teacher,
  114. I knew that a student
    could dramatically improve
  115. in a very quick amount of time,
  116. but I never thought that a student
    could dramatically regress.
  117. What even pained me more,
  118. was seeing what he had written
    to his daughter.
  119. He had written,
  120. "I'm sorry for my mistakes,
    I'm sorry for not being there for you."
  121. And this was all he felt
    he had to say to her.
  122. And I asked myself how can I convince him
    that he has more to say,
  123. parts of himself that
    he doesn't need to apologize for.
  124. I wanted him to feel
  125. that he had something worthwhile
    to share with his daughter.
  126. For every day the next seven months,

  127. I visited him and brought books.
  128. My tote bag became a little library.
  129. I brought James Baldwin,
  130. I brought Walt Whitman, C.S. Lewis.
  131. I brought guidebooks to trees, to birds,
  132. and what would become
    his favorite book, the dictionary.
  133. On some days,
  134. we would sit for hours in silence,
    both of us reading.
  135. And on other days,
  136. we would read together,
    we would read poetry.
  137. We started by reading haikus,
    hundreds of haikus,

  138. a deceptively simple masterpiece.
  139. And I would ask him,
    "Share with me your favorite haikus."
  140. And some of them are quite funny.
  141. So there's this by Issa:
  142. "Don't worry, spiders,
    I keep house casually."
  143. And this: "Napped half the day,
    no one punished me!"
  144. And this gorgeous one, which is
    about the first day of snow falling,
  145. "Deer licking first frost
    from each other's coats."
  146. There's something mysterious and gorgeous
  147. just about the way a poem looks.
  148. The empty space is as important
    as the words themselves.
  149. We read this poem by W.S. Merwin,

  150. which he wrote after he saw
    his wife working in the garden
  151. and realized that they would spend
    the rest of their lives together.
  152. "Let me imagine that we will come again
  153. when we want to and it will be spring
  154. We will be no older than we ever were
  155. The worn griefs will have eased
    like the early cloud
  156. through which morning
    slowly comes to itself"
  157. I asked Patrick what his favorite
    line was, and he said,
  158. "We will be no older than we ever were."
  159. He said it reminded him
    of a place where time just stops,
  160. where time doesn't matter anymore.
  161. And I asked him
    if he had a place like that,
  162. where time lasts forever.
  163. And he said, "My mother."
  164. When you read a poem
    alongside someone else,
  165. the poem changes in meaning.
  166. Because it becomes personal
    to that person, becomes personal to you.
  167. We then read books, we read so many books,

  168. we read the memoir of Frederick Douglass,
  169. an American slave who taught
    himself to read and write
  170. and who escaped to freedom
    because of his literacy.
  171. I had grown up thinking
    of Frederick Douglass as a hero
  172. and I thought of this story
    as one of uplift and hope.
  173. But this book put Patrick
    in a kind of panic.
  174. He fixated on a story Douglass told
    of how, over Christmas,
  175. masters give slaves gin
  176. as a way to prove to them
    that they can't handle freedom.
  177. Because slaves would be
    stumbling on the fields.
  178. Patrick said he related to this.
  179. He said that there are people in jail
    who, like slaves,
  180. don't want to think about their condition,
  181. because it's too painful.
  182. Too painful to think about the past,
  183. too painful to think
    about how far we have to go.
  184. His favorite line was this line:

  185. "Anything, no matter what,
    to get rid of thinking!
  186. It was this everlasting thinking
    of my condition that tormented me."
  187. Patrick said that Douglass was brave
    to write, to keep thinking.
  188. But Patrick would never know
    how much he seemed like Douglass to me.
  189. How he kept reading,
    even though it put him in a panic.
  190. He finished the book before I did,
  191. reading it in a concrete
    stairway with no light.
  192. And then we went on
    to read one of my favorite books,

  193. Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead,"
  194. which is an extended letter
    from a father to his son.
  195. He loved this line:
  196. "I'm writing this in part to tell you
  197. that if you ever wonder
    what you've done in your life ...
  198. you have been God's grace to me,
  199. a miracle, something more than a miracle."
  200. Something about this language,
    its love, its longing, its voice,

  201. rekindled Patrick's desire to write.
  202. And he would fill notebooks upon notebooks
  203. with letters to his daughter.
  204. In these beautiful, intricate letters,
  205. he would imagine him and his daughter
    going canoeing down the Mississippi river.
  206. He would imagine them
    finding a mountain stream
  207. with perfectly clear water.
  208. As I watched Patrick write,
  209. I thought to myself,
  210. and I now ask all of you,
  211. how many of you have written a letter
    to somebody you feel you have let down?
  212. It is just much easier
    to put those people out of your mind.
  213. But Patrick showed up every day,
    facing his daughter,
  214. holding himself accountable to her,
  215. word by word with intense concentration.
  216. I wanted in my own life

  217. to put myself at risk in that way.
  218. Because that risk reveals
    the strength of one's heart.
  219. Let me take a step back
    and just ask an uncomfortable question.
  220. Who am I to tell this story,
    as in this Patrick story?
  221. Patrick's the one who lived with this pain
  222. and I have never been hungry
    a day in my life.
  223. I thought about this question a lot,
  224. but what I want to say is that this story
    is not just about Patrick.
  225. It's about us,
  226. it's about the inequality between us.
  227. The world of plenty
  228. that Patrick and his parents
    and his grandparents
  229. have been shut out of.
  230. In this story, I represent
    that world of plenty.
  231. And in telling this story,
    I didn't want to hide myself.
  232. Hide the power that I do have.
  233. In telling this story,
    I wanted to expose that power

  234. and then to ask,
  235. how do we diminish
    the distance between us?
  236. Reading is one way to close that distance.
  237. It gives us a quiet universe
    that we can share together,
  238. that we can share in equally.
  239. You're probably wondering now
    what happened to Patrick.

  240. Did reading save his life?
  241. It did and it didn't.
  242. When Patrick got out of prison,
  243. his journey was excruciating.
  244. Employers turned him away
    because of his record,
  245. his best friend, his mother,
    died at age 43
  246. from heart disease and diabetes.
  247. He's been homeless, he's been hungry.
  248. So people say a lot of things
    about reading that feel exaggerated to me.

  249. Being literate didn't stop him
    form being discriminated against.
  250. It didn't stop his mother from dying.
  251. So what can reading do?
  252. I have a few answers to end with today.
  253. Reading charged his inner life

  254. with mystery, with imagination,
  255. with beauty.
  256. Reading gave him images that gave him joy:
  257. mountain, ocean, deer, frost.
  258. Words that taste of a free, natural world.
  259. Reading gave him a language
    for what he had lost.
  260. How precious are these lines
    from the poet Derek Walcott?
  261. Patrick memorized this poem.
  262. "Days that I have held,
  263. days that I have lost,
  264. days that outgrow, like daughters,
  265. my harboring arms."
  266. Reading taught him his own courage.

  267. Remember that he kept reading
    Frederick Douglass,
  268. even though it was painful.
  269. He kept being conscious,
    even though being conscious hurts.
  270. Reading is a form of thinking,
  271. that's why it's difficult to read
    because we have to think.
  272. And Patrick chose to think,
    rather than to not think.
  273. And last, reading gave him a language
    to speak to his daughter.
  274. Reading inspired him to want to write.
  275. The link between reading
    and writing is so powerful.
  276. When we begin to read,
  277. we begin to find the words.
  278. And he found the words
    to imagine the two of them together.
  279. He found the words
  280. to tell her how much he loved her.
  281. Reading also changed
    our relationship with each other.

  282. It gave us an occasion for intimacy,
  283. to see beyond our points of view.
  284. And reading took an unequal relationship
  285. and gave us a momentary equality.
  286. When you meet somebody as a reader,
  287. you meet him for the first time,
  288. newly, freshly.
  289. There is no way you can know
    what his favorite line will be.
  290. What memories and private griefs he has.
  291. And you face the ultimate privacy
    of his inner life.
  292. And then you start to wonder,
    "Well, what is my inner life made of?
  293. What do I have that's worthwhile
    to share with another?"
  294. I want to close

  295. on some of my favorite lines
    from Patrick's letters to his daughter.
  296. "The river is shadowy in some places
  297. but the light shines
    through the cracks of trees ...
  298. On some branches
    hang plenty of mulberries.
  299. You stretch your arm
    straight out to grab some."
  300. And this lovely letter, where he writes,
  301. "Close your eyes and listen
    to the sounds of the words.
  302. I know this poem by heart
  303. and I would like you to know it, too."
  304. Thank you so much everyone.

  305. (Applause)