For more than three decades, Jonathan Kozol has been a passionate voice and champion for the cause of quality public education for America's poorest children. In his latest book, "Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope," Kozol offers a moving glimpse into the everyday lives of young children growing up in the South Bronx area of New York City. In a recent interview with Education World editor Lois Lewis, Kozol shared some thoughts about his latest book and about life in the urban United States. INCLUDED: Kozol reflects on childhood in the urban United States and how our cities have changed since he taught in Boston in the 1960s and offers suggestions for the new president!
Jonathan Kozol has dedicated his adult life to being an outspoken voice for poor people in the United States. His books, starting with Death at an Early Age, have chronicled the problems and conditions of people who live in the urban centers of the country.
In recent years, Kozol has spent time with families in the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx. They have been his friends since he published Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation in 1995. The notes Kozol took during those recent visits became what some critics have called his most optimistic book to date: Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope (paperback, HarperCollins Publishers, 2001). In this work, Kozol offers a portrait of daily life in an impoverished neighborhood from the perspective of its youngest residents.
Kozol recently spoke to Education World editor Lois Lewis.
Education World: There's a section in the book in which you write of a priest named Robert Morris who spoke about the "unnoticed ways that people rise above their loneliness and fear as 'ordinary resurrections.'" Were his words the source for the title of your latest book?
Jonathon Kozol: Yes, that was the specific source of the phrase ordinary resurrections. Those words crystallized a thought I'd had for a while in the South Bronx -- the feeling that these kids don't give up as easily as people think. No matter how we treat them, no matter how many times we knock them down, no matter how we shortchange them, no matter how we isolate them, no matter how we try to hide them from the rest of society, they keep getting up again, and they refuse to die.
The first book I ever wrote on education was called Death at an Early Age. Many teachers tell me it was an important book in their lives. I would never disown it. I don't like the title. It took me a long time to realize that the title really wasn't accurate. These little ones do not die as easily as some of us believed. In that sense, this book is intended to be an answer to the discouraging title of my first book.
EW: Please explain the subtitle Children in the Years of Hope.
Kozol: I meant it in specific reference to their age. These kids grow up under very difficult circumstances, but they are very young children. Most of the children in this book, such as Elio and Pineapple, are six, seven, eight, nine years old. They still believe in the goodness of the world, they still believe that they live in a fair-minded society, they still believe in God and human decency. They're still very gentle and sweet and innocent. They haven't yet been soiled by the knowledge that their country might not like them very much. Some of them will learn that later on as they get older, as they go into middle school and high school. But for now, they're sweet and generous and trusting. That's what I mean when I refer to the years of hope: those years in which they are still able to reach out to strangers and open up their hearts to a man my age who doesn't even live in their neighborhood. They seem devoid of prejudice of any kind.
Some of the children have already faced painful situations. About 25 percent of the children I know have had to visit their fathers in jail or prison. Little Elio's father was in prison almost the entire time I knew him. He just recently got out of prison. Despite that, they don't seem hardened by experience. In fact, Elio, far from being hardened, is more tender than most children.
To me, it was very important to portray these children as they actually are, which often contradicts the ignorant stereotypes of inner-city children perpetuated by the tabloid newspapers, by TV and movies, and, sometimes, by sociologists. No labels fit these kids. Some sociologists refer to inner-city kids as "potential predators." The little ones I know are not predators; they're more like lambs. They're not "poster children for the poor." They're not all little saints. Some of them drive me crazy, just as suburban kids do. In their infinite variety, however, they're very much like children everywhere, even though the conditions they face are dramatically different. Their personalities, their sense of humor, their sweetness, their fantasies are very much like those of the kids I meet in very wealthy neighborhoods.
Kozol: In a real sense, they chose me. Most of the book takes place in 1997 and 1998. At that time, I had recently finished a book called Amazing Grace, which many people tell me is a very painful book to read. Well, if it was painful to read, it was also painful to write. I had pains in my chest for two years while I was writing that book. After it was published in 1995, for the next few years I didn't have the wish or energy to plan another book. I was also going through a difficult time because my mother and father were elderly, and they weren't well. I went to the South Bronx repeatedly out of my own need for comfort. Some of the children and their mothers had come to be good friends to me.
I'm always making notes, but the notes I wrote were very informal. They were sort of journal notes -- like the way I used to make my fourth graders keep journals -- but it was completely undisciplined. I wasn't looking for a child with asthma or a child who has a father in prison. I wasn't looking for any particular situation; I just wanted to be with the kids. I felt very much at home in the elementary school, P.S. 30, because some of the teachers had come to be friends of mine, and at St. Ann's because the priest had become a very kind friend to me. So, for me, it was like going home.
Little by little, some of the children began to capture my attention. Elio was just like a little bumblebee; he would always run right up to me. Then Pineapple began treating me as her confidant, sort of -- always with a covert agenda. She's delightfully manipulative. I love kids who manipulate you so beautifully that you don't even mind. You're supposed to disapprove of what they're doing, but they do it so charmingly that you really can't get mad at them. At first I thought, "Gee, Pineapple is a delight. She's a delightful little girl." I'd write down some sweet, funny little things she told me. I met her when she was very little, when she was in kindergarten at P.S. 65. She reversed her letters -- not intentionally, some little kids just do that. I remember she fascinated me. I felt "What an adorable, interesting little girl." It wasn't probably until 1996 to 1997 that I got to really know her well. She'd corner me and say, "Sit down here, please, I have to talk to you." Some of the others too -- a boy there used to try to tempt me to take communion. He had a funny sense, a nice sense, of humor. He was actually a boy with a lot of problems too, but he was always cheerful on Sundays.
In a sense, I think, they kind of chose me before I chose them, and we got to be friends. When I go back there, I always look for them. When they're not there, I always feel disappointed.
EW: Think back to your first year of teaching. In what ways are the children in the book different from the children you taught, and in what ways are they alike?
Kozol: Well, first of all, the kids I initially taught in Boston, in Roxbury-Dorchester, were almost all African American kids. In the South Bronx, the children I know are about evenly divided between African American kids and Latino kids. A great many of them come from Puerto Rico or Guatemala. So, ethnically, there's that difference. These children are far poorer in economic terms than the children I knew in Boston. The kids I knew in Boston were the poorest kids in Boston. Their poverty wasn't in the same league as what you see today in the South Bronx, though. People didn't go hungry in those days. People were not homeless. These kids I know in the South Bronx have physical illnesses that are far worse than anything I ever saw. There was no HIV infection in those days. I'd say a large number of the children I know have lost a relative to AIDS. An awful lot of these kids have chronic asthma; that didn't exist when I was teaching in Roxbury in the old days. So, in those ways, these kids have a much harder challenge than the children I knew before.
There's one other big difference. When I was teaching in the 1960s in Boston, there was a great deal of hope in the air. Martin Luther King Jr. was alive, Malcolm X was alive; great, great leaders were emerging from the southern freedom movement. There was a firm conviction that this nation was going to eradicate apartheid -- and not just in Mississippi and Alabama, not just in the southern states. There was confidence that in another generation, there would not be a vast neighborhood in any American city where you never saw white children. Even people like President Lyndon Johnson gave us the sense that segregation and separate and unequal schools would soon be a thing of the past. I think the kids caught that spirit. They couldn't miss it. They heard freedom songs. They saw large numbers of blacks and whites linking arms and singing in the streets. There was a tremendous sense of optimism. The kids don't have that today.
If you grow up in the South Bronx today or in south-central Los Angeles or Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, you quickly come to understand that you have been set apart and that there's no will in this society to bring you back into the mainstream. That is very clear to the kids in the South Bronx -- not the little babies that I write about, but the teenagers learn it right away. The kids have eyes and they can see, and they have ears and they can hear. They recognize what's happening. When they get into junior high, some of them go out to suburban schools for sports events or maybe for a debate or some cultural event such as Interracial Understanding Day. They probably call it "Diversity Day" or some funny word like that. They look around them and their eyes open wide and they think, "So this is what it's like on the other side of the wall." All those things are very different today from 35 years ago. Kids notice that no politicians talk about this. They hear the politicians saying, "We're gonna have tougher standards in your separate-but-not-equal schools. We're gonna raise the bar of academic discipline in your separate-but-not-equal schools." But nobody says we're going to make them less separate and more equal. Nobody says that.
EW: Speaking of politics, what should the government do for urban schools and communities? What would you say to the president about this issue?
Kozol: What would I ask the president? If he asks me, I would say it's time to reopen this issue. You cannot leave it to the states. If you leave it to the states, each and every state will repeat the same cycle in which a group of decent young advocates for children and black leaders and good attorneys who go to court will work for years. They'll finally win, the court will order the legislature to act, and the legislature will betray the spirit of the law and never take the moral action that is required. We cannot do this in 50 states. We cannot go through this cycle of searching for vindication in the courts and then being betrayed by the legislature year after year after year. If the president said, "Where should I start?" I would say start with the kids when they're little. More than half the eligible children in this country still can't get even one year of Head Start. That's where to start. Take Head Start as it is now -- we spend about $5 billion on Head Start today. Double it so every four-year-old gets Head Start. That gets us to $10 billion. Double it again so every three-year-old gets Head Start. That gets us to $20 billion. Add on another couple of months so even the two-and a-half-year-old can do it. That gets us to $25 billion. If you want to leave a legacy behind, that's where to start.
EW: Let's talk about your future. You've said that you would like to return to teaching and write a children's book about your dog, Sweetie Pie. Why?
Kozol: I'd love to go back and teach primary school. I used to teach fourth grade and fifth grade. I'd love to spend several years teaching kindergarten or maybe third grade. For one thing, I happen to enjoy third graders. I like children particularly at that age, and I love the literature that children read at that age. Children's books have always been a great joy to me. In fact, while I was writing Ordinary Resurrections, I used to read children's books late at night just to relax before I went to bed.
The children always asked me to tell them stories about my dog, so I
did. I thought, "Someday I'll turn that into a book, the stories I told
them about my dog -- and her adventures in the middle of the night while
we're all asleep."