DC at Night

DC at Night

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Speaking Out for the Poorest Children in America

For almost 50 years, in powerful, heartbreaking books like Death at An Early Age, Rachel and Her Children, and Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol, who has been called "today's most eloquent spokesman for the disenfranchised," has been talking about children whose only crime was to have been born into pockets of horrendous poverty in the wealthiest nation in the world.

During talks to promote his books, Kozol was constantly asked some variant of this question - what ever happened to the young boys and girls you wrote about?

Well, Kozol has now provided some answers.  In his new book, Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-five Years Among the Poorest Children in America, Kozol writes about many of those children, the ones who made it, and, tragically, those who didn't.

Last night, at a book talk sponsored by Politics and Prose, Kozol appeared at the Sidwell Friends School in D.C. to discuss that book and continue his fervent call for social justice for those who have no voice. 

"Some of the marvelous young people I wrote about, I'm sad to say never recovered from the battering they received," Kozol told the large crowd who came to hear him talk about a world much different than the one in which they live.

As one example, Kozol cited a 14-year-old who was "subway surfing" with a group of his friends. "They were all laying down on the top of the subway car, but this young man, as if to say nothing this city can do to me anymore can stop me now, suddenly stood up, only to find his skull crushed when the subway raced under a low overhang," he said.

But there are great success stories, too. "Happily, there are many, many children in the book who battled back courageously from the obstacles and won triumphant victories," Kozol said.

One of those characters was Pineapple, whom Kozol first encountered as a 6-year-old. "She found me deeply flawed, especially my social life," Kozol said, sparking laughter from the crowd. "She tried to  fix me up with her teacher."

Kozol described in detail the horrific conditions Pineapple faced in kindergarten. "It smelled like a feeding trough for cattle. You need to see and smell what we do to these children. Ugly settings coarsen their mentalities," Kozol said.

The situation worsened as Pineapple moved up through the grades. She had 7 different teachers in her 3rd and 4th grade years. "Discontinuity of that kind is calamitous," Kozol added.

Pineapple had 36 other students in her class. With numbers like that, even the most effective teacher can't address the needs of individual students, Kozol explained. "If smaller class sizes are good for the son of a wealthy banker or the daughter of a senator, then it's good for the poorest child in America," he added.

Kozol said that instead of lively, vibrant literature Pineapple was forced to read phonics shorts with phrases like Sad Sam sat in the sand. "And from that she was supposed to predict what is going to happen next," Kozol said.

The author said that while Pineapple struggled to read, her conversational skills were superb. "She had been artificially retarded by the state of New York," Kozol charged.

Finally, Pineapple was accepted into a private school and "her love of learning came alive," Kozol said. Today, she is in college and is planning to become a teacher and return to her Bronx neighborhoods to help the students there. "Pass the torch, that's what I'm going to do," she told Kozol at one of their recent meetings.

"Pineapple was lucky. She won the hearts of grownups who could help her," Kozol said. "And now she wants to give it back. Kids like Pineapple are the fire in the ashes."

"I'm out of fashion now. A lot of people have given up on the whole Jeffersonian idea. I'm glad for Pineapple, but charming is not a substitute for social justice. It's too subjective; it's too precarious. We have to do better," he said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
As we walked up the long, curving  driveway to the Sidwell school, I noticed a solitary figure sitting on a bench, talking into his cell phone. I recognized him immediately. It was Jonathan Kozol. Now I don't know who your living idols are. But Kozol is one of mine. I approached him, put out my hand, and thanked him for all he has done for education, teachers, and most all, poor students over the years. He motioned for me to sit down. "Mind if I smoke?" he asked. As he lit his cigarette, I couldn't help but notice the grey sneakers he was wearing with his black suit. Not only passionate and brilliant, but cool, too. He asked me if I was a teacher. I said I had been one for 25 years, but was now retired. "I hope there will  a lot of teachers here. I always feel more comfortable around teachers," he said. Kozol asked me where I had taught. I told him South Jersey. "Anywhere near Camden?" he asked. (Camden had been featured in one of his books.) I told him it was south of that. "South of that, wow," he said with a laugh. He looked around the grounds. "I'm familiar with these kinds of places. They can be snooty. I went to a private school in New England. I was the first Jew there in 100 years." I told him how I had used excerpts from his book Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America in a Christmas unit with the Phil Collins' song "Another Day in Paradise" and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. My students, although inner city kids themselves, were always moved by the horrific stories in Kozol's book. It inspired many of them to reach out and help those even less fortunate than themselves. Kozol just smiled. I had a thousand questions I wanted to ask, but I saw a representative of the school approaching. "I have to ask, how much does it cost to go here," Kozol asked the representative, whose name was Jean. "It's $33,000 a year," she said. "But you give scholarships and have a diverse student body, right?" Kozol asked. "Yes," she replied. "That's good, that's always good," he said. "Well, I guess we best be going. I think they want me to sign some books before I speak." He turned to me. "Hope you like what I'm going to say," he said as he walked away. "Oh, I'm sure I will," I said. And, as I knew I would, I did. Jonathan Kozol may be in his late 70s, but if there is a better spokesperson for the crucial role of education in the lives of the poor and the disenfranchised in America I have yet to meet them. I was really grateful that I had a chance to hear him speak. I wish everyone could. For if they would listen and act on what he has to say, America would be such a better place.

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