Kozol’s Ordinary Resurrections:
Children In The Years Of Hope
Much has been made in recent
months of the problem of fiscal inequality in school spending.
No matter who raises the issue—parents, educators, school reformers,
or politicians—the concept that spending $5,200 on a child in
the South Bronx, while a Great Neck child receives up to $18,000
on his education, makes any sense is difficult to reconcile.
And in this compelling, provocative
and utterly absorbing account of the lives of some of the children
and teachers in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx, author Jonathan
Kozol makes it clear why this issue matters so much, for the future
of public education, society, and these particular children he
cares about so deeply.
This book should make you mad.
You don’t have to agree with all Kozol’s arguments (yes, more
money spent on teacher salaries and supplies for children in the
South Bronx would help, as would smaller classes, but what Scarsdale
and communities like it offer to their offspring goes beyond excellent
schools and beautiful campuses) to realize that these Mott Haven
children face nearly insurmountable obstacles to obtain simply
a basic education.
Kozol, who has previously written
about this community, if not these particular schools or children,
in Savage Inequalities and Amazing Grace—takes a slightly different
approach here. His goal is to make the reader see these children
as wondrous, distinctive, unique personalities in the process
of being shaped and developed by their experiences at school,
at home and in their neighborhood—and not merely as some abstract
statistical reflection of an impoverished underclass.
As he writes, “Children live
in a land of candy bars, pencil sets, Elmo dolls”—even these children
whose lives have been the subject of so much sociological study.
For Kozol, what matters is seeing these children, who live in
a community plagued by AIDS, childhood and adult asthma, absent
(read: incarcerated) fathers, drugs and violence, as children
who can still be charmed by the arrival of butterflies in a garden,
entranced by an adept teacher’s reading aloud of a story, or engaged
by a sympathetic visitor to confide their dreams and struggles.
Kozol follows a group of children
whom he meets at St. Ann’s, a local church’s afterschool program,
whom he visits during their regular school days at P.S. 30 and
other public schools. He introduces the reader to gifted and dynamic
principals, as well as imaginative and resourceful teachers, who
refuse to give up on these children. And he also introduces the
reader to the grimmer reality of over-crowded lunchrooms, incompetent
administrators and indifferent teachers, in whose hands the fate
of so many of these children lie.
Perhaps most depressing about
his description of these children’s lives is the inescapable economic,
environmental and social racism that pervades their existence.
Most of these children live near a medical waste incinerator.
In nearby Hunts Point, there are some 40 garbage or recycling
plants. Kozol writes, “Do children of doctors, financiers and
publishers have to look outside their windows at trash burners
every morning? Then why should little Mariposa (a four-and a half-year-old
he meets, who has chronic asthma) have to do so?”
And he rails, rightly, against
a distorted system of education that looks at schooling as a way
of producing measurable “outcomes” (the wrong way to approach
standardized testing) or sees children as so much “investment
value.” He writes, “Why are we to look at Elio and see a future
entry-level worker rather than to see him, as we see our own kids,
as perhaps a future doctor, dancer, artist, poet, priest, psychologist,
or teacher, or whatever else he might someday desire to be? Why
not, for that matter, look at him and see the only thing he really
is: a seven-year-old child?”
While Kozol is careful to point
out that the children who attend PS 30, where there is a ferocious
advocate in the form of their principal, Ms. Rosa, and St. Ann’s
afterschool program, are luckier than many in this community,
by having access to protective and caring adults, adequate food,
books and art supplies, they do not escape the same problems that
plague other inner-city children. Few have medical insurance,
get eye exams, regular dental care—or any of the other basics
that middle-class and upper-class children have to even think
Despite the innocence and goodness
he witnesses among these children on a daily, spontaneous basis
that touches Kozol, their predicament is clear. The author recognizes
that “Most of these children here, no matter how hard they may
work and how well they may do in elementary school, will have
no chance, or almost none, to win admission to the city’s more
selective high schools, which prepares these students for good
universities and colleges.” Their parents, too, “when they look
ahead into the middle schools and high schools of the area,...recognize
the outer limits of the opportunities that this society is giving
to their children.” And that’s a pity, and a shame, on the rest
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