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News: Inner-City Resurrections

Listening is good for kids -- and money would help, too

By Lew Moores · October 24th, 2002 · News
  Children's dreams and hopes are the stuff of Jonathan Kozol's career; to find them, he listens.
Jymi Bolden

Children's dreams and hopes are the stuff of Jonathan Kozol's career; to find them, he listens.

Stephen comes to school 38 years ago badly beaten, and Jonathan Kozol befriends him. Stephen is 8 years old, in the fourth grade and weighs 60 pounds. He's a fine artist, in Kozol's estimation, someone who "would come up with things that certainly were delightful and personal and private and full of his own nature.''

Yet the teachers in his Boston public school rag on Stephen and his art. They call his art "junk" and "garbage.'' Stephen is humiliated by the teachers in his school; they whip his hands repeatedly with a rattan whip. They deny his childhood; he is one of the "animals'' at the school -- undisciplined and considered something of a monster.

Yet to Kozol, Stephen looks around his school with "terrified tiny little hopeless eyes.''

Stephen shows up at school each day with a little bag of sandwiches for lunch. Kozol gives him a Christmas present, but then is told not to get too close to students he teaches, especially one as mean as Stephen. Kozol ignores the advice.

These kids, mostly black and Hispanic, who go to schools in America's inner-city schools are what motivates Kozol. He carries a yellow legal pad and a black felt-tip pen and records their conversations when he visits their schools in the south Bronx, Boston and other cities. He scribbles what they say on his legal pad, and after a while he gains their trust. They talk to him about their dreams, their fantasies, their neighborhood, their friends. He records their silliness.

He loves kids. In his book Ordinary Resurrections, he writes, "They shout and play. They do not know the satisfaction that we take in watching them.

Their only work right now is play. Our only work is taking pleasure at the sight of them."

'Drop it from a helicopter'
Kozol spoke Oct. 20 before a packed hall at the Netherland Plaza Hotel downtown.

There are two Kozols. One is the educator who spends a lot of time with kids in inner-city neighborhoods. He talks to them in classrooms, visits them at home, drinks Kool-Aid with them, visits their mothers and grandmothers and listens to their innermost thoughts.

The other Kozol is the activist who urges grassroots organizing to change state and national politics as they relate to public education. Some of his themes:

· "Ohio has some of the most unequal schools in the United States,'' he says. "That's because Ohio's school funding formula is so contrived that the poor school districts can never catch up to the wealthy school districts using local property tax. ...The only way you can have equality in public schools is by scrapping the property tax and funding education of all children in education equally out of state revenues.''

· Kozol believes at some point within the next 100 years the country will realize public education is in the best interest of the United States and will be funded accordingly.

"I believe we will move to a more truly democratic and enlightened point of view," he says. "I'm referring to a time when all education costs for all children in public schools will come out of the United States government. It will be in our national interest to do so, for national security and for the sake of our national economy. Congress will realize we can no longer leave the education of our children up to the village elders of some small town.''

· Vouchers for private schools are anathema to him, as are standardized proficiency tests for youngsters -- "grill & drill,'' he calls them. When asked by wealthier friends whether more money thrown at education can help solve the problem, he answers, "Sure! Throw it! Drop it from a helicopter!''

Kozol is all for spending money for newer schools. He urges a yes vote on Issue 2 in Cincinnati, the 4.89-mill bond issue that would raise $480 million to help build 35 new schools and renovate 31 others.

He supports higher salaries for inner-city teachers, more teachers and smaller class sizes. He would increase per pupil expenditures on inner-city kids.

Stephen is dead and living in prison
Kozol is unabashedly liberal. In his mid-60s, he hardly looks his age, which might account for his resonance with young children. He has brown, barely graying hair, which he curls into a roll with his fingers during an interview at the Cricket Lounge downtown.

He orders grapefruit juice on ice. He carries a soft-felt Paper Mate pen, twiddling it in his fingers as he speaks. He wears a dark blue shirt, blue blazer, burgundy tie. He attended Harvard, was a Rhodes scholar and is the best-selling author of 10 books, including a National Book Award for Death at an Early Age.

Kozol isn't dry and academic; he's spent too many years in inner-city classrooms for that -- 300 visits alone to schools in the South Bronx.

What he has learned is that while there are differences in circumstances between rich and poor children, they nonetheless share dreams and desires. In Ordinary Resurrections, he writes, "Ordinary things they long for, and the things they find funny, and the infinite variety of things they dream of, and the games they play, and the animals they wish that they could have, and things they like to eat, and clothes they wish they could afford to buy, are not as different as the world seems to believe from what most other children in this land enjoy, or dream of, or desire.''

As Kozol notes at the end of Death at an Early Age, Stephen was committed to a home for emotionally disturbed children. That was in 1965. In an epilogue in a later edition, published in 1985, Kozol writes that Stephen had called him in 1983 and said he "had just knifed and killed a man who had insulted him as 'an illiterate subhuman.' ''

Stephen had been sentenced to 20 years in prison. It's been another 17 years since he wrote the epilogue.

"He's still in prison," Kozol says. "The point came where we stopped corresponding. He's in his 40s now.''

Kozol switches topics and talks instead about a student named Anthony, now in college, of whom he is obviously proud, and a girl named Pineapple who figured prominently in his book, Ordinary Resurrections, a girl who is now 12 years old and doing quite well.

But Stephen, the beaten kid, is in jail. He died at an early age. ©



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