|A CONVERSATION WITH...|
June 7 , 2000
RAY SUAREZ: The book is "Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope." It's by Jonathan Kozol, an award-winning author who spent the last two decades examining the lives of urban schoolchildren. Good to see you.
JONATHAN KOZOL: Good to see you.
RAY SUAREZ: Set the scene for people who've never been anywhere near the South Bronx, St. Anne's Avenue.
JONATHAN KOZOL: Well, it's in the heart of the poorest section of the South Bronx, which is still the poorest congressional district in the nation. The typical average family income there for a year is about $10,000 in this neighborhood. About 75% of the men are unemployed. About a quarter of the children have chronic asthma-- there's an awful lot of asthma in the neighborhood. In fact, the little girl whose picture is on the cover of my book, was in the hospital Sunday night-- because I went up there Monday to see her-- with an asthma attack. It's very common. There's a tremendous amount of effort within the schools on the part of good schoolteachers-- and there are plenty of good schoolteachers around-- to make a difference in the lives of the children, but the schools are bitterly unequal and totally segregated.
It's quite extraordinary for somebody of my generation-- I'm old enough to have sat in front of Martin Luther King and heard him preach when I was a young teacher in the 60's-- it's quite extraordinary to be in a neighborhood in New York City in which 99.8% of the children are children of color. There are 11,000 kids in the elementary schools that serve this district of the Bronx, and of those 11,000, I think 22 are white. So it's heartbreaking in a way, and there's a certain irony in this-- to be in New York City, which was once believed to be a bastion of liberal progressives and humanitarian thinking, which sent its bravest children South in the 1960's to save the soul of Mississippi-- New York is now running the most segregated public schools in the United States. And the inequality in what we've put into these schools is obvious to anybody who has even the slightest acquaintance with the suburban schools. Right...
RAY SUAREZ: But the children don't have the acquaintance. Are they aware of this problem?
JONATHAN KOZOL: No, that's a very good point. For adults, these comparisons keep intruding, inevitably. I mean, there's no way you can avoid it. I was talking two weeks ago with the chancellor of the New York City public schools, a very good man named Harold Levy-- he's just begun-- an excellent administrator. And he showed me recent figures that are even more disturbing than the ones I quoted in my New York is spending about $8,000 per pupil.
You go out to the average suburb, and they're spending $12,000 per pupil. You go out to the really wealthy suburbs where the children of doctors and lawyers and newspaper publishers go to school, and they're spending up to $20,000 a year for every child. So I mean, if you know the numbers, you can't get them out of your mind, and you look at the little kids in front of you and you say, "these are marvelous kids, but in the eyes of America, these are only $8,000 kids. If I want to see some $20,000 kids, I have to go out to a white suburb."
RAY SUAREZ: Now, look we've just begun this interview, and you've given us some very grim statistics. Yet, in reading the book and I've read your earlier works. It's a much more optimistic and hopeful portrait of these children's' lives, even with all the challenges they face.
JONATHAN KOZOL: There's a reason. Number one: A lot of these kids are lucky that they go to PS 30, which really is a good school. And despite all the inequalities and all the statistics, there's a marvelous principal there named Mrs. Rosa, a Puerto Rican woman who has all the sort of Old Testament passion, that my Jewish grandmother had, and she's attracted a great faculty. In fact, most of her faculty are good enough to teach in excellent suburban schools at much higher salary, and they stay there out of dedication to the kids. That's one reason the book is hopeful. Another reason is that these are rather young children. They're mostly five, six, up to maybe 11, at the oldest. Pineapple, who's sort of the little girl who takes over the book, is eight years old when I meet her. And they're still innocent, and they are still very sweet, and they don't yet understand that their country maybe doesn't like them very much.And so in that innocence, they are as joyful and jubilant, and funny, and unpredictable as children anywhere, and labels do not fit these kids.
You know, I go to conferences and I hear think-tank experts in Washington or elsewhere talking about these kids and sort of slapping labels on them, and they describe them as "premature adults" or "precocious criminals," or awful words like that. No labels fit these kids. They're not all angels, they're not all saints, but they're certainly not precocious criminals either. They're sweet children by and large. They're not poster children for the poor. They're not like all perfect, cute little kids. Some of them are maddening and some of them could drive you crazy, but basically in their intimate variety, they're like children anywhere. The only way that they may differ somewhat from most kids that I know in the United States is in their religious devotion. They're some of the most religious kids I've ever met. They are Christian children, and I happen to be Jewish. And it's sort of... and it gets me into funny situations because the children will sometimes ask me if I'll pray with them, and I tend to hesitate, partly because of the difference in our religion, but partly also because I've spent a lot of my life pretending to be more sophisticated and urbane than I really am.
RAY SUAREZ: Oh, but that got to you. It sounds like that got to you.
JONATHAN KOZOL: It did get to me. When I was young, I was religious. I had a strong Jewish upbringing, and my grandma and my mother were very religious-- my mom's still alive. But when I went to Harvard, it kind of got washed out of me, partly because people made fun of you in college. If you said you believed in God, they would look at you clinically, you know, suggest that you needed a referral. So I kind of learned to be detached about these things for years. Now, when the children look at me and this little boy Elio-- is a very tender little boy, Puerto Rican boy-- looks up at me and says, "can we pray?" Or "will you pray with me?" I do pray with him. And in a way, I feel grateful that they've given back to me something that I lost years ago when I was at Harvard University trying to pretend to be sophisticated.
So in a way, the book is about the ordinary resurrections of these little kids, but it's personal, too, because I feel a kind of rebirth when I'm with them. Now, one personal reason which kind of comes through, I hope, clearly in the book, is that when I leave them, I go back to Boston, where my mom and dad live, and they're elderly. My mother's 96, my father has Alzheimer's, is in a nursing home. So when I'm with my folks, inevitably I'm thinking of the ends of things. But while I'm with the children, I'm thinking of the beginnings of things. And you know, I wish I could believe in immortality the way the children do, but to me, the children are the only immortality I'm sure of.
And so I guess, in a way, I cling to them when I'm most scared. I have some friends still who went to Harvard with me, who are some of the very powerful people in New York now, and they'll sometimes say to me, "gee, it's nice you, at your age"-- I'm 63 now-- they'll say "it's nice at your age you still like to do that." You know, because this is how I lived when I was 29, when I was a young teacher in the civil rights days. They'll say, "it's nice you do that." And they say it as though I were doing a favor for these kids. You know, they say, "it's nice you like to go up there to the Bronx and spend your whole days with these kids." And they make it sound as though I had a bag of colonial blessings that I'd collected in Harvard Square and I'm going to go up there and sprinkle them amongst the children of the poor. It's not like that at all.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, the blessings were moving in two directions in your book. Jonathan Kozol, thanks a lot for being with us.
JONATHAN KOZOL: Thank you for having me. Thank you.