A Conversation With Kozol – author Jonathan Kozol

A Conversation With Kozol – author Jonathan Kozol – Interview

In a one on one with AASA’s Paul Houston, the acclaimed author discusses compromises in public leadership and his renewed hopes for the disenfranchised

Child advocate and best-selling author Jonathan Kozol has begun to worry that he doesn’t have the stamina to keep up the pace he’s set for himself for the last 35 years.

He’s in the final stages of a 10-week, coast-to-coast tour organized by Crown Publishing to promote his newest book, Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope. One week he is in Seattle. The day before it was New York City and a tour of P.S. 30, the backdrop for Ordinary Resurrections. There he introduced Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., to the children who have become so much a part of his life, although he’s beginning to suspect he can’t keep up with them indefinitely.

There has been an endless stream of press conferences and speaking engagements extending well into the fall. Throw in a fancy party hosted by financier Roger Altman in honor of the new book. (Parties always take a lot out of him, the unassuming and reflective author admits.)

Kozol, a former teacher in classrooms ranging from the impoverished Roxbury neighborhood in Boston to the affluent suburb of Newton, Mass., has earned a distinguished place in the collective conscience of America. His chronicles of the searing inequities of public education in our society, from Death at an Early Age in 1967 to Savage inequalities in 1991 and Amazing Grace in 1995, challenge us all and educators in particular to acknowledge past failures and future responsibilities to the academic success of every child.

Ordinary Resurrections takes a very different tack, however. This time, instead of giving us his own compelling narrative, Kozol says he basically shut up and let the poetry of the children in one profoundly poor and segregated South Bronx, N.Y., neighborhood speak for themselves. Some of these children attend Public School 30, a school serving 900 youngsters in grades K-8. Although part of the building is nearly 100 years old and its material resources are few, many vignettes reveal how a determined, loving and committed principal, Aida Rosa, has made it one of the best-performing schools in the district.

The other children’s stories come to life at the Episcopal St. Ann’s of Morrisania Church, which runs an after-school program that provides the “unusual experience of physical and moral safety,” along with supplementary classes and computer training, adult help for completing homework, honest and respectful advice and comfort as needed, and supper. The pastor, the Rev. Martha Overall, harbors 80 children every afternoon-and sometimes into the early morning as well.

Be forewarned that listening to Kozol speak of these children may bring them actively into your consciousness for years to come–children like Pineapple, a 5th-grader who can be sarcastic and bossy, but who also dispenses an automatic and insightful kindness” to other children and is capable of “hospitable sweetness that is surprisingly mature.”

Or a child like 7-year-old Elio, small in stature and given to tears, who is teased unmercifully by other children and has limited defense mechanisms for coping. Yet when one of his tormentors, 8-year-old Otto, suddenly begins to cry for his dead brother, Elio spontaneously reaches out to comfort him.

As Kozol himself says, he’s not a dewy-eyed romantic about the daily and sometimes overwhelming problems school superintendents face in impoverished districts. He recognizes the compromises that must be made in the hopes of improving the skewed educational opportunities of the students in that district–and the abrasive effect these realities can have on the vision and enthusiasm that bring men and women to this profession in the first place. In part, it would seem, Kozol offers them Ordinary Resurrections as an antidote.

Excerpts from Kozol’s recent interview with AASA Executive Director Paul Houston follow. The complete interview appears on the magazine’s Web site (www.aasa.org/sa/contents.htm).

PAUL HOUSTON: You’ve been “accused” of being a prophet.

JONATHAN KOZOL: I’m not a prophet, but I’m a witness.

HOUSTON: What did you witness that compelled you to write this book?

KOZOL: It says in the Bible, when there is no vision, the people perish. And I think a really great school administrator needs a profound vision of justice to prevail. To bring it down to the level of a single school building, I think a wonderful principal or teacher is like the pastor of a church. In this book, in the chapter called “Imaginary Music,” I talk about watching a 3rd-grade teacher, April Gamble, one of those lovely, sparkling, young teachers who’s just in love with the children. The kids were getting noisy, and she pretended she was playing an imaginary flute, and they quieted down and imitated her. It touched me so much.

And I suddenly thought: She has that same glow in her face that Mother Martha has when she’s about to serve Communion. I’m drawn to the beautiful things that a great teacher does, things that have less to do with mechanical proficiency than with little mysteries that I call “secular epiphanies.”

HOUSTON: I remember seeing a quote that you thought urban superintendents were necessary because citizens needed someone to die for their sins. I want to pick up on that metaphor and bring it back to your book.

KOZOL: In general, I admire urban superintendents. I’ve often said they’ve got the toughest job in America. I think it’s the same as the biblical job my ancestors had in Egypt, making bricks without straw. And some of these superintendents are very good at it. In fact, a number of them have been heroic.

I am always troubled by the casual way in which the media disparages urban school officials as though they were a bunch of idiots. Whatever the immediate victories or successes some of these people have and whatever missteps they might make, they are by and large decent, moral, dedicated people. And in seeing them at work and seeing the heartaches, I used to wonder whether any pay could make that job endurable, unless you had incredible stamina.

I think, in general, we’ve had rather impressive and unselfish people in this field. Take Chancellor Harold Levy in New York City. He came up with me to the Bronx [last spring] because he wanted to visit P.S. 30 and encourage the principal–that principal whom I had written about.

And he was great. [Levy] didn’t simply talk to the principal in her office. He said right away, “Let’s get out and see the kids.” And he was good with the children. He asked them excellent questions, and he actually listened, let them answer him.

But one thing that moved me most was, just as we were about to leave, he stopped in the corridor because he saw a custodian come out of the broom closet with a wet mop, and he spun around. He went back to him and asked him his name, introduced himself, shook hands with him and asked him what he thought about the school. I liked that. The kids at St. Ann’s, the priest at St. Ann’s, they include Chancellor Levy in their prayers. They have a special list of people they pray for, and they include him.

HOUSTON: Let me pursue that. I have said to superintendents myself that these are not jobs, these are callings. And so much of your latest work, the last couple of books at least, has such religious connotations. Can you talk about that?

KOZOL: I always think that a great teacher, like Mrs. Gamble, is redeeming all of society’s sins every time she stands there and writes on the blackboard, and she puts three exclamation points at the end and turns around to the kids and stoops down next to a little boy who is crying.

I guess the experts would call this the affective side of teaching. All that jubilation, all that delectable pleasure that the teachers and the kids take in one another and the indescribable chemistry that ties them to each other is something that you really can’t learn in any methods course.

And it’s something I very seldom see described in any political demand for standards and exams and benchmarks and competencies and so forth. It’s at another level. It doesn’t get talked about enough. But I think great teaching, just like the work of a principal or administrator, has a transcendental quality to it. For the record, I’ve not relented in my strong feelings about the division of church and state. That’s why I used the term “secular epiphanies.”

HOUSTON: Is that why you chose the title, Ordinary Resurrections?

KOZOL: Yes. I picked the title because of my belief that the victories of the heart that we see in children or their teachers, on any average day, are like little miracles. Not all of them are grand enough to be called resurrections.

Many of these kids have heavy hearts. A quarter of the children I know have daddies in prison. There’s one child whose father’s been in prison the whole seven years I’ve known him, until just two months ago. And every time the teacher is able to turn a sorrow into a smile, to me that’s a little resurrection.

I feel this in a very personal way. I’ve gone into one of these schools in a state of great discouragement, despair even, after I’ve been on Capitol Hill, and had to go through the ritualistic futility of testifying in front of members of the House or Senate and being patted on the head, then gently told that I’m a bit too impatient and we should wait another 25 years for Head Start for all the children.

And, you know, I feel my heart sinking, and I get on the shuttle and I get back to the Bronx as fast as I can. And after two hours with a child like Pineapple, I feel recharged for the next bout.

HOUSTON: We talked after publication of your book Amazing Grace. You were down.

KOZOL: I was in despair.

HOUSTON: So, has this more recent experience resurrected you?

KOZOL: Well, we live in a funny age where it’s very difficult to say things like that about yourself without immediately setting yourself up for the satire of the over-civilized, the clever folks who used to make fun of me in college if I professed a faith in God.

But, in fact, I feel like a new person after these past seven years in the South Bronx. And I feel so lucky that I have the strength and time to go back there, without any agenda, and just open myself up to the healing possibilities of being with the children and never being in a hurry.

HOUSTON: In all your previous books, you’ve carried the children on your shoulders. This time you let them put you on their shoulders.

KOZOL: Yes. They carry me along in a lot of sweet ways. It’s funny how life reverses itself, isn’t it? My father took care of me his whole life, and now I take care of him. I buy his shirts, talk to his doctor. And in the same way, the kids have been a great comfort to me.

Even sometimes in ways that are just plain funny and silly. One day, Pineapple looked at my suit, and she noticed it was all covered with specks. So Pineapple said, “What’s this?” And she looked critical–just like my mother would actually. And I said, “I was in kindergarten, in art class.” And she said, “It doesn’t look nice, you know.”

Anthony, the boy I wrote about in Amazing Grace, is now nearly grown up. And if he sees me being rough on myself, like on days when I forget to eat, he’ll say, “Don’t do that to yourself.” And then there’s Elio, the little boy whose father is in prison, who would comfort me when I was worried about my father. And I’m grateful for all of that.

HOUSTON: I thought Ordinary Resurrections was by far the most hopeful, positive thing that you’ve written.

KOZOL: It’s also the book in which my relationship with the children is most clearly delineated, and for that reason I think the children really dominate this book.

HOUSTON: They took the book from you.

KOZOL: Yes. This time, the children, effectively, told me to shut up and let them have their say. I found it easy to do that because they’re so interesting. Pineapple’s cousin once told me she dreamed she was having dinner with God. I said, “Did you go out to a restaurant?” She said, “No, in heaven you order out.”

That kind of thing, the vitality of her imagination, seems to me to speak for itself. So, I’ve tried to keep as quiet as I could in this book. As a result, I think it’s the first book I’ve written in which children come across, not as symbolic victims or symbolic heroes, but just children in their infinite diversity.

HOUSTON: You’ve gone to great lengths to make clear that the children you write about live in places where many of us probably wouldn’t want our children to live. Why is that important?

KOZOL: Well, it’s important because we’ve created almost an intellectual industry out of portraying inner-city children as virtually a separate species, different in all ways from “ordinary” middle-class white children. For this reason, we believe they should be treated differently. Schools of education teach courses on the urban child and his or her unique deficiencies or problems or deficits.

And even though we now use euphemistic phrases like “at risk,” these are all color-coded phrases. We really mean black and Hispanic kids and we imagine dysfunctional families. The truth is, they don’t all have dysfunctional families.

There’s no question the conditions of their lives are terribly different, but in their personalities, in their longings, in their whimsical meanderings and reflections, they don’t seem to me very different from any other kids in America. The trouble with the labels that we plaster on these kids, and the ways we overemphasize their differentness, is that it seems to justify keeping them separate.

HOUSTON: Are you saying, we’re emphasizing the differences in the children instead of the conditions?

KOZOL: That’s it. We’re implying the differences are somehow inherent in the children. As a most sinister side effect of this, we end up finding a justification to keep them in segregated schools, in what I call “neighborhoods of sequestration.”

HOUSTON: So, as long as they’re different, we can label them.

KOZOL: Right. And then we can treat them differently. And we can even appear benevolent about it. We can even say, all right, we’ll give them a pitifully little extra program suitable to children who are allegedly culturally deprived. There’s seldom much substance in these programs.

I think the main effect of the labels is to provide justification for perpetuating race and class separation. And I think that’s a dirty little secret that almost nobody in urban education wants to talk about, not even some of the best school officials that I meet. They tend to share my feelings, but I think they know the press doesn’t want them to talk about that.

I said in one of my early books that, to some degree, urban school officials know that their unstated job description is to mediate injustice.

HOUSTON: Your books have always affected me very emotionally. But this book affected me emotionally with tears of a very different nature. I found I was responding to the beauty of the book. And I think, personally, that it’s your most poetic outing. Do you agree with that, and if yes, why do you think that’s so?

KOZOL: I think it’s because this book is less about issues than it is about aesthetics. For example, I don’t say a great deal about how the after-school program at St. Ann’s actually functions. It’s a good program, but it’s the aesthetics of the situation that I loved.

Mother Martha has done a great deal to make the church a physically and spiritually beautiful place for children. It’s as close as you’ll come to the Garden of Eden in any inner-city neighborhood I know. And it’s healing, like The Secret Garden–one of my favorite books.

In a sense, the church is Mother Martha’s poetry. She makes every day into a lyrical experience. And the children are like little poets, too, and they add their own beauty to it.

When Elio pats Otto’s hand when Otto is crying for his brother, to me, that’s pure poetry. It’s poetry as it transpires. All you have to do is write it down.

Some of these kids–like Otto–have a lot of problems, and I describe what they are in the book. These are not poster children for the poor. They’re not always glorious, sweet little lambs. Otto really is a lot to handle. He can really drive people–including the other children–nuts.

But there was the day when he looked up at a stained-glass window of an angel, and he said, “I know someone up there,” And Elio said, “Who?” And Otto said, “My brother,” who had been essentially decapitated at age 14 while “surfing the subway”–riding on the outside, on top of a subway car, on a dare. And Elio, who had been teased by Otto so many, many times, forgot all that and reached out and patted Otto’s hand.

Now, as witness to moments like that, I didn’t have to draw much upon my four years of English literature at Harvard University. I don’t think I get any credit for the poetic tone in this book. At one point I quote somebody who said, “The Holy Water blesses the children who receive it, but the smiles of the children bless the priest who gives it.” And that symmetry is all through the book, I think.

HOUSTON: You’ve used the term “secular epiphanies,” and now I want to pick up on that a bit and ask about forgiveness. Is there a place for forgiveness of how we treat these children?

KOZOL: No. Not from my point of view. The fact that they can be forgiving of us is a tribute to their character…. I, personally, don’t think we ought to forgive ourselves for the way we shortchange these children. … We say all children are of equal value in the eyes of God. Every religion says that. And they are, I’m sure, in the eyes of God, but they’re not in the eyes of the United States. It’s inexplicable to me that thoughtful people can justify that, and still pretend we live in a real democracy.

HOUSTON: We are in an era of accountability, high-stakes testing. The sense is that we have to have high standards, and anything less than that for these poor kids is somewhat racist and inappropriate. I get accused, and I’m sure you do, too, that by pointing out contextual differences we’re somehow excusing the kids in the process. What do you say to that?

KOZOL: Well, first of all, it’s an utterly dishonest forensic strategy for the usual think-tank conservatives to say we’re excusing poor performance in inner-city children if we talk about the fact that they’re getting less than half as much put into their schooling each year as rich kids are getting. Its not excusing it.

I’m very tough with kids. I excuse nothing. I’m simply explaining it, and explaining it in the one form that racists and neo-conservatives don’t like. …

As a diagnostic tool for a teacher, testing can be very useful. It’s also a good warning sign for a community to see the grades of their school compared to those of other schools in other neighborhoods.

And if they study those differences very sharply, they’ll usually find they correlate closely with income and with per-pupil spending. So if tests are interpreted in a sophisticated way, they could actually have a healthy political effect on parents of poor children. It might make them better advocates.

But it’s not working that way. Instead, it’s being used as a club with which to beat our victims over the head after we have missed the opportunity to give them a fair chance of winning. That’s why it’s hypocritical in its present form.

It’s unacceptable to deny kids like Pineapple the preparation and the resources other kids have. In the past two years, she had six teachers. Six teachers, in 4th and 5th grade. And, now, we give her a test, and it’s, “Sorry, sorry, little girl, but if you fail this test, we’re going to hold you accountable, and we’re going to make you sweat it out all summer in the same building, so you can have six more weeks of the same misery you’ve already had for six years.

“And, then, we’ll do it again in 7th grade or 9th grade, and if you don’t shape up in 12th grade, you’ll not get a diploma. Or else, maybe by middle school, we can convince you, by enough failure, to settle for our school-to-work program instead because we do need people to empty bed pans.”

It’s a color-coded agenda to some degree. I also think that the use of tests as a punitive instrument totally separate from any emphasis on equal resources is a way of humiliating urban school teachers by reinforcing the already widely prevalent belief of conservatives that our public school teachers are incompetent.

Every time the test scores are published in the newspapers, everyone reads them. Everyone looks to see how their school is doing. The causes of these disparities will never be aired, but the results will be there. So you’ll get some minority parents who will say, “Hey, maybe at least we could get 200 of our kids out into a little voucher school.” It fosters a lifeboat mentality.

HOUSTON: What do you say to folks who say, “Well, yeah, but look at this inner-city school over here that’s doing wonderfully”?

KOZOL: The heroic exceptions are usually highlighted in the media, not with the serious notion that they represent replicable models, but in order to humiliate the others. And also in order to convey the utterly inaccurate idea that you don’t need more resources to change anything because this one exciting school principal prevailed.

The school I described in my book, P.S. 30, is a pretty good inner-city school, and Aida Rosa is one of the best principals I’ve ever seen. But she alone, and even her good faculty, cannot reverse the gross disadvantages that are created by the economics of school finance and the demographics of apartheid. Over the past five years, on average, her school has been among the top schools in the district in its scores. Even so, her scores are far below those of the average suburban elementary school. And she’s the first one to say it.

A charismatic principal can work temporary miracles in one place at one time. But a good society can’t be built on miracles. It’s far too random. Miss Rosa says again and again, “I cannot single handedly reverse these inequalities,” and that takes guts to say, because a principal who will pretend that she can do it without money is highly valued by the mainstream press in this country. That’s what they love to hear.

HOUSTON: Let me shake it up a bit. A lot of superintendents are saying, “All right, we’re going to do the test scores, we’re going to raise everybody above average,” because that’s the politically correct thing to say. That’s the thing that saves your job.

KOZOL: Virtually every superintendent I know feels obliged to buy into it. It’s a terribly hard struggle. But I think that if empirically measured standards have any possible benefit to poor children, it’s simply in this respect-that they may serve as a lever with which to force the issue of equity. If that doesn’t happen, then it will simply have been another episode of cyclical meanness at the expense of children.

HOUSTON: Let’s come back to your view of the role of the business community in shaping the agenda and the curriculum in schools. I’ve heard some of my members say, “Well, our customers are the business community.”

KOZOL: I think it’s abhorrent to perceive a child as though she existed chiefly to serve the world of business. There’s something vile about devaluing a child’s worth in that way. These children do not exist to sharpen America’s competitive edge. There’s a long section of Ordinary Resurrections called the “Details of Life,” which is about this issue.

Schools should not go down on bended knee to the world of business, as if to say, “We are prepared to serve these children to you on a platter, so they may be of use to you.” That’s not why God created children. It ought to be the other way around. Business ought to be serving the needs of children.

The trouble is that if your eyes are always on a distant outcome, like the results on an exam, you’re looking so far out to the horizon that you’ll never see the fissure in the rock right beside you, which is the unexpected moment when the child lets you see his actual potential.

Anthony used to invert his syntax when he talked to me. If I had been busy in an overcrowded classroom, I would never have had time to stop and realize that he was doing this intentionally. He got this from reading poetry and the Bible. When I asked him where he got the books he read, he said, “In little stores.” I asked him what kind of little stores. And he said, instead of answering me, “Many good things have I found in little stores.”

It took a lot of listening to realize that there was somebody there who was gifted-it wasn’t showing up in any of the standardized testing. If you went by the high-stakes tests that he was given, he would never have had any chance of a college career. Mother Martha told me that when he was in 9th grade, people were beginning to talk about the limits of his options and the likelihood of a school-to-work program for him.

Thanks to the generosity of a wealthy friend, I was able to take Anthony up to a New England prep school. The headmaster looked at his test scores and said Anthony could never survive there. But then they spent a day together and the headmaster called me up and said, “I want him.” You see? Because he took the time to discover something other than what could be measured.

This was a good prep school–it cost more than $30,000 a year. And he survived. He did it. And even with that, his math SATs were not good. But he’s become a marvelous writer, and he’s performed in Shakespearean plays…. The sky’s the limit for this wonderful boy.

[But] the future dreamers and prophets and poets are going to get marginalized by high-stakes tests. And they’re also going to be ridden with anxiety, which may compel them to conform more than they ought to…

HOUSTON: Talk a bit more about your focus on the resurrection metaphor.

KOZOL: The resurrection metaphor as I use it in this book is an extension of Mother Martha’s religious imagery, which even an old-fashioned Jewish guy like me can appreciate.

I think many superintendents, in order to survive, repeatedly find themselves making necessary compromises and they are troubled by having to concede more ground than they would like. But the ability to keep re-examining critically the degree to which we make these compromises and to get angry at ourselves when we do is the best kind of rebirth for a superintendent.

Hopefully, they have time to rethink these compromises while they’re still in power, while they’re still in office, and don’t wait to do that until they’re at universities 10 years later. It’s important that they be candid with themselves while they still have power. And I think, every time they do that, it renews their commitment to the values they started out with.

The best way superintendents can keep themselves honest and their spirits vigorous is by watching carefully their use of language. Whenever they find themselves falling into the technocratic managerial jargon that the newspapers value, that’s when they ought to get worried.

It’s very easy nowadays to fall into a kind of knee-jerk jargon-I call it the disease of hyphenated nouns. Some of those words mean something, and some of them don’t. I just think it’s very easy to fall into a kind of impersonal, brittle, mercantile vocabulary that doesn’t have anything to do with children, love, hate, life, death or, frankly, anything of substance-except efficiency.

We do want our administrators to be efficient. God knows we can’t afford to waste a cent in these days of high accountability, and I applaud those who can run a tight ship.

But when they can’t get through a sentence without “accountability” or “benchmarks” or “competencies” or “performance-referenced standards,” then it’s time to get down and pray for some tactical guidance from the god of vigorous verbs and honest nouns. I do think [such] language can deaden our Souls.

Kozol to Kick Off AASA Confab

Jonathan Kozol will be the keynote presenter at the 1st General Session of AASA’s 2001 National Conference on Education in Orlando.

Kozol is expected to address some of the themes covered in this interview. He will speak on Feb. 16.

He also is expected to sign copies of his latest book, Ordinary Resurrections, for those attending the conference.

Further details about the national conference can be found at www.aasa.org. The deadline for $100 savings on registration is Nov. 30.

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