As the road slopes up into a curve, on the right you'll see a stone wall. Behind that wall is a house that looks like a nutshell, with diamond-shaped windows. That's where my dog and I live," explains Jonathan Kozol, giving a visitor directions to his home in Byfield, a small, sleepy town near Boston's north shore. "There's no bell, so yell when you arrive." Every bit as eccentric and appealing as its description, Kozol's shingled house has an intriguingly unorthodox shape and walkways bordering numerous sides, making it difficult to know where to direct a yell. Luckily, PW is rescued by our host, who has found us wandering in the early spring drizzle--on the exact opposite side of the house from where we should be.
Casually clad in corduroys, sneakers and a blue, collared shirt with sleeves rolled up to his elbows, Kozol is accompanied by his beloved companion, Sweetie Pie, a seven-year-old golden retriever who offers an eager welcome. Her owner leads the way through the comfortably cluttered kitchen of his 1760 home ("I haven't found the toaster oven in quite some time, since it's buried under manuscripts," quips Kozol) to a cozy living room lined with shelves and cartons filled with books. On the walls hang such diverse items as a photograph of Langston Hughes, a framed birthday greeting to Sweetie Pie from Fred Rogers and a sampling of artwork created by some of Kozol's young friends who attend the after-school program at St. Ann's church in the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx, one of this country's most impoverished neighborhoods.
These children are the focus of his latest book, Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope, (Crown). Though the book revisits the inner-city setting of Kozol's hard-hitting 1995 bestseller, Amazing Grace: The Lives of Childrenand the Conscience of a Nation, its tone and perspective mark a departure for this passionate, articulate critic of our country's social and educational systems. The resonant voices and endearing actions of a group of Mott Haven elementary school students propel the narrative of Kozol's new work, which he conceived several years back, just about the time he turned 60.
"After Amazing Grace left the bestseller lists and the commotion over the book died down, I found myself exhausted, physically and emotionally, and I came home to try to make an assessment of my own life," recalls Kozol in a gentle, gravelly voice, as he settles into the corner of a well-worn sofa. At the same time, his father, for 50 years a Boston neurologist and psychiatrist whom Kozol describes as "a charming and deeply intellectual man," was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and entered a nursing home, where he remains today. His mother, now 96, was growing quite frail and it was necessary to find people to take care of her in her apartment. "I was weary already, but I suddenly became very reflective. I realized that to some degree I'd lived my whole life as though I'd always be young and my parents would always be youthful and strong. And for the first time, it dawned on me that this wasn't true, that I was eventually going to lose my two best friends in the world and that I wouldn't live forever myself."
Kozol decided to return to Mott Haven, where he found, in his words, "my own renewal in the friendship of these children at a time when I was feeling so low in spirit. Their generosity of spirit, religious faith and refusal to give in to despair in the face of all the obstacles that our society has placed in front of them stirred me tremendously. I decided that I wanted to carve out a few years to enjoy these kids for their own sake, without any political agenda."
This was, according to Kozol, an unprecedented move for him as an author; he acknowledges that all of his earlier books "had a very clear agenda." Without a pause, he rattles off each: "Death at an Early Age was about racial segregation in Boston. Illiterate America was about grownups who can't read. Rachel and Her Children was about people who were homeless in the middle of Manhattan. Savage Inequalities was about school finance and Amazing Grace primarily dealt with medical and social injustices in New York. But with Ordinary Resurrections, I had no predetermined agenda. When I met with the children, I was not in pursuit of any line of thinking. In our conversations, I let them lead me where they wanted to go. I did my best now and then to steer them to something I found interesting, but they were very good at subverting all my intentions."
Though Kozol describes his most recent book as "my least polemical," he believes it is "implicitly the most political of any I've ever written, because once you see the tremendous intellectual energy and moral courage of a child like Pineapple, a marvelous little girl who has the humor of Whoopi Goldberg and the manipulative skills of Oprah Winfrey, you become all the more enraged that New York City has virtually doomed her to a lesser destiny than that of almost any suburban child in America."
In Ordinary Resurrections, Kozol effectively uses the words and personal stories of Pineapple and other remarkably insightful and perceptive youngsters as a springboard to discuss the grim issues and wrenching statistics that shadow their lives. "Many of these children only see their fathers when they visit them in prison, which makes one wonder what we are doing to make sure that these children themselves will not end up in prison," says Kozol. "Of the 2,000 students at Morris High School in Mott Haven, 1,200 are in the ninth grade and only 90 make it to the 12th grade. Only 65 are likely to graduate. In many of the high schools in the South Bronx, more children will end up in prison than will go to college. What kind of society would spend only $5,000 a year on an elementary school student, yet will spend $93,000 a year to keep that juvenile in a detention center if, 10 years later, in their rage at an unjust society, they've gone out and committed a terrible crime? To me that d sn't sound like a democracy, it d sn't sound like sanity and it d sn't sound like a Judeo-Christian society."
Wending His Way to the South Bronx
Kozol's attention is diverted to Sweetie-Pie, who, unable to contain her excitement at a guest's presence, repeatedly jumps down from her favorite armchair to beg for attention. "She is so charming I just can't concentrate," confesses her obviously enamored
owner, who stops the conversation for a moment while he ushers his pet outdoors. "She loves to play in the back yard, but we'll have to trick her into thinking we're staying out here with her." Sweetie-Pie spies a rabbit and the ruse works; as she bounds across the lawn, Kozol sneaks back inside. Returning to his spot on the sofa, the author pours himself coffee from a small thermos and tackles a rather unwieldy question: by what path did he find himself at the door of St. Ann's church?
Kozol describes himself as "one of those fortunate Americans who grew up in a wealthy suburb, Newton, Mass. My parents were well educated and were able to give me everything in the world." When Kozol was 18, his father escorted him to his alma mater, Harvard, and introduced him to the dean of admissions, a former classmate. "I got an early taste of affirmative action--of the kind that wealthy people get all the time," he observes wryly. One of Kozol's English literature professors at Harvard, Archibald MacLeish, befriended him and recommended this promising English major for a Rhodes scholarship. After receiving his diploma in 1958, Kozol crossed the Atlantic to study at Oxford University, much to the delight of his father, whom, the author muses, "probably wanted me to be the next junior senator from Massachusetts. But I found Oxford very pretentious, and I was restless there. I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, but I did not like the sense that I was being groomed for some sort of political eminence. I also did not like the feeling that my destiny was being determined by the wishes of others."
Kozol left Oxford for Paris and within a month, with what he calls "blessed good fortune," he became friends with some fine American writers, including James Jones, who had just published From Here to Eternity. "Jim and his wife took me in and fed me that first year in Paris. I had a little room of my own in a hotel, but they nourished me and introduced me to Bill Styron and his wife. William Burroughs was living on the first floor of my hotel, writing Naked Lunch at the time. And I even met Henry Miller--though I didn't tell my mom and dad that." Though he dismisses his efforts as unsuccessful, Kozol himself dabbled in fiction for four years before returning to the United States, where he "drifted for about a year, and was just about to do what any father would want his son to do--go to graduate school."
But news from Mississippi changed the course of Kozol's life. "In the spring of 1964, three young freedom workers disappeared," he reports. "And a month or so later their bodies were found. They had been murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. I cannot explain how I felt, but I got on the subway at Harvard Square and I rode it until the end of the line, which was Roxbury. I walked into a church, and I asked the black minister there if I could be of any use. He said, 'Can you teach reading?' And I said, 'No. I went to Harvard. I don't know anything useful.' But he taught me how and I spent the summer teaching reading to children. And in the fall, I felt jealous that my kids were moving on to another teacher, so I walked into the Boston school department and said I wanted to be a teacher."
Lacking certification, Kozol was hired as a substitute teacher before landing a permanent position as a fourth-grade teacher in a north Dorchester school, whose student population was almost entirely black. Yet the job turned out to be not quite as permanent as Kozol had hoped: after a year, he was fired for reading a p m by Langston Hughes aloud to his class. The formal charge against Kozol, printed in the Boston Globe, was "curriculum deviation." In a rewarding, ironical next step, the culprit was hired by the federal government to develop a curriculum for a new program, Upward Bound. "You can be sure I put a lot of Langston Hughes into that curriculum," he says.
Death at an Early Age, Kozol's first book, grew out of his Boston teaching experiences. It was decades and several books later, visiting some of the people he'd met while researching Rachel and Her Children in New York City in the mid-1980s, that he met Mother Martha at St. Ann's in Mott Haven, a Radcliffe-educated woman who had abandoned a high-powered career as a lawyer to attend Union Theological Seminary. "Instead of talking politics with me, she introduced me to the children in her after-school program, and I couldn't resist returning again and again to talk with them."
After making 200 visits to Mott Haven and writing two books about its young residents, Kozol has hardly left Mother Martha's children behind. "Their presence is always felt here, since there is always a drawing by or a photo of some of the children around my house."
Among his treasured mementos is a framed letter, written years ago, from Anthony, a Mott Haven boy who, with Kozol's help, was accepted at a Massachusetts prep school. Kozol will speak at this college-bound young man's graduation later this spring. And a special gift from Pineapple hangs in the window behind the author's living room sofa. Turning to point out her translucent drawing of a sun, the author notes, "This window faces east, and when I'm up early enough in the morning, the light gives it an orange glow. I'm not sure if she drew it as a sunrise or a sunset, but it looks to me as though her sun is rising."
As one takes leave of this compelling and eloquent man, a sentence from Ordinary Resurrections springs to mind: "The answers I remember longest are the ones that answer questions that I didn't think of asking."