Children find hope even among savage inequities

ORDINARY RESURRECTIONS: CHILDREN IN THE YEARS OF HOPE By Jonathan Kozol Crown 388 pp., $25

In New York's South Bronx, a seven-year-old boy named Elio could find many things to be sad about. He and his mother live in one of the poorest and most segregated concentrations of blacks and Hispanics in the United States. His father lives hundreds of miles away in a state prison. And because he is very small for his age, he must endure the teasing of older boys who pick on him.

Yet Elio exhibits a sweetness and a faith that transcend his circumstances. When a classmate who often taunts him dissolves into tears over a sadness of his own, Elio comforts him. On another occasion, when Elio misses his father, he says shyly, "I've been giving my prayers to God."

Prayers are, in fact, a "pervasive part of life" for many of the children Jonathan Kozol portrays in his luminous and deeply moving book, "Ordinary Resurrections." Despite the heavy burdens they bear, many of these young students remain generous and kind, teaching Kozol - and his readers - touching lessons about the redemptive power of hope and courage and faith.

For more than 30 years, Kozol has been pricking the nation's conscience by writing impassioned books about the downtrodden and dispossessed - the homeless, the poor, the marginally educated for whom injustice and inequality exist as daily facts of life.

Now, he is focusing on the poorest children. During several years of conversations in a public elementary school and a church-based after-school program, he catches them as they "start to poke around into the world and figure out what possibilities for hope and happiness it holds."

Or doesn't hold. Families in the Mott Haven neighborhood often subsist on about $10,000 a year. Seventy-five percent of the residents are unemployed. About a quarter of the fathers are now in prison or have been. A third of the children in one school have respiratory problems, the result, in part, of ugly garbage and recycling facilities. Deliberately built far from the leafy suburbs of the privileged, they con-taminate the air poor children breathe.

Quietly and systematically, through the innocent voices and astute observations of the children, Kozol documents the injustices of "apartheid education."

The South Bronx spends only about $5,200 on each student in ordinary classrooms in public elementary schools. In Westchester County, that figure soars to at least $12,000.

Kozol subtly indicts politicians and business leaders who look at the color of a child's face and imagine not potential but limitation.

"Why," he asks, "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?"

He also regrets a pervasive emphasis on the supposed "differentness" of inner-city children. As he points out, the "ordinary things they long for, and things they find funny, and dream of, and games they play, and animals they wish they could have, and things they like to eat, clothes they wish they could afford, are not as different as the world seems to believe from what most other children in this land enjoy, or dream of, or desire."

Business leaders also talk confidently about how the right kind of investments in the early years will be cost effective. But as Kozol dryly observes, this bottom-line mentality "seems a peculiar way to speak of children."

By contrast, Kozol speaks of the children he befriends with respect and love. He admires Elio's imagination and curiosity, 10-year-old Ariel's unselfishness, and seven-year-old Jefferson's shyness and sweet sadness.

With his eloquent writing, his listening ear, his caring and compassionate heart, Kozol gives voice to all the Elios and Ariels and Jeffersons living in poor neighborhoods everywhere.

Despite the inequities these children of the South Bronx face, Kozol finds reason for hope in many places: In the loyal teachers who buy textbooks out of their own meager paychecks. In the devoted mothers who, against all evidence within their neighborhood, nurture ambitions for their children. In the pastor and the courageous older women who staff the after-school program at St. Ann's Episcopal Church.

Above all, Kozol finds hope and inspiration in the children themselves, with their hopes and prayers and touching innocence. Day after day, whatever their hardships, they dry their tears, put on their bravest smiles, and go on.

Only the most dispassionate readers will be able to finish this book without an occasional lump in their throat or tears in their eyes. Kozol deserves a lifetime-achievement award for his tireless advocacy of those often rendered invisible in a prosperous society.

Drawing on a theme from the New Testament about the "strait gate," he sums up the children's need this way: "There should not be two gates to the riches of this kingdom. There should not be a narrow gate for children of the poor, a wide and open gate for children of the fortunate and favored. There should be one gate. It should be known to everyone."

*Marilyn Gardner is on the Monitor staff.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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