NEW YORK — When the fifth-grade class graduated from PS 30 in one of New York's most impoverished neighborhoods last month, an eminent author served as the keynote speaker at the ceremony. To the outside world he's known as Jonathan Kozol, writer and crusader for social justice. But for the students, the celebrity at the lectern was simply their friend. Yet despite the warmth of the occasion, Mr. Kozol made no effort to sugarcoat the speech he directed at his young friends, almost all of whom are Hispanic or black. "Every year at commencement time we have a lot of slogans," he told them. "But you are going to have to study very hard to win the prize. In this unequal society of ours, you're not going to be able to get by with slogans."
Kozol did sweeten his message with at least one reassuring promise. "You're going to have plenty of allies," he told them. "I'll be your ally, too. I'll be with you at every step."
Championing the powerless - and gaining them access and an audience through his own words - has been the work of a lifetime for Kozol.
He began in 1967 with "Death at an Early Age" - a powerful account of a year he spent teaching at an inner-city Boston school. He has continued to write about educational inequity, the homeless, and children who live in poverty. His latest book, "Ordinary Resurrections," is a moving tribute to the inner lives of the children he has come to know at several schools and an after-school church program in the South Bronx neighborhood of Mott Haven.
Throughout the years, the constant in Kozol's work has been his ability to give a voice, along with complexity and richness of character, to those unable to tell their own stories. This has been particularly true of his work with school-age children, who appear in his books with a charm made all the more poignant by the bleak surroundings in which they live.
'To change the world'
Some recent press accounts have portrayed Kozol as deeply discouraged by the fact that over more than 30 years, America's cities and their schools have not been able to rescue such children from the poverty and racism he first wrote about in "Death at an Early Age."
"I wrote [it] to change the world," he confesses, looking a bit bemused at the memory of his early idealism.
Some critics have also suggested that he has focused to a fault on the themes of racism and injustice, making his books too similar in approach. Kozol defends his relentless pursuit, saying that unchanged conditions justify his ongoing concern.
But he denies that he has become embittered by the failure of his books to change the world. He has come to accept, he says, the poet W.H. Auden's assertion that "poetry makes nothing happen."
"Nothing," he admits, might be an overstatement when it comes to the impact of his books. He has been pleased over the years to hear from philanthropists moved to give and teachers who went into the profession after reading his works.
That doesn't mean Kozol feels less passionate about reforming what he sees as the entrenched injustice of the US education system, funded largely by property taxes and often segregated by housing.
"It is the greatest disappointment of my life that our Northern schools are still separate and far less equal," he says. In some ways, he believes, racism is a worse problem than ever in cities like New York.
"The hearts of white people have grown cold," he says. And while he is somewhat encouraged by the good intentions of many of his readers and other would-be reformers he meets, he is quick to add that, "Charity is no substitute for justice."
Kozol was born into a world far different from the ones he has spent his life portraying. The son of an eminent psychiatrist, he attended private school and studied literature with the poet Archibald MacLeish at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. He also studied at Oxford University in England as a Rhodes scholar, and then spent some time living in Paris trying to make a living as a novelist. ("I wrote quite intense and rather miserable fiction in Paris," he remembers now.)
But it was in the summer of 1964, after he had returned to Boston, that he found his calling. That was the Freedom Summer, when college students across the United States poured into southern cities and towns to help register black voters.
Kozol, moved by events, took the subway out to the largely black Boston community of Roxbury, and asked a local clergyman what he could do to help.
He was directed to a summer program for fourth- and fifth-graders. In their company, Kozol discovered both a gift and a love for teaching. He spent much of the next 10 years in various classrooms, horrifying his parents who had hoped to see him study medicine or law. (They've since become proud and supportive of his work, he adds, and even marched in protest when the Boston schools fired him for stepping outside the curriculum to read Langston Hughes poems in class.)
But what most shocked Kozol was the idea that the children he came to deeply care for would not have the same opportunities offered to those growing up in more affluent areas. Racism, he came to believe, was at the root of the inequities in the US public school system.
"Whatever sadness I have today comes from still seeing apartheid at work in our society," he says. "I still want to see the day that Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream is realized, and black and white children 'will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.' "
Structures for equality
If Kozol had his way, he would shift responsibility for education funding from the local to the federal level, and distribute resources for all schools with "absolute equality." Then he'd create legislation to change real estate patterns and guarantee all children three years of Head Start early-childhood education.
Kozol has some ambitions yet to achieve, he insists. He'd like to return to teaching for at least one more year, and he'd like to write a children's book about his golden retriever, Sweetie Pie.
He is happy with the choices he has made for his professional life. "Maybe I wouldn't have been good at anything else. Perhaps I wouldn't have succeeded at any of the things my father wanted me to do."
The one thing he is sure of, he says, is the value of what the company of children has brought to him. Kozol, who was briefly married in the 1970s, has no children. "This hasn't been any kind of a sacrifice," he insists. "I was happiest in my life when I was about eight years old. I guess it's not surprising that I enjoy being with [children that age]. There's something about them that makes you feel their divinity."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society