At the heart of no ordinary crusade
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."Skip to next paragraph
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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.