BURNING QUESTIONS Kozol's book asks why American public schools are separate and unequal


Is Jonathan Kozol the last angry man in America?

Or perhaps the better question is: Why aren't the rest of us burning in similar white-hot fury?

There are schools in America today where children put extra chicken nuggets in their pockets at Friday lunch because they know they'll be hungry over the weekend. Where teachers come in late if at all and shrug that their students aren't going to amount to anything anyway. Where textbooks still have Richard Nixon as president and the only black-oriented text is titled "The American Negro," circa 1967. Where the school-days' air that children will carry in their memories isn't of chalkboards and new Crayolas but of backed-up, never-repaired toilets. . . .

Are you mad yet?

Mr. Kozol thinks you should be, and wants his new book, "Savage Inequalities," to accomplish just that. Both heartbreaking and enraging -- especially when told through the eyes of the children themselves -- the book depicts the American public educational system as increasingly separate and unequal.

The hope of Mr. Kozol, who will be speaking in Baltimore this Saturday at a book and author lunch sponsored by the Pratt library, is that the book will do for education what his 1989 book, "Rachel and Her Children," helped accomplish for the homeless: show the harsh realities of an injustice and rouse people into at least trying to right the wrong.

"I don't write books to advocate a liberal agenda. I write them to reach Americans and let them see the human vulnerabilities in these kids," the soft-spoken Mr. Kozol said during a recent telephone interview. "Will this book make an immediate difference? No. Will it make decent people angry? Yes."

Mr. Kozol is perhaps more haunted than angry. Despite -- or maybe because of -- his privileged Boston upbringing and his Harvard summa-cum-laude degree, Mr. Kozol has chosen to write about society's most deprived -- the homeless, the illiterate and, most of all, the children tossed innocently into the grossly unfair world, young enough to have dreams as lovely as they are unattainable.

"At some point, whenever I'm with children of this age, I try to gain some sense of what they love the most or what they think is beautiful," Mr. Kozol writes of a group of children he met in Washington's besieged Anacostia neighborhood:

" 'A wedding is also beautiful,' says Harper. 'A wedding in a big old church . . . A pretty dress all pearly white, with diamonds in my hair. . . . Have my honeymoon at Disneyland. Go to Nebraska after that. Live in a big white house and have a swimming pool shaped like my name.' "

Mr. Kozol, now 55, taught children much like Harper but of a generation ago. He had returned from his tour as a Rhodes scholar in Oxford to find the nation aflame in the Freedom Summer of 1964 and the killing of three civil rights workers named Schwerner, Cheyney and Goodman.

"It hit me very hard," Mr. Kozol said. "I was living near Harvard Square, and I saw a sign for teachers for a school in Roxbury.

"On the train," he said of his ride to the black Boston neighborhood, "I realized this was the farthest journey I'd ever taken, and I've never returned from it."

He taught at a miserably neglected school, his students' 13th teacher that year alone. He was fired for his unauthorized teaching of Langston Hughes, even though the poet spoke so directly to the children that one little girl wept upon hearing his famous lines: "What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?"

The experience led to his first book, the acclaimed "Death at an Early Age; The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools."

While he eventually left teaching to write books, he found himself drawn back to this early interest several years ago. The result of this return trip is "Savage Inequalities," and, likewise, Mr. Kozol believes schools have taken a giant step backward, beyond even what he experienced as a teacher some 25 years ago.

"The schools are more segregated and less equal than when I started. The gap is widening," he said of his visits to some 30 schools across the country.

But he denies that he stacks the deck by comparing the absolute worst with the absolute best -- conveniently ignoring the larger and perhaps more representative schools that fall somewhere in-between -- and says that he chose at random which schools to visit for the book. And besides, Mr. Kozol said, the point is that such disparity should be intolerable in America.

Mr. Kozol starkly contrasts inner city schools with suburban counterparts just miles away. In one breath, for example, he writes of DuSable High School, located in a particularly Beirut-like neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, and in the next, the justifiably renowned New Trier High, of the monied North Shore suburbs, which is often cited as the best public high school in America.

The children themselves are acutely aware of the seemingly --ed dreams of integrated education, Mr. Kozol said. He quotes in his book a girl in East St. Louis, an Illinois city nearly Dante-esque in its pollution, poverty and utter hopelessness. "We have a school in East St. Louis named for Dr. [Martin Luther] King," the 14-year-old girl says. "The school is full of sewer water and the doors are locked with chains. Every student in that school is black. It's like a terrible joke on history."

"Why does the structure reward the most to those who need it the least?" he said of the quality education available to the rich. "Why is it that the nation grants to some children -- like myself as a child, George Bush as a child -- what we refuse to grant to the poorest child when he needs it more than we do?"

Yes, there is a sense of lashing out, both in Mr. Kozol and in his book. He doesn't deny that his book is disheartening. Which is not to say that it is without occasional small lights of hope -- of teachers doing so very much with so very little; of children rising impossibly over poverty, neglect, murdered siblings, lead poisoning and even the lack of the most minimal amount of food and medical care.

"I can't write with fatuous, giddy optimism anymore," he said. "When I wrote 'Death at an Early Age,' I thought people would think, 'Gee, that's terrible, let's fix it.' It doesn't work that way. So there is a sadness in the book."

His words burn, and understandably so when his subject is more than the mere physical buildings of schools, and their equipment and their textbooks, although even such basics appear beyond the grasp of some inner-city schools.

"In seeking to find a metaphor for the unequal contest that takes place in public school, advocates for equal education sometimes use the image of a tainted sports event . . . the familiar image of the playing field that isn't level," he writes.

"Unlike a tainted sports event, however, a childhood cannot be played again. We are children only once; and, after those few years are gone, there is no second chance to make amends."

Author to speak

Writher Jonathan Kozol will speak at a book and author luncheon sponsored by the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Saturday at the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel.

Tickets are $23 per person and $210 for a table of 10, and they must be reserved by today by calling the library's public relations office at 396-5494.

The cash bar will open at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, followed by the luncheon at noon and Mr. Kozol's talk. His latest book, "Savage Inequalities," will be available for purchase, and Mr. Kozol wil autograaph copies.

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