Death at an Early Age

Countless sociological studies and official reports have described the dreadful condition of the nation's ghetto schools in abstract terms, but the general public has no concrete idea of what goes on inside them. Jonathan Kozol recounts his experience as a teacher in the Roxbury section of Boston.

Someday, maybe," Erik Erikson has written, "there will exist a well-informed, well-considered and yet fervent public conviction that the most deadly of all possible sins is the mutilation of a child's spirit."

If that day ever comes, American educators may be able to reflect with some horror upon the attitudes and procedures that have been allowed to flourish within a great many urban public schools.

It is a commonplace by now to say that the urban school systems of America contain a higher percentage of Negro children each year. More than anywhere else, it is here within these ghetto systems that the mutilation of which Erikson speaks becomes apparent. My own experience took place in Boston, in a segregated fourth-grade classroom. The Boston school system is not perhaps the worst offender, but it provides a clear example of the kind of education being offered the disadvantaged children of many cities. There are, admittedly, in Boston a cluster of unusually discouraging problems, chief among them the school administration's refusal for a great many years to recognize that there was any problem. Only slightly less troubling has been the exceptional virulence of the anti-Negro prejudice, both among teachers and the general public. Yet Boston's problems are not much different from those of other cities, and the solutions here as elsewhere will have to await a change in attitude at all levels of society.

Stephen is an eight-year-old pupil in the Boston public schools. A picture of him standing in front of a bulletin board on Arab bedouins shows a little light-brown person staring with unusual concentration at a chosen spot upon the floor. Stephen is tiny, desperate, unwell. Sometimes he talks to himself, or laughs out loud in class for no apparent reason. He is also an indescribably mild and unmalicious child. He cannot do any of his schoolwork very well. His math and reading are poor. In third grade his class had substitute teachers much of the year. Most of the year before that he had substitute teachers too. He is in the fourth grade now, but his work is barely at the level of the second.

Nobody has complained about Stephen's situation because he does not have a real family. Stephen is a ward of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and as such has been placed in the home of some very poor people who do not want him now that he is not a baby anymore. He often comes to school badly beaten. If I ask him about it, he is apt to deny it because he does not want us to know what a miserable time he has. He lied to me first when I asked him how his eye got battered, claiming that it was an accident. Later, he admitted that his foster mother had flung him out onto the porch.

Although Stephen did poorly in his schoolwork, there was one thing he could do well: he made delightful drawings. They were not neat and orderly and organized, but random and casual, messy, somewhat unpredictable. For these drawings Stephen received terrific and steady embarrassment from the art teacher.

The art teacher was a lady no longer very young who had a number of fixed opinions about children and teaching. Her most common technique of instruction was to pass out mimeographed designs, which the pupils then were asked to color according to a dictated or suggested plan. An alternate approach was to stick up on the wall or the blackboard some of the drawings that had been done in previous years by predominantly white classes. These drawings, neat and ordered and very uniform, would serve as models for the children. The neatest and most accurate reproductions would receive the greatest applause.

Stephen was unable to cope with a teacher of this sort. He turned off his signals when she was speaking and withdrew into his own private world. With a pencil, frequently stubby and bitten, he would scribble and fiddle, and he would cock his head and whisper to himself. After a while, he would push aside his little drawing and try the paint and paper that he had been given, usually using the watercolors freely and a little defiantly, and he would produce paintings that were very full of his own nature.

If Stephen began to fiddle around during a lesson, he and I and the children near him would prepare for trouble. The art teacher would rush at his desk and would shriek at him, "Give me that! You've made a mess! Look what he's done! He's mixed up the colors! I don't know why we waste good paper on this child!" Then: "Garbage! Junk! He gives me garbage and junk! And garbage is one thing I will not have!"

 I do not know a great deal about painting, but the art teacher did not know much about it either, and furthermore, she did not know or care at all about the way a human being can be destroyed. Stephen, in many ways already dying, died many more times before her anger.

Much of Stephen's life, inwardly and outwardly, involved a steady, and as it turned out, losing, battle to survive. Like many defenseless humans, he had to use whatever little weapons came to hand. Acting-up at school was part of it. He was granted so little attention that he must have panicked repeatedly about the possibility that with a few slight mistakes, he might simply stop existing or being seen at all. This is why, I imagine, he seemed so often to invite a tongue-lashing or whipping. Outside school, he might pull a fire-alarm lever and then have the satisfaction of hearing the sirens and seeing the fire engines, and knowing that it was all his doing, so that at least he could have proof in this way that his hands and arm muscles and his mischievous imagination did count for something measurable in the world. It must have seemed better than not having any use at all.

One time, seeing him curled up in one of the corners, I tried to get him to look up at me and smile and talk. He refused, and remained shriveled, and silent, and so I said to him: "Stephen, if you curl up like that and will not even look up at me it will just seem as if you want to make me think you are a little rat." He looked down at himself hurriedly, and then up at me, chuckled grotesquely and said, with a pitiful little smile: "I know I couldn't be a rat, Mr. Kozol, because a rat has got to have a little tail."

When I later repeated this to a child psychiatrist, he suggested that the absence of a tail was all that remained to convince Stephen that he had not yet become a rat. Although this comment might smack a bit of psychiatric dogmatism, I do not really think it carried the point too far. For Boston schoolteachers for years have been speaking their Negro children as "animals" and the school building that houses them as a "zoo." The repercussions of this attitude probably affected Stephen more than other children, but the price it exacted was paid ultimately by every child, and in the long run, I am convinced that it was paid by every teacher too.

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