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.

Consider what it is like to go into a new classroom and to see before you suddenly, and in a way you cannot avoid recognizing, the dreadful consequences of a year's wastage of so many lives. You walk into a narrow and old wood-smelling classroom and see thirty-five curious, cautious, and untrusting children, aged nine to thirteen, of whom about two thirds are Negro. Lifetime records of seven of them are missing, symptomatic and emblematic at once of the chaos of the teacher changes. On the first math test the class average is 36. The children tell you with embarrassment that it has been like that since fall.

You check around the classroom. Of forty desks five have tops with no hinges. You lift a desktop to fetch a paper, and you find the top has fallen off. There are three windows: one can't be opened. A sign on it written in the messy scribble of some custodial person warns: "Do Not Unlock This Window It Is Broken." The general look of the room is that of a bleak-light photograph of a mental hospital. Above the one poor blackboard, gray rather than really black, and hard to write on, hangs from one tack, lopsided, a motto attributed to Benjamin Franklin: "Well begun is half done." So much within this classroom seems to be a mockery of itself.

 Into this grim scenario, drawing on your own pleasures and memories, you do what you can to bring some kind of life. You bring in some cheerful and colorful paintings by Joan Miró and Paul Klee. While the paintings by Miró do not arouse much interest, the ones by Klee become an instantaneous success. One picture in particular, entitled Bird Garden, catches the imagination of the entire class. You slip it out of the book and tack it on the wall beside the doorway, and it creates a traffic jam every time the children have to file in or file out. You discuss with your students some of the reasons why Klee may have painted the way he did, and you talk about the things that can be accomplished in a painting which cannot be done in a photograph. None of this seems to be above the children's heads. Despite this you are advised flatly by the art teacher that your naivete has gotten the best of you, and that the children cannot possibly appreciate these drawings.

For poetry, instead of the materials recommended by the course of study, you decide to introduce a poem of William Butler Yeats. The poem that: you select is "The Lake Isle of Innisfree." The children do not go crazy about it at first, but a number of them seem to like it as much as you do, an you tell them how once, two years before, you were living in England and you helped a man in the country to make his home from wattles and clay. Many of them grow more curious than they appeared at first. Here again, however, you advised by older teachers that you are making mistake: Yeats is too difficult for children. They can't enjoy it, won't appreciate it, wouldn't like it.

On a number of other occasions, the situation is repeated. The children are offered something new and lively. They respond to it energetically and their attention doesn't waver. For the first time in a long while, perhaps, there is actually some real excitement and some growing and some thinking going on within that room. In each case, however, you are advised sooner or later that you are making a mistake. Your mistake, in fact, is to have impinged upon the standardized condescension upon which the entire administration of the school is based. To hand Paul Klee's pictures to the children of a ghetto classroom, particularly in a twenty-dollar volume, constitutes a threat to the school system. The threat is handled by a continual underrating of the children. In this way many students are unjustifiably held back from a great many experiences that they might come to value, and are pinned down instead to books the teacher knows, and tastes that she can handle easily.

My own feeling was that it was precisely the familiar material which had so deadened the previous three years of schooling and which had been so closely identified with the misery and chaos and intellectual aridity of this most recent year. To attempt to revive or reawaken a child's curiosity long gone dead or long sedated by use of the same poison that had laid him low seemed futile. Only by introducing new and totally fresh materials did there seem a chance to make a difference. Although the poems and pictures I brought in did not appeal to every student, there is no doubt at all of the degree to which the will to learn, as well as the most simple will to laugh or speak or smile or joke, reappeared among the children.

The change in attitude carried over, curiously, into utterly unrelated areas. One teacher of an older grade, who had little fondness for me, felt impelled, nevertheless, to come upstairs and offer me a compliment. "Everyone has been so impressed," she said, "by the way your children have been filing in the stairways." In an odd way, I felt pleased by what she had told me. I couldn't have cared less how my pupils were filing in the stairways, but it was a source of satisfaction to me to think that they were doing something which, within the context of this school, was so much to their advantage.

A more serious measure of the impact of these changes came to light when I started testing the class on the intensive work we had been doing in math and English. In less than a month, the math average went up to a median well above grade level. Test score averages over the course of three weeks began at 36, rose to 60, and leveled off at 79.

There was no unusual expertise at work within the classroom. There was, in fact, total professional naïveté as well as considerable technical incompetence. One thing was present, however, and this was the personal motivation of the children. It was there, unused and wholly unawakened, but very much in evidence as soon as it was looked for and believed in. To care about their work, the children asked only a few grains of faith and expectation, a small degree of fun, a mood of relaxation, and an open understanding between their teacher and themselves that the things that had been going on that year were not their fault.

A great deal has been written in recent years about the purported lack of motivation in the children of the Negro ghettos. Little in my experience supports this, yet the phrase has been repeated endlessly, and the blame in almost all cases is placed somewhere outside the classroom. Boston's former deputy superintendent, in putting forward the aims of the compensatory program, presented it in this way:

It is our hope through this program to raise the achievement of these pupils closer to their potentials, which have for too long been submerged by parental lack of values.

Such language belies a sense of failure on the part of those who run these schools. The suggestion is made that the child will be offered a certain amount of compassion, just so long as it is made absolutely clear ahead of time that the heart of the problem is the lack of values of his family. Unquestionably, there are Negro children whose school careers give testimony to the problems that plague their parents' lives. Both Stephen's original and foster parents are pertinent examples. But the greater number of Negro parents whom I have known in Boston do not lead lives lacking in real values. Faced with the particular nature of the deputy superintendent's rhetoric, we have to ask whose values we are talking about - and deprived in the eyes of whom. To say that Negroes in Boston are deprived of rights would be an honest statement. It would also be honest to say that they are deprived of good schools, and at least to that degree, of a fair chance for democracy, for opportunity, and all the things these words are supposed to mean. But to say that they are deprived culturally, in the face of the present school administration and in the face of the profound callousness and cynicism of the entire system, seems to me meaningless.

Glimmerings of a personal understanding of these points and of the ironies involved in them can sometimes be perceived among the teachers. I recall a conversation I had with an unusually frank red-neck teacher in my school. "They talk about the Negroes being culturally deprived," he said with an unembarrassed smile, "I'm the one who's been goddamn culturally deprived, and I don't need anyone to tell me. I haven't learned a thing, read a thing that I wished I'd read or learned since the day I entered high school, and I've known it for years, and I tried to hide it from myself, and now I wish I could do something about it, but I'm afraid it's just too late."

The same teacher confided to me on another occasion that he had been beaten around and treated rough and whipped by his parents and by his Yankee schoolmasters when he was a child. To him, this seemed to clear the field for beating others around today. The attitude of many people in Boston and other cities has been consistent with this view: "We had a hard time of it, so why shouldn't they?" This less than gentle attitude seems characteristic of a less than gentle society, in which the prevailing viewpoint of those who are moderately successful is too likely to be that they have got theirs, and the others can damn well wait a while before they get the same.

Presented by

The Blacksmith: A Short Film About Art Forged From Metal

"I'm exploiting the maximum of what you can ask a piece of metal to do."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

Video

The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In