Where Ghetto Schools Fail

n this second of a two-part series on ghetto schools, the author, a thirty-year-old Harvard graduate and novelist, describes the sequence of events that led to his dismissal from one of Boston's Roxbury schools—for bringing into his classroom reading materials he felt bridged the gap between the ghetto environment of his pupils and the prejudices and irrelevancies of their antiquated textbooks.

One day a week later, shortly before lunchtime, I was standing in front of my class playing a record of French children's songs I had brought in. A message-signal on the wall began to buzz. I left the room and hurried to the principal's office. A white man whom I had never seen before was sitting by her desk. This man, bristling and clearly hostile to me, as was the principal, instantly attacked me for having read to my class and distributed at their wish the poem entitled "Ballad of the Landlord." It turned out that he was the father of one of the few white boys in the class. He was also a police officer.

The mimeograph of the poem, in my handwriting, was waved before my eyes. The principal demanded to know what right I had to allow such a poem—not in the official course of study—to be read and memorized by children. I said I had not asked anyone to memorize it, but that I would defend the poem and its use on the basis that it was a good poem. The principal became incensed with my answer and blurted out that she did not consider it a work of art.

The parent was angry as well, it turned out, about a book having to do with the United Nations. I had brought a book to class, one of sixty or more volumes, that told about the UN and its Human Rights Commission. The man, I believe, had mistaken "human rights" for "civil rights" and was consequently in a patriotic rage. The principal, in fairness, made the point that she did not think there was anything wrong with the United Nations, although in the report later filed on the matter, she denied this, and said, instead, "I then spoke and said that I felt there was no need for this material in the classroom." The principal's report went on to say that she assured the parent, after I had left the room, that "there was not another teacher in the district who would have used this poem or any material like it. I assured him that his children would be very safe from such incidents."

I returned to my class, as requested, and a little before two o'clock the principal called me back to tell me I was fired. She forbade me to say good-bye to the children in the class or to indicate in any way that I was leaving. She said that I was to close up my records, leave the school, and report to School Department headquarters the next morning.

The next day an official who had charge of my case at the School Department took a much harder line on curriculum innovation than I had ever heard before. No literature, she said, which is not in the course of study could *ever* be read by a Boston teacher without permission of someone higher up. She said further that no poem by any Negro author could be considered permissible if it involved suffering. I asked her whether there would be many good poems left to read by such a standard. Wouldn't it rule out almost all great Negro literature? Her answer evaded the issue. No poetry that described suffering was felt to be suitable. The only Negro poetry that could be read in the Boston schools, she indicated, must fit a certain kind of standard. The kind of poem she meant, she said by way of example might be a poem that accentuates the positive or "describes nature" or "tells of something hopeful."

The same official went on a few minutes later to tell me that any complaint from a parent meant automatic dismissal. "You're out," she said. "You cannot teach in the Boston schools again. If you want to teach, why don't you try a private school someday?"

Other Boston officials backed up these assertions in statements released during the following hectic days. The deputy superintendent, who wielded considerable authority over these matters, pointed out that although Langston Hughes "has written much beautiful poetry, we cannot give directives to the teacher to use literature written in native dialects." She explained: "We are trying to break the speech patterns of these children, trying to get them to speak properly. This poem does not present correct grammatical expression and would just entrench the speech patterns we want to break."

A couple of weeks later, winding up an investigation into the matter, School Committee member Thomas Eisenstadt concluded that school officials had handled things correctly. Explaining in his statement that teachers are dismissed frequently when found lacking in either "training, personality or character," he went on to say that "Mr. Kozol, or anyone else who lacks the personal discipline to abide by rules and regulations, as we all must in our civilized society, is obviously unsuited for the highly responsible profession of teaching."

In thinking back upon my year within the Boston system, I am often reminded of a kind of sad-keyed epilogue that the Reading Teacher used to bring forward sometimes at the end of a discussion: "Things are changing," she used to say with feeling; "I am changing too—but everything cannot happen just like that."

Perhaps by the time another, generation comes around a certain modest number of these things will have begun to be corrected. But if I were the parent of a Negro child, I know that I would not willingly accept a calendar of improvements scaled so slowly. The anger of the mother whose child's years in elementary school have been squandered may seem inexplicable to a person like the Reading Teacher. To that mother, it is the complacency and hypocrisy of a society that could sustain and foster so many thousands of people like the Reading Teacher that seem extraordinary. The comfortable people who don't know and don't see the ghettos deliberate in their committee rooms. Meanwhile, the children whose lives their decisions are either going to save or ruin are expected to sit quietly, fold their hands patiently, recite their lessons, draw their margins, bite their tongues, swallow their dignities, and smile and wait.

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