Books March 2008

Tales Out of School

How a pushy, Type A mother stopped reading Jonathan Kozol and learned to love the public schools

I am a longtime, rabid fan of Jonathan Kozol. Yea, I could show you my tower of dog-eared Kozolalia: The Shame of the Nation, Savage Inequalities, Prisoners of Silence, Illiterate America. In my mind, Kozol’s titles appear all in caps, like flaming Hebraic letters on the side of a monument. I am the sort of impressionable woman whose eyes seep tears while reading his heartrending descriptions of racial inequity in public education. Kozol doesn’t just decry what he sees as the pre-civil-rights-South level of segregation that persists to this day, the percentage of African American children in integrated schools having fallen to its lowest level since the death of Martin Luther King. For four decades, he has made visceral this tragic loss of human potential. Through his somber, exquisitely detailed accounts, I’ve watched countless poor black children begin as charmingly inquisitive and hopeful 5-year-olds, and then, as years pass, as concentric circles of chain-link fence close in, to the beat of that grim government drum, I’ve seen their once-bright spirits dim, heard their once-mellifluous questions ebb to dull monosyllables. I have ridden this roller coaster so often that at one point I took my tower of Kozols to my therapist’s office and despairingly set them on her glass coffee table, like a basket of orphaned kittens. Pfizer should develop a special antidepressant—“Zokol: for when you’ve read too much Kozol.”

In his most recent book, Letters to a Young Teacher, structured as correspondence to a first-grade teacher he visits in an inner-city Boston classroom, Kozol combines his critical observations on today’s schools with a memoir of his own experiences as a teacher. On the personal rewards of pedagogy and the private virtue of poor black urban families, he is a true believer. He urges young, idealistic white teachers—such as his pen pal—in poor black urban schools (Kozol’s world is often cast strictly in black-and-white) to go to the homes of the seemingly apathetic black parents who eschew PTA meetings. There they may replicate the experience Kozol had during his first year of teaching in 1964, in which he was fed a home-cooked meal, treated like a brother, and introduced to the poetry of Langston Hughes.

Be assured, age has not mellowed Kozol. Such poor black parents have given up, not on their children, he thunders, but on an intractable system that has yielded generations of underfunded, substandard schooling. Neglected inner-city schools have long been filthy, prison-like, and dangerously decrepit—a signature Kozol classroom moment is when a rotting window frame falls, nearly raining glass on the black schoolchildren sitting below. Now, however, he contends that government attention has made these schools even worse. Via No Child Left Behind and other draconian schemes, the underprivileged are force-marched through a nonstop schedule of high-stakes testing so they will better conform to such soulless corporate values as “proficiency” and “productivity.”

Beating up on public schools is not just our nation’s favorite blood sport, but also a favorite conversational entertainment of the well-off—like debating the most recent toothsome plot twists of Big Love—who, of course, have no dog in the fight. And who adore a tragic ending. In my Los Angeles, everyone agrees that public education is a bombed-out shell, nonnegotiable, impoverished, unaccountable, run in Spanish. I wept over Kozol’s books for years, but I myself am no freedom fighter. If I could have afforded either a $1.3 million house in La Cañada or $40,000 a year to send my two girls to a private school (that is, if we’d gotten into said school; I confess that, even though I described my older daughter as “marvelously inquisitive” when we applied, we were wait-listed) I wouldn’t waste two minutes on social justice. Let them spell cake! (Which is to say, let them spell it “kake.”) We tried to flee to the white suburbs, but we failed, and in failing, we seem to have fallen out of the middle class, because today my daughters attend public school with the urban poor.

Yes, a First World family’s initial entry into Los Angeles’s 21st-century urban public schools can be daunting. Yes, one’s uniquely American expectations of giving one’s children a better life than one had growing up can be challenged. On simple demographics alone, the landscape startles.

Among educated, upwardly aspiring English-speaking families, my neighborhood of Van Nuys—with its 99-cent stores, pupuserias, and throngs of Hispanics waiting for Godot at MTA bus stops—is considered a no-man’s-land. A study by Van Nuys High School suggests that about 80 percent of our residents are Hispanic, a substantial portion of whom are recent arrivals (although many live in apartment buildings with glamorously scrawled—if faded—British royalty–inspired monikers like “Castle Arms” or “The Windsor!”). Our eldest daughter is the only blonde in her class of 20, her grade being about one-third English-learners.

But whither the “white” people? If you’d asked me five years ago what ethnic mix in a school would feel “comfortable” for our family (my husband being white, me being a Southern California native of German-Chinese extraction), I would have guessed, if not two-thirds white, or if not half, certainly at least a third—a third whitish English-speaking children, like mine. A third with freckles, striped shirts, and lunch boxes of tuna-fish sandwiches, the totems I myself grew up with in this region in the ’60s. But, as I’ve since learned, in 21st-century Los Angeles, expecting such a relatively high percentage of pale children is statistically unrealistic. Today, the Los Angeles Unified School District is overwhelmingly Hispanic (73 percent), the remaining quarter a roiling mishmash of black, yellow, perhaps a dab of red, and white. In fact, it is less than 9 percent white, and since the technical LAUSD definition is “non-Hispanic white,” that includes children of Middle Eastern and Armenian descent. In L.A. Unified, white may actually refer to a brown-skinned Syrian Muslim English-learner.

The extent to which feeling overwhelmed by brownness and foreignness frightens the few remaining freckled and tuna-fish-laden Caucasian children in the city away from the public schools is not acknowledged and certainly not discussed. Parents cite loftier goals than white flight (“Dylan’s learning style requires a progressive educational philosophy based on Dewey/Piaget/ Independent thinking!”). Of course, rare is the pricey Westside private (now called “independent”) school that doesn’t list, as one of its top values, “honoring diversity” … even if the diversity that is honored looks like 14 white children and the son of Denzel Washington. Of course, life within Johannesburg’s ivy enclaves gnaws—well-meaning Westside friends confess their dismay at how little meaningful contact their spawn have with brown children. Theirs are world- traveling teens who have ridden the Paris Métro and the London Underground, but have never climbed onto a Los Angeles bus. The anxious solution typically involves private-school diversity committees that produce “diversity retreats” (retreats from diversity?), as in one case I heard about where a school’s seniors went on a weekend trip to Santa Barbara to watch and discuss the movie Crash.

After a fair amount of heartache, I have to admit I have given up on trying to charm white people, at least a certain NPR-listening, Bobo, chattering class of white people, back into public school. For these shrinking families, the aesthetics alone of public schools are horrifying—the chain-link fence, putty-colored bungalows, fluorescent lighting. Confessed one writer dad to me, about his son’s corner elementary (which he did not have the heart to step inside): “Even the grass made me sad.” Another white mom rejected my daughters’ school because our kindergarten wall art looked “rote.” Asians, on the other hand, tend to overlook the occasional snarl of graffiti (in our city, a way of life). What they see at Van Nuys High, for instance, with penetrating laser vision, are the math and medical magnets embedded within. Indeed, I’ve gradually become aware—via frequent newsletters—that behind those high brown walls flourishes a buzzing hive of Korean Magnet Parents. They are busily committee-meeting, Teacher Appreciation–lunching, and catapulting their children from Van Nuys High School directly into Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Caltech, Berkeley! Why should they spend $25,000 for each year of high school to make the Ivy League? These immigrants know how to find value!

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