Books March 2008

Tales Out of School

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

Wild and woolly as it is, I felt this Brave New World would thrill longtime integrationist Jonathan Kozol: it’s a melting pot on a scope so vast, no one in the ’60s could have even dreamed of it. Having used my public-radio clout to arrange a colloquy with the man himself during one of his book tours, I fantasized, crazed superfan-style, about kidnapping him, whisking him off to observe my daughters’ shabby but brave 56 percent free-and-reduced-price-lunch public school. He’d throw back his weary, bespectacled head in a sudden boyish yawp of merriment when he realized what I was up to. “I loathe these junkets, anyway!” he’d exclaim. “Those New York PR people, how they pester! Let’s go SEE THE CHILDREN!” And then, soon enough, he would fall in love with our kids, our teachers, our principal, our artwork, our music, our lemon tree, our handicapped bunny, and of course, me.

But, as it turned out, there was no way I could ever have coaxed him into my beat-up Volvo. I had hoped, I suppose, for a dialogue. Here was a man passionate about public schools. And here was I, yes, merely a radio commentator useful for disseminating his message, but on the other hand, also the mother of young children who were at that very moment wielding crayons in those poor urban classrooms for which he fights. I was on the front lines! I had tales! I had information!

But the dialogue door, it seemed, had somehow closed. As I remember it, via my admittedly middle-aged hormonal memory, Kozol would not be diverted from his plan: to help segregated schoolchildren, at every stop in his tour, at all the colleges, he was going to gather hundreds of e-mail addresses, which would then be organized into a rising, unstoppable political movement of teachers, students, and social activists who would storm the White House and demand Bush halt Savage Inequalities in government funding for poor children, NOW!

“At my kids’ school,” I put in at one point, “what WE are doing is—” He barreled on with his civil-rights monologue, paying me no heed. “Mr. Kozol!” I tried again, a trifle more loudly, “At my daughters’ TITLE I LOS ANGELES SCHOOL, THE GOOD NEWS IS—” But he wasn’t interested. What we need are moral leaders! he roared mightily. This is a civil-rights issue! We need a religious leader, a prophet … thundering from the pulpit! I felt as though I’d stepped into a prehistoric jungle. I could practically hear the flap of pterodactyls overhead. I couldn’t even picture what moral authority would look like in modern-day Southern California. When I pressed him on this point, Kozol, rather lamely I thought, suggested some rabbi friend of his from one of the Beverly Hills temples, those bastions of urban-public-school support.

Parents never seem to play a dynamic role in Kozol’s solutions—although, to be fair, parents are missing from almost every public-school policy analysis. This was a group also worth addressing, wasn’t it? Particularly affluent educated parents, of a liberal social bent. Kozol himself has said that private schools “starve the public school system of the presence of well-educated, politically effective parents to fight for equity for all kids.” If anyone had a bully pulpit from which to address these folks, it was Jonathan Kozol. In such desperate times, why not go from third person to second? Why not be more aggressive, putting blame where it belonged? So I asked him: “Speaking of moral leaders, since your work is so admired by such magazines as Harper’s and The Nation, why don’t you simply exhort those readers to SEND THEIR KIDS TO PUBLIC SCHOOL? How many of those staffers’ kids are in elite privates? Talk about Shame of The Nation!”

He observed again, doggedly, that if the government RAISED EDUCATIONAL FUNDING, schools would improve and the middle class would naturally return. Ha! I’ve lost enough cocktail-party arguments to know that social change doesn’t happen until economic self-interest is at play. He then admitted—softly and tellingly—that as he himself was not a parent, parents’ personal decisions, he would not judge—What? Kozol? Not judge?

Of course Kozol underestimates the potential of parents as a tool for improving public schools. Or perhaps, after decades of his own lost cocktail-party arguments, he has simply given up on them. Instead of exploring the chaotic and the new, Kozol seems more comfortable retilling the familiar territory of his ’60s civil-rights jeremiads inhabited by only two cartoonish, archetypical kinds of parents: 1) poor, black, eternally noble, Langston Hughes–quoting parents too beaten down by the system to escape horrible schools; and 2) “savvy,” white, affluent parents who successfully connive to get their children into fabulous suburban schools, with nary a look behind them. If he were a parent and had to navigate our hardscrabble world, both the problems and the solutions might appear different to him.

The bad news in our most cosmopolitan and vibrant cities is that many middle-class people can no longer afford to live in “middle-class” school districts. The good news, if my experience is any indication, is that this could drive middle-class white children back into local poor brown schools, and they would come with parents armed with higher educations, the Internet, fiercely lofty expectations, and an ability to read and (at least vaguely) understand federal legislation. What happens to poor public schools when, God forbid, pushy middle-class, Type A, do-it-yourself PTA mothers become involved and agitate to lift up the boats, not just of their own children but, perforce, of their children’s disadvantaged classmates as well?

From the flea’s-eye view of a mother who does have a dog in the fight, here is an example:

Back in fall 2005, when my older daughter enrolled at our drab LAUSD school, I was pleasantly surprised—almost shocked (steeped in Kozolalia as I was)—to discover that it was not a blasted wasteland. While aesthetically uninspiring on the outside, inside it was a plethora of books, computers, LeapFrog pads, and the like. Title I schools, such as ours (those with a substantial portion of low-income students), are eligible for hundreds of thousands of federal dollars that affluent schools are not. Our library was stocked, litter was picked up, graffiti erased. As far as I could see, no dusty panes of glass were in danger of shattering at our feet.

Other myths circulating among my chary middle-class cohort turned out to be false. I have yet, for instance, to trip over a crack-addicted parent in the parking lot. The children arrive relatively on time and mostly having breakfasted. True, the climate is probably helped by our wide mix of ethnicities—no one group overwhelms the school, so no minority feels disenfranchised. And because of our “magnet” status, to enroll a child, one must have the shrewdness and drive necessary to procure and fill out a single-page application (the procuring bit being not quite as easy as it sounds), so those families that have done so are—at least in some way, given the relatively wide range in quality of L.A.’s magnet schools—trying to kick things up a notch.

Upon dropping off my daughter one morning, I heard a virtuosic tuba player warming up in the amphitheater; a brass quintet sent by the L.A. Music Center was giving a 90-minute morning assembly. I snuck in, and it was extraordinary—they played Copland and Mozart and Rossini. Excitedly smelling if not blood in the water, then chardonnay, I soon accumulated more information about all the free stuff the Los Angeles Unified School District has—the music teacher who comes with 65 free instruments, the arts money, and so on. In time I would learn to see the LAUSD as a giant Costco—overcrowded parking, gray lighting, mini-skyscrapers of cat litter—but replete with buried treasure. Free upright pianos in every school, for instance, serviced by LAUSD tuners. No one in my circle knew anything about this, because no one had actually had a child in a public school in years.

I admit to a bias toward high culture. Understand that I grew up the daughter of a culture-mad German mother who, when we traveled abroad, would wheedle ballet mistresses from the Kirov into giving my siblings and me private instruction (plying them, if need be, with eclairs and cigarettes), dragged us to Giselle 17 times, and forced us to take piano lessons. Our massive Southern California public high school had an orchestra, and I was expected to play Pictures at an Exhibition, The Planets, and Petrushka, even if that meant sitting a rather humiliating seventh chair out of seven violas. Although we fought all of her pushy efforts to foist her old-fashioned, haute-bourgeois culture on us, I would have to say, 40 years later, that my amateur classical musicianship is one of my greatest pleasures. And while I don’t believe in the “Mozart effect,” I do maintain that—yes, call me narrow-minded—a tween who reveals some familiarity with any classical composer, as opposed to just, say, the sound track of Hannah Montana, is sure to be on the right path. No apologies—I am a clichéd product of my Sino-Germanic box, and I want Mozart for my children!

It may also have been my desire for assimilation that made me yearn to have an orchestra in our school. I see Los Angeles public schoolchildren carrying instruments, and I feel culture and a sense of well-being returning to the land. Instead of exclusive pods of Mexicans, Guatemalans, Armenians, Filipinos, Sikhs with their topknots, Russians—kids whose mothers stand by their cars and chat among themselves in foreign tongues—I would love to think of these children in terms of their instruments—Violins! Flutes! Clarinets! And look, there goes the trombone!—playing together to produce a common language.

So I, Pushy Type A Mother, went into overdrive, working a tricky combo of cell phone, Internet, and a level of public-radio quasi-celebrity that enabled me to at least get information-seeking phone calls returned. (In the public-school world, accurate and up-to-date information is gold, and often surprisingly hard to come by.) Less exotic weapons included the “You go, girl!” permission of an open-minded school (not all are) and the ability to write standard English (helpful for laying grant-writing groundwork for overworked teachers). Our reward was a generous gift of 36 brand-new stringed instruments from the VH1 Save the Music Foundation, the only requirement being that the school provide instruction. Simple! District rules allowed us to swap our visiting LAUSD choral teacher for a visiting LAUSD instrumental teacher, and upon discovering that district policy provided instrumental instruction only for grades 3 and up, I found two brilliant violinist friends to teach grades K–2. (“Gina and Robin have played at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, but their hearts are first with teaching our kindergartners.” If only I ran a private school, what money I could make!) Next, all we had to do was drum up the dollars to pay for that instruction, approximately $6,000 per year to cover two teachers teaching 120 pupils, or $50 per student. At a wealthy elementary, where a typical suggested yearly booster-club donation is $500, I would easily have been able to find 12 willing parents. At our ragtag school, by contrast, extracting $5 for a PTA membership requires a shakedown.

For many of our English-limited new-immigrant parents, the concept of a PTA itself, with its gift-wrap sales, basket raffles, and $1 Build-a-Bear tickets, is foreign. (At one assembly, a Guatemalan mother pressed a crumpled dollar into my hand and whispered in alarm, “A bear? Why is bear?”) Our parents have swum flaming rivers in the dark to flee Third World countries run by despots, but they’re terrified of smiling PTA parents waggling plaid Build-a-Bears at them and demanding 8 a.m. elections for things like “parliamentarian.” Good Lord, even Saint Patrick’s Day can be frightening! Last March, three LAPD cop cars screamed up to our school, waved in off the boulevard by an Egyptian mom who believed the green food coloring our kindergarten teacher had put into the children’s water was poison.

The funding hurdle, however, we were able to scramble over as well. The unexpected windfall came courtesy of Hasmik Avetisiyan—winged dark hair, Gucci sunglasses, gold sandals—whom I think of, at our school, as the labor boss of the Armenian mothers. Hasmik (all names and certain accessories changed—slightly—to protect the innocent) had gotten into the morning habit of calling me into her “office”—the parking lot—and hissing at me: “Basketball! We must have basketball! The boys don’t know how to play! They are pooshing each other!” In no way an impoverished, beaten-down immigrant, Hasmik is an energetic small-business entrepreneur who creates spectacular flower basket–like fantasies out of fruit. Without further ado, Hasmik dragged in the plastic hoops from Target, I crunched the district and insurance paperwork (which is in tiny, tiny English) and secured a student coach, and suddenly two dozen eager children of various colors arrived, replete with parents bearing video cameras, and each paying an AYSO soccer–sized fee of $75 for 10 weeks of after-school basketball. With the basketball money in the bank, we could pay our music teachers, and more than 100 enthusiastic children performed at a soaringly successful school concert attended by entertainment-industry executives from New York and L.A. Cue the tears, hugs, cheering, pizza. (After the concert, the Egyptian mother with the food-coloring phobia wept, crushed me to her bosom, and inexplicably snapped my photo.) Everything was so magical, our two beloved violin teachers offered to continue with a summer violin mini-program, at my house. A by-market-rates bargain price of $20 per week for small-group private lessons, which included a violin, however, drew silence. I dropped the fee to $10 per week. Still no takers. $5. Nothing. Finally I opened my arms and implored 120 formerly eager children that if they really wanted to study the violin on the weekends, their lessons would be FREE. At this point, my older daughter’s 6-year-old classmate Julia tugged on my sleeve. Julia’s Salvadoran parents both worked morning to night Saturdays and Sundays at the Panorama City swap meet, which is where this 6-year-old also spent almost every waking minute of her weekend. So her parents could not even drive her to my house.

I bent down to Julia, like Jerry Maguire with his lone client. “OK, Julia! Free violin lessons! Free violin rental! At my house! And I’ll even throw in transportation— I will personally drive you … both ways!” But no—her father was still against it, because he feared that if Julia left his side for even an hour over the weekend, she might “fall in with bad people.” (Noted a comedian friend of mine: “Yeah—bad people who might force her to stand at a swap meet all day!”) Suffice it to say, I took that family “in hand”—much like a Mafia don—and Julia did play violin all summer. Her uncle drove.

So is this a story of human triumph or cultural imperialism (or, as I like to think of it, cultural evangelism)? I think back to the politically correct ’90s, when imposing Western middle-class values on disadvantaged minorities would have been viewed with horror. I think back to Jonathan Kozol’s ur–poor black family. With all due respect, what good does it do such families to give up on the educational system and keep defiantly rereading Langston Hughes? In my Los Angeles, the harsh fact is that many underprivileged urban families do not live in Rousseauvian adobe villages. Certainly not all of our poor kids, but many, do indeed live in shabby apartments where books are considered unaffordable, but life revolves around an ever-flickering large-screen TV.

People used to make music together, singing in churches, playing in bands. Today, music is a commodity, marketed as an item to be possessed by individuals— “my music,” people say. The image of a listener is one person, alone, headphones on, entranced by his personal shuffle. It is now de rigueur to mock the sort of genteel suburban ’60s childhood I experienced, with its Scout songs like “This Land Is Your Land” and “Bingo Was His Name-O.” However, when the 5-year-olds in our kindergarten were asked to name a familiar tune, the one most of them recognized was from High School Musical. With today’s separation of church and tribe and home country, if public schools don’t create a common culture, Disney or Nintendo will.

That so many of L.A.’s English- speaking families are fearful of letting their children come into contact with great numbers of English-learners is ironic. The terror is that, like rockets losing heat tiles, Dylan and Taylor will drop a vocabulary word here or an SAT point there, and thus be doomed to Pitzer instead of Brown. Meanwhile, the far more vast and gloomy possibility is that most immigrant children will plunge off the college map entirely. In their isolated, maxed-out schools, they won’t master the higher-level English they need if they are to succeed. Such language acquisition could be greatly speeded via meaningful contact with native speakers, but, as the authors of Learning a New Land: Immigrant Students in American Society point out, few immigrant youngsters have “even one native English-speaking friend.”

That is, until we came along, the pushy, whitish, Type A middle-class poor! Economics has forced us to realize that we are indeed all in this together. We are compelled to play Lady Bountiful. We will bring unneeded extracurricular “enrichment” classes and speak English at them until they turn blue. We must invest in the poor urban school, not because any moral authority à la Jonathan Kozol exhorts us to, but because that school is our school. And in return, we get to be infused with the energy of hopeful immigrants ready to try anything, in a brave new land that, to them (aside from the occasional “bad person” one might encounter in a weekend violin class), itself represents optimism, resources, and a better and better future.

True integration, I think, does not result from a single grand dramatic gesture, like the march on Washington Kozol envisions. True integration evolves from daily, tiny, bridging human moments. To keep this kind of work up for weeks and months and years, there has to be a payoff like improved education for our children. If integration then means gentrification, so be it. In the end, what matters are the children, some of whom, despite reports to the contrary, are doing well.

Sandra Tsing Loh is a writer and performer whose radio commentaries appear regularly on American Public Media’s Marketplace. She can also be heard on KPCC-FM, in Pasadena, California. Her new book, Mother on Fire, will be published this year by Crown.
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