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.