In the excerpt from his latest book, beginning on page 28, Jonathan Kozol again holds a mirror up to the dark recesses of the nation's soul. For a year, beginning in 1993, Kozol made regular visits to a destitute neighborhood in the South Bronx where children live daily with fear, crime, pain, and death. Although abandoned by society and deprived of any reason to hope, many of the children he came to know miraculously cling to their innocence and somehow wrest tiny tendrils of joy from the bleakness around them. They also hold fast to their belief in God, and, though condemned to a hell of suffering, they speak often of heaven, which they envision as a place in the sky entered through an archway of gold where smiles, not money, are the legal tender.
A heaven these South Bronx children could never enter (or even imagine) lies a few hundred miles to the north in Wilton, N.H. (See page 22.) The private Pine Hill Waldorf School celebrates children, cherishes them, protects them. Based on the turn-of-the-century theories of Austrian visionary Rudolf Steiner, Waldorf schools view their mission not so much as adding something to children but as reclaiming what is already there--the innate ability to paint, for example, or write poetry or do math. A teacher and a group of students stay together through the first eight grades. Those years are viewed as a journey, which the teacher, as guide, mentor, and "loving authority,'' takes with the students. Along the way, the teacher must change and grow with the students.
Steiner believed that healthy, educated people integrate their capacities for willing, feeling, and thinking. Therefore, Pine Hill, like all Waldorf schools, attends to those capacities in that order. It seeks to foster in all children a sense of reverence--an attitude of awe, gratitude, and respect for the world and for the presence of the divine. In the words of a poem read often to 1st graders, children are urged to "love the beautiful, seek out the truth, wish for the good and best.''
Most schools and communities are somewhere between the hell of the South Bronx and the heaven of Pine Hill. Where they fall on that spectrum and the direction in which they are moving are not the random result of some alien force or the simple luck of the draw but rather of the actions (or inaction) of people--individually and collectively.
Last fall in Chattanooga, Tenn., for example, residents voted to consolidate their predominantly minority school district with Hamilton County's nearly all-white system--a move that has generated fear and controversy, as well as hope. (See page 42.) Today, the people of Chattanooga and Hamilton County are struggling to craft an entirely new school system out of two old ones--a system that draws on the best of both. Success will require trust and goodwill. Unfortunately, a survey of residents found "exceedingly low'' levels of both, leading to "defensive behaviors designed to protect what is known'' rather than envision what is possible.
The stakes in Chattanooga are high--no less than the welfare of the children and the future of the community. Whether parents and citizens will realize that, will be able to overcome their racial fears and hostilities to forge a system for the common good, remains to be seen. The ability of communities to do that in earlier times was crucial to building America. It is an ability that we don't seem to possess anymore.
The story of Cordia Booth's David-and-Goliath struggle with the Denver School Board demonstrates in microcosm how easy it is for schools to become political battlegrounds where adults use power to protect their interests and indulge their vanities at the expense of children. (See page 36.) Under a new law in Colorado, Booth sought approval from the board to start a new charter school. Although even opponents of the charter law supported her proposal, the board said no. The state overruled the district, but the board remained defiant and has taken the issue to court.
The mission and curriculum of the proposed charter school were not questioned. The reason given by the board members for its rejection was the cost--the money that the charter school would take from the city system. The cost of pursuing a lengthy legal battle apparently does not trouble them.
What can be the future of a society that devours its own children? Perhaps we can see it in the South Bronx.
--Ronald A. Wolk