Soul Searching

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Byfield, Mass.

A lethal dose of Lemon Pledge overwhelms the tight interior of author Jonathan Kozol's converted farmhouse. In the kitchen, Spic and Span, Windex, Comet, and lesser-known cleansers cover the breakfast table--a suitable buffet for the house's first proper cleaning in two years. Scores of books lay in order on a sofa near the fireplace. In the dark brick office off the living room, neat stacks of papers and legal pads rise at uneven heights, their bulk and shadows resembling modern art. Kozol comes in the back door with an empty blue mop bucket and apologizes that it has taken so long to fetch it. The young housekeeper, who arrived this morning with only a hint of the mammoth job before her, assures him that it will be a while before she dives into mopping. She wipes her forehead, smiles, and raises her eyebrows, punctuating her understatement. Walking back outside his 250-year-old cedar-shingled house on the edge of this picture-book village, Kozol pauses to savor the significance of cleaning day. He surveys his spacious back yard and breathes deeply, satisfied by the cooling breeze, the dense line of tall trees, the crisp blue sky. The former teacher who has spent his adult life documenting the effects of segregation and poverty on children has finally emerged from an intense year of writing and rewriting his latest project, iAmazing Gracej, due in bookstores this week. For a year before that, he immersed himself in the book's subject, a New York City neighborhood that is among the poorest and most dangerous in the country.

Standing here with the writing behind him (he recently approved the last of the proof pages) and the clutter and cobwebs under attack, he assesses the heavy toll of the past two years. The job proved unusually consuming and troubling. It left him saddened and weak. He has lost 25 pounds, battled asthma for the first time since childhood, and, at age 59, realized that he is no longer an angry young man.

Much has changed since 1964, when his firsthand view of the neglect and abuse of students in a segregated Boston elementary school led him to write Death at an Early Age, his first book. To a newborn activist, righteous anger leaped toward the promise of change. But three decades later, after books chronicling the widespread problems of illiteracy, homelessness, and unequal schools, he finds that the anger of an old-fashioned liberal arrives mostly at heartache.

Writing late into the night, he so identified with the pleading of Mahalia Jackson and other gospel sing- ers that, over several months, he literally wore out a cassette tape. He would also summon Bach's "Passion According to St. Matthew" or Mozart's "Requiem," basking in their deep emotion.

As he takes stock, he has found his anger taking him to new places. He is beyond asking his enlightened readers to search their hearts for charity. He is weary of appealing to politicians that they rack their minds for a better policy. This time around, Jonathan Kozol is shooting straight for the soul.

The Dunkin' Donuts in Newburyport would be perfect if only it allowed dogs, as the post office does down in Byfield, where the postmaster keeps dog biscuits behind the counter.

As it is, Sweetie Pie, Kozol's affable golden retriever, collapses in the back seat with the windows cracked. Kozol darts in for a cup of coffee, which he showers with cream and two packs of sweetener.

He doesn't look 59. Entering the doughnut store, he appears nimble, fit and energetic, and with a full head of dark hair only touched with gray. He slides into a booth to begin discussing the most recent chapter of his own life--the two years that have led to Amazing Grace, subtitled The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation.

Before long, the lighthearted demeanor that abounded when he urged Sweetie Pie into the back seat and debated whether to buy a second blueberry muffin gives way to a more urgent tone.

"To you and me," he says, "this is the typical little American town. Not chic. Not yuppie-trendy or anything. It's probably the low end of the middle-income spectrum. Despite that, I'm aware that to many of the children I write about, this would be like heaven. People I write about come to visit me, and to them, it might as well be a millionaire's estate. The difference between a $120,000 house with a half acre and a $500,000 house with 12 acres is insignificant to kids who have nothing."

He asks slowly, "Do you know what I mean?"

He occasionally lurches forward and peers over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses as he makes a point or asks a question. He begins to speak with an eloquent force. He starts to listen with a visible intensity.

"No matter what I write, it ends up being about children," he says.

"When I begin to overdose on these grown-ups speaking in false British accents on C-Span late at night--experts--I just turn it off and look forward to driving to the city and finding one of my teacher friends and talking to kids. I find that the way children speak refreshes the world. They are open and honest and shrewd at knowing whether you are really interested in what they have to say."

Though he has no children of his own-Kozol was divorced in 1974-he always finds a way to argue on behalf of children. Even in his most policy-heavy book, Illiterate America, published in 1985, he asked how they could be expected to make huge leaps in school if they went home to parents who couldn't read a teacher's note? Most recently, Savage Inequalities, the 1991 book that pushed him onto the bestseller list, translated the technical issue of school-finance disparities into human terms by showing how local wealth and poverty shape the education of children.

Those books, however, were intended to cast a narrow spotlight in the same way that his 1988 book, Rachel and Her Children, was an expose of the way cities deal with their homeless. Amazing Grace marks a departure that is more than literary.

In telling the stories of adults and children in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the South Bronx--how their status as second-class citizens strands them with substandard hospitals, housing, schools, police protection, city services, and only shreds of hope--Kozol goes in a new direction.

After sorting through his own cynicism and pessimism about the "cold" attitude of politicians and the electorate, and after realizing that he has fewer and fewer years left to make his mark, Kozol says he is tired of firing at solitary targets. He has also decided that more important than pointing out unfairness is working on people's hardened conscience.

"I'm nearly 60 years old, and I feel like there is too little time left to keep banging my head against the wall on single issues," Kozol says. "What positive change came out of writing Savage Inequalities? It made me better known. I earned some money. I won a prize. People can't say any longer that they aren't aware of the problem, but nothing has changed.

"What good came out of writing Rachel and Her Children? I got invited to Ethel Kennedy's house for an award, and a few people sent money to help the people I wrote about.

"I write because I want to make something different in the world. This time, I want to raise the stakes and say the question here is not whether we know what the problem is or whether we have the strategy to deal with it or the money to deal with it. Those aren't really the questions. The question is whether we want to be one society or two. Until that is dealt with, nothing else will be solved, and all the rest--the reports and charity and pilot programs--will be pretense.

"There is something that holds us back from doing what is just--something that is bigger than any single issue--and it has more to do with the privileged than the powerless."

Driving down Blue Hill Avenue, a straightaway that cuts through the Roxbury section of Boston, Kozol brakes to point out the monuments to his own sense of despair: housing projects that were supposed to get better, vacant churches and storefronts, no sign of white people.

This is where he found himself in 1964, back from four years in Paris longing to be a writer after abandoning his Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University in England. Returning to his hometown, he visited old English professors at Harvard as he searched for direction. His father, a noted Boston neurologist, and mother, a social worker, made their own cases. They hoped he would study law or work toward a teaching post at Harvard.

But it was the news in June of the brutal murders in Mississippi of three student civil-rights workers that instantly galvanized Kozol's sense of mission. He saw a civil-rights group's poster seeking volunteers in Roxbury, and he got on the subway. Within weeks, he was at work in the city's slums to lead a rent strike, and later he volunteered as a teacher.

"That was the year I officially gave up writing," he remembers. "I said to my professor, 'I'm afraid if I go off and do this, I won't ever write again because there's so much important work to be done.' He told me, 'You've got to take some big risks if you want to ever write anything that matters. You'll probably be surprised.'

"One problem that you have among writers is all these students taking creative-writing classes and, in the end, the only thing they've ever lived through is academia. What are you going to write about? A college love affair or something? I tell people to do something that matters to you in life. The books will write themselves. The year I gave up writing, I actually wrote something that was worth publishing."

Death at an Early Age, the riveting journal of a 4th-grade substitute teacher eventually fired from the Boston schools for teaching unapproved poetry, won a National Book Award in 1967. Having moved into the poor black neighborhoods of Roxbury, Kozol struggled over the years to find jobs and writing projects that matched his sense of mission.

After 18 years, changes in the 1980s sent him packing to Byfield, a short drive up the interstate from Logan Airport.

"I'd gotten a great deal of strength from living in the black and Latino community in Boston, but the neighborhood I lived in had suddenly been gentrified by people who looked like me. I'd see another Volvo come up and a yuppie couple get out with their stereo equipment, and I'd think, there goes the neighborhood.

"When the last black family was bought out and pushed out of my neighborhood, I left, too. I contemplated moving deeper into Roxbury, but I'd come to a point where I'd said everything I wanted to about Boston. I knew I was going to be flying to New York and Chicago and Washington, and I felt that Roxbury was in my soul and wasn't going to go away."

The spirit may have been unsinkable, but Roxbury has become a much different place than in 1964, when Kozol arrived in his Volkswagen bug and made ends meet on a shoestring budget.

"Thirty years ago, this was the most thriving street you would ever want to see. All along here were busy stores, preschools, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the naacp, all of them had storefronts along here. And on every block, there was a sense of tremendous hope in all these buildings that are now either boarded up or empty or knocked down.

"Look how many of the stores are boarded up. Where there used to be businesses, there are now social-service agencies," he says, slowing his gray Toyota in the traffic. "There was a supermarket there.

"I came up here and walked down one of those streets and became an activist before I planned to," he recalls fondly. "I remember it now, and I feel happy when I remember because there was so much hope then and a sense that the government was on our side. There is nothing like that now. The buildings are still the same; they are just boarded up. Now, there is more poverty, more sense of being trapped, fewer white people who ever come into the neighborhood, and more feeling of being written off by society."

Of course, it doesn't take a drive past a crumbling old headquarters to be reminded that liberalism is out of style.

Over dinner in the kitchen of one of the first people Kozol met and befriended in Roxbury (a woman he calls Elizabeth in his books), a bit of unexpected news slips out.

"You know what you sound like?" Kozol says jokingly to Elizabeth's 24-year-old son, the owner of an upstart small business.

"You sound like a Republican."

"I am," the young man proclaims.

"You're a Republican?"

"Yep. I went down and had it changed," he says.

His mother, whom Kozol quotes regularly as an observer of wealthy people's values and lifestyles, looks down and shakes her head.

Elizabeth's son is working 18-hour days to build his company. He is, as they say, bullish on the future. He tells Kozol, who has known him since the day he was born, that black people in Roxbury are too reliant on government programs and often too lazy to "get with the program."

He is encouraged by news of revitalization on Blue Hill Avenue and a project to spruce up a nearby housing project. When Kozol and Elizabeth leave the kitchen briefly, the tall young man puts a hard edge on what was a friendly and good-humored conversation.

"My mother and Jonathan are still hung up on the past, you know?" he says with a serious look. "They can't get past all this guilt bullshit. There is opportunity out there, but a lot of people would rather sit back and complain about society. You've got to make your own, you know?

"You've got to get with the program," he says as he leaves for a late meeting with his business partners. He shakes hands and turns to hug Kozol and kiss his mother.

Kozol and Elizabeth return to the supper table to catch up on news since he last spoke to her about three weeks ago. He listens carefully as she speaks and uses his thumb to roll a Virginia Slims cigarette slowly across his fingertips, a lingering habit from the days in Paris when he aspired to be like Ernest Hemingway.

"Elizabeth, what did you feed that child to make him a Republican?" he jokes.

"I do not know," she says with a laugh. "He has his own mind."

"Well, I like that. I like that he has his own mind, and I'm glad to see him thinking about all of this. But remember a year ago--he was a big believer in Malcolm X, and tonight he says he doesn't think that anymore. But I like to know what he's thinking."

Kozol continues. "I'd like to talk to him about his politics again in about five years. I'd like to see what he thinks then."

This is not the first time Kozol has been called a relic. He is familiar with the argument that his brand of liberal activism is ridiculously out of date. He is used to hearing that poor people only need to realize the up-by-the-bootstraps slogans that have comforted many of his old radical friends who have since found paradise in the suburbs.

Suchsentiments, however, just send Kozol back into the ghetto--neighborhoods that he finds have been virtually shut off from educated and successful professionals, neighborhoods that bear the prisons, incinerators, and di- lapidated housing that people would rather not see.

Jonathan Kozol goes to the bad part of town and sadly reports that it has only gotten worse. Which, of course, is not news. That it is no longer just the "bad" part of town is evident by the response from cab drivers when he announces his destination. That he is stepping into another world is clear from the looks he still gets when he says he's off to the ghetto.

"I've had a lot of friends ask, 'Jonathan, is it safe for you to walk around the South Bronx at night?' I always say, 'Safe for me? For God's sake, I'm a grown-up.' I'm always fascinated how white college classmates are so much more concerned for my safety than they are for the safety of children who have to live there their whole lives."

He encounters a world of well-spoken and well-mannered children and adults--a far cry from the movie and 11 o'clock news stereotypes. The living conditions, however, are hard to underestimate.

In a passage from his new book, Kozol relays a conversation with a group of teenagers at a Harlem youth center. He brings up an earlier observation he heard from a child in Mott Haven who said the ghetto is where poor people are "locked down."

Isabel jumps right in and says, "I think that's too strong. I would put it differently."

I ask, "How would you put it?"

"It's not like being in jail," she says. "It's more like being 'hidden.' It's as if you have been put in a garage where, if they don't have room for something but aren't sure if they should throw it out, they put it there where they don't need to think of it again."

A 16-year-old adds that people in Manhattan look at residents of Mott Haven as "obstacles to moving forward." Kozol writes:

She holds a Styrofoam cup in her hands and turns it slowly for a moment. "If you weave enough bad things into the fibers of a person's life--sickness and filth, old mattresses and other junk thrown in the streets and other ugly ruined things, and ruined people, a prison here, sewage there, drug dealers here, the homeless people over there, then give us the very worst schools anyone could think of, hospitals that keep you waiting ten hours, police that don't show up when someone's dying, take the train that's underneath the street in the good neighborhoods and put it up above where it shuts out the sun, you can guess that life will not be very nice and children will not have much sense of being glad of who they are."

After walking the streets for a while, taking in the surroundings and talking with adults and children, Kozol says it's hard to understand how anyone could think that times have really changed or that much of anything is better. He surmises, instead, that people are less disturbed because they stay away.

"I hadn't planned to write this book. I simply got on the train one day in midtown Manhattan because I'd been told of an Episcopal church where children were given a safe sanctuary, and I wanted to see it," he recalls. "Within a matter of days, I became friends with people and just started writing what I was feeling and what they were saying."

Many nights, he would wear out a pair of Flair pens, jotting people's remarks on legal pads. And after a year of traveling between Boston and New York and months of Mahalia Jackson and Bach playing softly behind him, the early drafts, written and rewritten in his squat left-handed print, were enough to fill a 600-page book. That Amazing Grace covers just 250 pages is evidence of his decision to let the people he met tell their own stories. Kozol cut large passages of his own reflections. In the end, he says, their own words were plenty.

"The woman I call Mrs. Washington is so eloquent, and she wants to be heard. She would tell me sometimes after she said something, 'Write it down.' She believes that telling this to me means the world will hear it. And I wanted to confirm her faith that that's true," he says. "The Bible says that the voice of the poor man is not heard. His words will be ignored. I've always wanted to make sure that the poor man and the poor woman and the poor child would be heard. And this time, I just wrote what they said.

"You wouldn't believe it from this conversation, but I don't talk much," Kozol says. "You don't need to say a lot. What I do when I'm with a child is say something like, 'What do you want to do in life?' and the child starts the predictable answer that you've heard a thousand times that 'I want to be like Michael Jackson.' Nowadays, it wouldn't be Michael Jackson, but I'll cut right through. I'll say, 'That's not what I mean. I mean do you want to do any good in this world?' And suddenly, something new opens up. And the child says something completely different, and I just shut up for an hour. I just listen."

What Kozol heard was overwhelming. Throughout the book, children die in house fires or accidents. Men and women die from aids. In scores of individual stories, a reader easily feels swept into a distant and hostile world.

"They are living in a place where no white person would ever want to live," Kozol says. "And it is not enough to fix a single part of it. Educators could talk forever about restructuring, decentralizing, recentralizing, elected school boards and appointed school boards, the whole-language approach, basal readers, directive learning, nondirective learning, inclusive learning, special education. You can debate all these things forever. But virtually no one in education will speak of the abiding cancer of our society. Do you mean restructured ghetto schools? Decentralized ghetto schools? Ghetto schools with ghetto choices for ghetto parents? The ghetto itself is a permanent cancer on the body of America that goes unquestioned.

"And the same kids that get the worst schools in America get the worst hospitals, the least prenatal and pediatric care. They live in the most environmentally toxic communities. They live in the neighborhoods where the police tolerate prostitutes who get chased away in yuppie neighborhoods. They get the fewest branch banks where there is an opportunity to invest. They get the fewest libraries open the fewest hours, the ugliest parks, the worst sanitation," he says. "It's no wonder they can't breathe."

As he moved among his circle of acquaintances in the South Bronx, Kozol was not alone in realizing the strength and urgency of the stories he heard. The tales rubbed off on people Kozol saw in Manhattan and Boston who asked about his work or wondered why he looked thinner or distraught. He remembers how their responses often amazed him.

"I had a friend who works on Wall Street say, 'Jonathan, I've been thinking about what you've been writing, and my wife and I are thinking maybe we ought to get involved.' I'm grateful that he says that. But you see, there's an illusion that he's not involved already. There's a luxurious assumption there that whether he does anything, he's not already complicit in the injustices of our society merely by taking the lion's share of the resources--the educational and medical resources, the clean air and clean water--that were available to start.

"I do not live paralyzed by neurotic guilt, but I do think I live with a fairly clear recognition of the advantages I've had that I would have never gotten in a just society. We are involved already. We don't have the luxury of deciding whether or not to be involved."

Saddened by the streets, I am repeatedly attracted into churches. I search them out, and although some of the pastors speak of politics and strategies of change, it is not their politics that I am really seeking, but their company. Many, in their conversations, cite the gospels. When I mention I am Jewish, they have often gone out of their way to draw upon Isaiah and Ezekiel and the other prophets. Meeting these men and women is a stirring experience for me. They are among the most unselfish people I have ever known. Many really do see Jesus in the faces of the poorest people whom they serve.

In writing a book meant to test its readers' souls and raise troubling questions, Kozol himself was forced to find shelter. As the book progresses, the author finds himself drawn more and more toward spiritual questions, the sanctuaries of churches, and the minds of pastors.

Kozol has alerted his publishers that he would like, as much as possible, to avoid packing his only suit for quick appearances in conference hotels as he promotes the book this fall. He has asked instead that they find churches where he can speak and pastors who will invite him for supper. He grows animated at the idea of grasping the sides of a heavy wooden pulpit and delivering a sermon. As much as soothing his own soul, he thinks the change of venue will help him find a receptive audience.

"You can only spend so much time in airport lounges and on Delta Air Lines and in Hyatt hotels before it almost adulterates the texture of your life," he says. "I kept thinking it was going to change everything, and if I could just tell that audience of 2,000 principals about the inequalities of school finance, or if I could just talk to that group of superintendents, that would make the difference. But by the end of talking about Savage Inequalities, I felt like I was in an endless presidential primary. It's the first time I ever felt compassion for George Bush. It's no wonder he had that washed-out look so often.

"I'm never going to do that again," Kozol declares. "I'm too old. I will never again go up and sit on Capitol Hill--provide testimony to another legislative committee. I've done that 50 times it seems, and every time Congressman Jones will say, 'Very moving, Mr. Kozol!' and Senator Smith will say, 'Truly unjust! We ought to deal with that someday,' but nothing ever changes. I don't think this nation will ACT until its conscience is shaken. Jolted."

Kozol intends for his book to take a step in that direction as it escorts comfortable readers into uncomfortable situations--describing the hopes of grandmothers whose neighbors' children have been attacked by rats or disfigured by fires, detailing the humiliations of sick people seeking prompt medical attention, and occasionally eavesdropping on the prayers of children who have yet to realize how long the odds are for them. He listens with a yearning ear.

"I asked the children about their faith because I'm searching for answers myself," Kozol says.

"My Harvard friends think that I ask because it's a way of prompting kids to talk about justice, but I would never do that. My friends assume that I don't believe in God because they don't. But I do. I just can't reconcile how a good deity would allow so much sadness and suffering for no offense. I want to know what the people in the South Bronx think, and I want to talk to the children because I find them more honest and generous and clean of spirit than most adults.

"For me, this is not an exercise in eliciting interesting answers from children or anybody else," he says. "I wrestle with these questions.

"You see, Martin Luther King's words and his dream of integration and equality struck me as a mandate--something I didn't have a right to reject. And that is still my central concern.

"I have changed over time. Like a lot of young radicals in 1968, I made bitter statements about America, and I even did that into the 1970s. And if you look at some of those quotes, you might think I sound like someone who really hates America. But I don't feel that way now, and I haven't for a long time.

"I take walks with my dog. Sometimes, I think about how, when I'm 80 years old, I'd like to go back and teach kindergarten somewhere. Preferably a kindergarten that admits golden retrievers. That would be my idea of heaven, to be with kids and good-natured dogs. We walk in the woods, and I actually think to myself that this is such a damn nice country," Kozol says. "There's an enormous amount of goodness in this country, and I feel it. It's just heartbreaking that we haven't learned how to share."

Vol. 15, Issue 06

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