In The Company Of Children

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In 1996, progressive writer Jonathan Kozol concluded that he needed to spend some time with kids. At 60, with his parents stricken by severe illnesses, the author returned to Mott Haven, a South Bronx neighborhood that he had written about previously in Savage Inequalities and Amazing Grace. While those books angrily indict society for ignoring the ills of the inner-city poor, Kozol arrived in the Bronx this time with no agenda except to savor the early-morning freshness of young lives.

The result is a new book due out this month, Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope (Crown). It takes place during 1997 and 1998 in several waystations for the children of the Bronx: two neighborhood public schools, P.S. 28 and P.S. 30, and an after-school program at St. Ann's of Morrisania, an Episcopal church. Kozol paints loving portraits of both the children and the adults in their lives, including Mother Martha, the pastor of St. Ann's, and Katrice, who runs the church's kitchen. But as someone who taught in a rough-and-tumble Boston school in the 1960s, he writes with particular reverence about the teachers who overcome grim conditions to find joy in the classroom.

Warm weather. It's not yet the end of May, but it's been warm like this for several days. A dozen of the younger children in the garden of St. Ann's are running back and forth under the sprinkler.

Some of them are getting soaked. Others just cool off and come back to the church with water in their hair and on their shirts. The quickness and the slightness of it all may be a part of what makes it enjoyable. It seems they get almost more fun from this than from more organized exertions that take place at public pools where chlorine and perhaps a hint of adolescent danger fill the air. When they're older, some will be attracted to those public places. For now, they seem content to play under the sprinkler.

It smells good in the garden at this hour in late afternoon.

There are squirrels on the lawn and many chirping birds. A mother stands nearby in very casual supervision, chatting meanwhile with the pastor and Katrice. Homeless people drift into the garden from the street and sit there at the bottom of the stairs and watch the children at their play.

It smells good in the garden at this hour in late afternoon. The children run and shout and cry each other's names. Otto is in a boisterous mood. He puts his hand over the nozzle of the sprinkler and directs the spray right into his own face. Elio's pants are nearly falling off. Pineapple points at Elio's rear end and tells him to pull up his pants. Otto turns the spray in her direction. She gets soaked. So does the priest. Pineapple gets up and jumps into the shallow pool made by the spray and screams at Otto. Several of the littlest ones are dancing in the water. They remind me of intoxicated elves.

Children do things like this all over the country on hot afternoons in spring and summer. They shout and play. They do not know the satisfaction that we take in watching them. Their only work right now is play. Our only work is taking pleasure at the sight of them.

Grown-ups sometimes find the children's playfulness contagious. Suddenly a grown-up woman supervising children on the swings will sit down on a swing herself and let the children push her high into the air. A group of girls swinging a rope for double Dutch might ask her if she still knows how to do it, too. "Why not?" she says. The children speed the rope to double-time to see how fast the grown-up moves her feet.

Teachers who permit themselves these normal self-indulgences too often can run into problems when it's time to ask the kids to do something that isn't fun. If they cross the line repeatedly between the adult world and child world, the children start to think that they can cross it too and won't obey the teacher when she says it's time to put away the jump-rope and go back to class to do the spelling lesson that she's written on the board. But the susceptibility of grown-ups to the jubilant infectiousness of play in situations where it's natural can bring a pleasant chemistry into the routine occupations of the day—and, now and then, an interesting role reversal, too.

One day that year, I visited a talented young teacher with a name that seemed ideally suited to a teacher starting out on her career: April Gamble. Her 3rd grade class at P.S. 28 had sent me a big envelope of letters asking if I'd visit them someday when I was in their neighborhood. They were some of the most lively and inviting letters anyone has ever sent me.

"Dear Jonathan," a letter from one boy began. "My name is Pedro. I am 7 years old. . . . Would you come and visit us for six hours so we could tell you about our life?" He signed his letter, "From my heart to my eyes, Pedro." If I would agree to come, another child promised, we could talk about all the problems in "the whole why world." I waited a few weeks until I saw a day when I would be nearby. Then I called the principal and went to meet the children.

The teacher had 31 students and the classroom wasn't large and the entire school was badly overcrowded and in shameful disrepair; but Mrs. Gamble didn't seem to let this get her down. Young as she was, she had a beautiful command of classroom practices, some of which she'd learned from older teachers at the school and some of which she said she learned at Bank Street, which is one of New York's most respected schools of education. She also had her own intriguing innovations.

At one point in my visit, the discussion I was having with the class got out of hand. I can't remember what I asked to set this off, but for a moment all the children seemed to speak to me at once and many little hands and bodies seemed to be in motion. I felt as if I'd stirred some chemicals and inadvertently set off a small explosion.

Mrs. Gamble must have realized that I wasn't sure how I should handle things. She seemed to know exactly what to do. She rose to her feet and put one hand, with fingers curled up slightly, just beneath her mouth, and curled her other hand in the same way but held it out about twelve inches, maybe eighteen inches, to the right. I watched with fascination as the class subsided from the chaos I'd created and the children stood and did the same thing Mrs. Gamble did: All these children with one hand before their mouth, one to the side, and with their eyes directed to the teacher. What was this about?

Then the teacher started humming softly—then she briefly trilled a melody in her soprano voice—and some of the children started trilling their own voices, too, and suddenly I understood: It was an orchestra, and they were the flute section! In their hands were the imaginary flutes. Their little fingers played the notes, and when the teacher bent her head as if she were so deeply stirred by the enchanted music she was hearing that she had to tilt her body in response, the children bent their bodies, too.

The principal, who was standing in the doorway, seemed to be as fascinated by this as the children were. You could see that she admired Mrs. Gamble as a teacher but was obviously taken also by the sweetness of her manner—the precision of her fingers on the keys! And then the teacher danced a bit from foot to foot before the children, and the children danced from foot to foot, as well. And then the music ended and the teacher put away her flute with an efficient and conclusive motion of her hands and all the children did the same and we began our class discussion once again.

What I remembered later wasn't only an effective trick for bringing 3rd grade children who had grown a trifle wild back into a calm and quiet state of mind. It was also the impromptu dance the teacher did, only a step or two, but just enough to spice the moment with gratuitous amusement so that, even in regaining grown-up governance over those joyful little protons and electrons that I'd inadvertently set into motion, she also showed herself to be a woman who was not too overly "mature," or too "professional," to show the happiness she felt at making magic music for the children with a magic, and imaginary, flute.

Wonderful teachers, and especially the teachers of young children, have much more, I think, than what technicians might refer to as "proficiency." Their calling, when it's filled with merriment and beauty, makes me think of joyful priests in Sunday robes when they prepare to give communion. Their gestures—even mundane classroom operations like the passing out of textbooks or the rapid, energetic "tap-tap" of the chalk against the board—become infused with mystery, authority, and elegance, like secular epiphanies. Teaching children of this age, when it's done right, is more than craft; it's also partly ministry and partly poetry.

When Mrs. Gamble trilled her voice and ran her fingers through the air, she didn't simply "play the flute." She also played the playfulness within herself and seemed to play the spirits of the children, too. She later told me that one-third of all the children in her class, and in the school, suffered from asthma. You wouldn't have guessed it on that morning. For a minute there, we might have been a thousand miles from the city in a magic forest where the evening air smells fresh and green and not one of the spirits of the woods has any trouble breathing.

Back at P.S. 30, a retired music teacher, Clifford Hudson, who once ran the music program in an affluent Long Island suburb and now teaches choral music in Mott Haven twice a week, is taking a break between rehearsals for a concert that is scheduled to take place here a week later. Sitting on the edge of the stage, a black man of about my age, he says he also teaches part-time at a college that enrolls large numbers of black and Hispanic men and women from the inner city and that he encourages the college students in his class to work as volunteers with younger children.

"I refuse to let them talk in 'street talk,' 'jive,' or 'dialect,' " he says, "in working with these children"—which, he notes, some volunteers are prone to do "in order to 'communicate' with urban children"—"because these children do know mainstream English and they don't regard it simply as 'white people's language.' It's the normal way of speech for many. When they speak in street talk, it's a choice they're making and I happen not to think that it's a good choice, and I don't permit it."

An organist and pianist and composer steeped in classical traditions, he tells me that his mother graduated from a normal school, had studied "Latin and calculus," and "had a set of Harvard Classics in the bookcase in our living room." He says she couldn't gain employment as a teacher in that era and was forced to earn a living as a household maid. At night, she read him poetry and played him operatic music on the phonograph. "She kept an upright piano in our house and gave me piano lessons—made me practice every day. . . ."

He talks to children about social ethics and politeness. ("What counts most," he tells the kids, "is how you treat a lady, how you treat the sick and elderly.") And, if a child misbehaves or calls another member of the class out of her name, his voice becomes the slightest bit severe. Unlike a few exceedingly severe black educators that I've visited in public schools, however, some of whom don't ever seem relaxed and seldom smile when they're with their students, Mr. Hudson has a warm, informal style, and he seems to revel in the time he spends with children here. "This is nourishment for me. I'm 62 years old, but I'm still able to be young. . . ."

He reaches out for one of the 4th graders who's been lying on her stomach looking at her spelling book during the break between rehearsals and just barely grazes her barrettes, then looks down at his hand. The smile in his eyes somehow conveys nostalgia.

The other children come back from their break and the rehearsal starts again. There's a piano below the stage, an upright, like the one he says his mother had when he was a young boy; and while the children line up on the stage, he starts to play a quiet piece that might be Mendelssohn or Brahms, until the children seem composed.

"This is a love song that I wrote," he says in introducing the first number. While he nods his head above the piano keys, the 25 or 30 3rd and 4th and 5th grade children start to sing. Next they do a lively finger-snapping song, called Old Man Tucker, that I've never heard before, then a show tune called High Hopes, and then an old Al Jolson song Hello My Baby, and then Summertime, in which the children smile at each other when they sing "your Mama's good-lookin.'" He gets up from the piano then and leads them in a song I used to sing on picket lines with children and their parents in the 1960s when I was a teacher, This Little Light of Mine. Standing just beneath the stage, he swings his arms like Seiji Ozawa swinging his baton before the orchestra at Tanglewood. The children lift their voices high and sing the final song, which Mr. Hudson says they plan to sing for 5th grade graduation.

This song I sing
The world didn't give it to me
And the world can't take it away.

"Yes, that's good—that's right," says Mr. Hudson in approval as they sing. The principal, Miss Rosa, who has come down to the front part of the auditorium in time to hear the final song, joins the children in the final verse and then claps loudly.

New York City once had comprehensive art and music programs for the children in the elementary schools. Most of this was terminated years ago as a cost-saving measure at a time of what was called "the fiscal crisis" in New York, around the same time that the city also took school doctors from the elementary schools and more or less dismantled what had once been very good school libraries in order to save money on librarians and books. Since that time there have been several long-extended periods of great prosperity in New York, and the city's revenues, of course, have soared in recent years during the escalations of stock values, which have brought unprecedented profits to the banking and investment principalities of Wall Street; but the savage cutbacks in the personnel and services available to children in the city's public schools, who now are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, have not been restored.

So 3rd grade kids at P.S. 28 learn to make do, and make music, with imaginary flutes; and the children here at P.S. 30 get a couple of hours of good choral practice once or twice a week with a retired black instructor who received his love of music from a mother born to segregation in the South and does his best to pass these treasures on to children born into another kind of segregation, nearly as absolute but possibly a good deal less genteel and less protective than the somewhat milder kind of rural isolation that his mother knew some 60 years before.

The detail that stuck with me was the way he reached his hand out to the child who was lying on her stomach next to him and lightly touched her hair. I've seen Louis Bedrock, a 4th grade teacher, do exactly the same thing: reaching out one of his hands to graze one of the children on the shoulder, or an elbow, or her hair, not even looking up but knowing somehow that the child's there. The children in his class like to pretend that they're eavesdropping on his conversations, peering up at him obliquely like small espionage agents, with stage smiles. He'll just reach out while he and I are talking and locate the child's hand or arm and maybe draw the child in to him and hold her head beneath his arm like a good-natured soccer ball, and then look down and act surprised, as if to say, "What have we here?"

I used to worry that Mr. Bedrock would feel uneasy about my presence in his room and view my visits as intrusive; like all the teachers here, he has seen a lot of school board delegations come and go within the building, and I can often hear a hint of irritation in his voice when he describes the many visits he receives. I don't have this worry any longer. I think he views me as a friend and likes it when I visit. Still, I know he's disappointed with himself if I'm in class on one of those bad mornings that almost all teachers have when children who behave well almost every other day decide that it is a good time to misbehave. It pulls me right back more than 30 years, and I remember how I used to feel about the visitors who came into my classroom to observe what they'd been led to think would be a confident and innovative teacher but would somehow always manage to show up on days when children were restless and unruly or when I was the most cranky, typically at 1 p.m. on Friday afternoons in nice spring weather! I knew it ruined the illusion of enlightened pedagogy for observers when they heard me raise my voice and talk like an old-fashioned classroom tyrant. I'd be mad at them for being there, mad at myself, mad at the kids especially for their bad timing.

Mr. Bedrock is a sensitive and empathetic teacher. The children in his class confide in him and grow emotionally close to him. He comes in early every day to do a 30-minute study hall for kids who haven't done their homework. He stays late in the afternoon, as many of the P.S. 30 teachers do, to give some of the kids a little extra time to be with him. He spends some of his Saturdays with students also, taking them to a science learning center in New Jersey, which most of these kids would never get to visit otherwise and which he pays for out of his own salary.

Like many good teachers, he's considerably better at relating to the children than to figures of authority. I gather that he's had his run-ins with some people from "the district," which is how the teachers speak of the local school headquarters in the Bronx, maybe also with Miss Rosa. I think she finds him hard to figure out; and yet I also know she likes him.

"What can I say?" she asked me once when I came down to her office after I had been in Mr. Bedrock's class much of the day. "The man is an eccentric. He's an intellectual. He talks about Noam Chomsky! He could teach in college if he wanted. But he's chosen to stay at P.S. 30 so that he can drive me crazy. Why does he stay? One reason: He loves children."

Mr. Bedrock used to teach at Temple University. He was a war resister in the 1960s and served time in prison. He's a deeply serious man, and he's politically tough-minded. His observations about life among the children, his belief in their intelligence and moral goodness, and his recognition of the obstacles that many face, as well as his intense, unsparing condemnation of New York for its apparently eternal acquiescence in the racial isolation of these children, had a powerful effect in focusing my own perceptions of the neighborhood and reinforcing my beliefs about the structural inequities that narrowed opportunity for many of these girls and boys.

Political loyalties, however, as some of us learn belatedly, do not automatically equate to qualities that make a teacher likable, exciting, or successful in the classroom. I think that Mr. Bedrock's pedagogic victories have less to do with his political beliefs than with his willingness to let the children know him as the somewhat undefended, open-hearted, earnestly affectionate good person that he really is.

"She misbehaves," he told me once about a child who was making faces at him while we spoke, "because she knows I love her."

Sometimes his students do get out of hand. When they do, he seems to know the way to get them back under control. Mrs. Gamble has imaginary music for this purpose. Mr. Bedrock has his own approaches, which do not exclude raising his voice from time to time, although his far more usual approach to moments of disorder is to show a truly pained expression on his face and to convey his disappointment in a voice of mournful sorrow. "I don't understand why there is any need for table six to talk about the definition of a simile," he said one day when I was in his class. "I admit it isn't a terrific lesson but you're not making things easier by talking." When the children saw him smiling after those distressing words, they looked relieved and actually did quiet down to keep their teacher happy.

Both Mr. Bedrock and Mrs. Gamble are politically sophisticated people. Yet both respect, and keep alive, another part of the imagination that does not belong especially to politics or even, really, intellection; they both retain their playfulness and, even more than that, they learn some of that playfulness from being in the company of children.

I was with Mr. Bedrock once in April when he took a group of older boys for mathematics. The subject of the lesson was "improper fractions." Isaiah was in the class that day and the idea of "proper" or "improper" fractions struck him as amusing. Mr. Bedrock asked him what he found so funny, and Isaiah simply said the words with an exaggerated English accent, in the phrasing you might hear in films about the British upper class. Mr. Bedrock picked up on Isaiah's humor and continued with the lesson on improper fractions in a very funny, very "proper sounding" imitation of an English gentleman. It was only a brief moment in a long day of instruction, but it helped to lighten up the lesson and perhaps to animate a subject that the students here apparently had had a hard time learning.

In the cafeteria one day, a child in his 4th grade class came up to him with several very tiny cakes with decorations in the frosting, which she'd brought from home. She held them on her hand and told him, "Look!" and asked him if he wanted one for his dessert. They were the size of postage stamps. There was something so mysterious about the way she seemed to speculate upon those little cakes!

"I don't know. . . ," he said. "They look too good to eat."

He peered into the child's hand as if the cakes were tiny works of medieval sculpture. "Did your mother make them?"

"No," the child said, "they're from the store."

"I don't know. . . ," he said again, making it seem a difficult decision. Then he chose one of the cakes and popped it in his mouth and ate it in one swallow.

"Is it good?"

"I'm full!" he said.

The child laughed and went back to her table.

Why does this remind me of the moment in the garden of the church when Mother Martha and Katrice were watching Otto and the other children playing in the sprinkler?

The laughter of the children is refreshing, too.

It is, perhaps, only the pleasing insignificance of a spontaneous connection between adult sensibilities and juvenile amusement. Elio's pants are falling off. The pastor, who went to court this afternoon to get a teenage boy released from the Manhattan lockup called "The Tombs" and who returned with the frustration that she almost always feels when coping with the overloaded courts, is suddenly relaxed and carefree, and gets soaked!

Grown-ups need these moments just as much as children do. The water refreshes the bodies of the children and renews the torpid air of afternoon. The laughter of the children is refreshing, too. Carried away by unimportant bellicose preoccupations, some of them call out from time to time to make sure that the grown-ups are not missing anything that's going on.

"Look, Katrice!"

"What is it, child?"

"Look, Katrice!"

"I'm looking!" says Katrice.

"Look! Look, Katrice!" another child cries.

"Lord's sake, child!" says Katrice. "What more do you want of me? I'm looking!"

She sounds slightly put upon. It's part of her manner, though. Her Caribbean lilt, as always, is quite beautiful and full of tenderness. I am reminded of imaginary music.

Vol. 11, Issue 7, Pages 38-39, 42-44

Published in Print: April 1, 2000, as In The Company Of Children
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