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Jonathan Kozol On Kids Who Survive Inner Cities


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we'll meet the star of the new film "Life of Pi," based on the best-selling novel by Yann Martel. The film is getting rave reviews for its amazing special effects, as well as the performance of the young man we are going to meet in a few minutes for whom this was his first professional acting job. That's coming up.

But first we want to spend a few minutes talking about something that many of us spend more time thinking about at this time of year when many celebrate their good fortune. We're talking about those living in poverty. Their numbers are growing. Right now, in the U.S., more than 40 million Americans and more than one in five children are considered poor.

Our next guest is Jonathan Kozol, a man who's brought the stories of the nation's poor out of the shadows through his many best-selling books. For decades he's chronicled lower income kids and public education in America's inner cities.

His latest is called "Fire in the Ashes." In it, Kozol looks back to the 1980s when he first met a number of families in the Martinique Hotel. It's a place he describes as a decrepit, drug-infested homeless shelter in midtown Manhattan. He's kept in touch with many of the families he met there and he tells us how their lives have turned out.

Jonathan Kozol, thank you so much for speaking with us.

JONATHAN KOZOL: Thanks so much, Michel.

MARTIN: You start the book telling us about two young men, Eric and Christopher, and I was hoping you could just briefly lay out their stories.

KOZOL: OK. Well, Eric and Christopher had both spent their formative years in homeless shelters, and they both had little sisters, four, five, six, seven years old, so they didn't sense exactly what was happening to them. But the boys - both these boys - were around 10 or 12, 14. They were the ones who went out in the streets to panhandle in order to pick up enough money to buy food for their little sisters and the families in the shelters. They were the ones who saw people shooting drugs in the stairways and elevators of the building and they were the ones who came out of it most embittered and distrustful of grownups.

You know, I kind of predicted that would happen, but I didn't realize, in these two cases, that it would lead to really tragic results.

MARTIN: What did happen to them?

KOZOL: Eric and his mother and his little sister were blessed in one way. A family way out in Montana - a doctor who's the head of the family called me after I'd written about them in my first book, "Amazing Grace," and he said our community would be glad to give a home to anyone in the South Bronx who's having a hard time and would like to just start all over.

And the doctor called back at a time when I was with Eric's mother nearby and I just gave the telephone to her. Two weeks later the whole family moved to Montana. For the little girl it worked out beautifully. Suddenly she was going to a really good school and she adapted easily to the racial difference and she ultimately went on to college and is now happily married to a dentist in Atlanta.

But Eric, the older boy, had been so - I cannot explain exactly what it was, but he had been so wounded and embittered by those years when he used to panhandle in Times Square and just one day his mother called me up in tears and she said, Jonathan, my son has taken his own life. He shot himself in the head with a shotgun.

And the other boy to whom I was even closer, Christopher - I'd known him in the homeless shelter in the Martinique. In fact, he used to stare at me whenever I was there talking with his family and it took me a while to realize that he was hungry. Before I could do the interview, I would go out to a store and buy some corn flakes or something because it was unbearable to see him, I mean hungry to the point of desperation, kind of a frenzied look.

He became very hard and tough and has spent a lot of time in prison. I kept worrying that he was going to kill somebody. Instead, as it turned out, he killed himself.

MARTIN: Have you come to any conclusions about why it is that some kids make it and some don't? I mean, you just said that, you know, you're tempted to go into a boys versus the girls analysis. Right? Is there something about being a boy and a young man that these conditions...

KOZOL: That might have...

MARTIN: ...make it really impossible? Well, what do you think?

KOZOL: I think probably the more important point is that these were little girls, that they were still babies and they were just protected from the humiliation of it all. But it may also be that there was some macho feeling among the boys that they had to hold their own against other tough boys and it may have hardened them.

I think statistics will bear me out that at least among African-American boys in our public schools and inner city schools, the dropout rate is somewhat higher than it is for the girls. I know the average for big school systems like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles is about a 50 percent dropout rate for all minority kids, but for black males it's slightly higher. I'm not an expert. I'm a storyteller. I don't know why, but I think it has something to do with needing to defend their self-respect among peers who are rough and - especially older peers who are already into crime.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Jonathan Kozol. His books span half a century of covering poverty and public education in our inner cities. His latest is called "Fire in the Ashes" and I really should say you're not covering poverty. You're talking to people. And I do think it's important to point out that you're telling us the stories of people, young people in particular, whom you've met.

And you have to tell us about Pineapple, who sounds as delicious as the name you have given her. She's...

KOZOL: I'm so glad you said that, Michel, because actually at one point in the book I said she had a delicious personality and my editor said, well, that's carrying it a little too far. It sounds as though you're trying to justify her nickname. I know. But I gave her that...

MARTIN: No. I think it goes the other way. I think it - well, because you do disguise the names of the people in the book and you make that very clear up front, that you do obscure specific facts to give them privacy, but she does sound delicious, with all due respect to your editor. You've got to tell us a little bit more about her.

KOZOL: I met Pineapple when she was in kindergarten and she was a charmer, but she was very bossy, slightly on the plumpish side, who started giving me instructions almost from the day we met. By the time she was in third grade, she decided my social life wasn't interesting enough and tried to fix me up with one of her teachers. By the time she was nine, she was expressing her great disapproval of the way I dressed, because I always wore an old shabby black suit that I loved. She sat me down one day and said, Jonathan, if we're going to be friends, I want you to look respectable. Just an adorable little kid and smart and savvy and clever.

But she went to a truly abysmal school and that school that she attended is still abysmal. First of all, it's just an ugly place. It had a medieval look to it, and I remember the basement cafeteria. You know, in those inner city schools, for some reason, you know, the kids have to go down a narrow stairway into a smelly basement cafeteria. You know, I compare that to nice suburban schools that I visit where, you know, they have delightful lunch rooms - relaxed and usually next to it green hillside where they - on sunny days they can open the glass walls and have lunch outside.

And there was Pineapple, you know, going down to this horrible cafeteria where it was really smelly. And some people wonder, well, how did I end up down there? She insisted. She said, if you're going to write about us, you've got to breathe the air we breathe.

MARTIN: One of the things that you describe was that the conditions are conditions that adults wouldn't put up with. Adults who had any...

KOZOL: You said it.

MARTIN: ...choice at all would not put up with having to stand in line for 20 minutes before you could even get anything to eat and then having to rush through your food and, you know, that kind of thing. I mean...


MARTIN: They just wouldn't do it.

KOZOL: I'm so glad you said that, Michel, because there's a tremendous assault upon inner city kids and their teachers, especially, to use the Washington term for underperforming, you know, for not boosting the test scores enough each year. But the people who criticize them most vociferously - at least the ones I know - tend to be very prosperous businesspeople, my Harvard classmates, you know, people who are on Wall Street, something like that. They wouldn't work for one hour in the kind of building where Pineapple spent her whole childhood.

Even worse was the fact that class size was tremendous. She had 32 in her class one year, 34, then 36 in fourth grade. And by the way, I mentioned this when I spoke in New York a couple of weeks ago and teachers crowded out of the audience at the end and said, it hasn't changed. I have 40 this year. I have 42.

A lot of my friends - again, I mean affluent white friends - will say to me, you know, does class size really matter for those children if they would simply buckle down? And I always ask them where their kids go to school and how many children are in their classes, and typically, you know, they live in a really nice suburb out on Long Island. They'll have 16, 17, maybe 18 kids in a third grade class. If they send them off to very good prep schools - oh, like Sidwell Friends in Washington - Sidwell...

MARTIN: Where the president's children go.

KOZOL: Oh, that's right.

MARTIN: And the vice president's grandchildren go.

KOZOL: Is that right?

MARTIN: And former President Clinton's daughter went and...

KOZOL: They have probably 14 kids in a class there. Up here in New England, at Exeter - I live near Exeter and Andover. They have 12 in a class, and when my wealthy friends say to me, Jonathan, does class size really matter for kids like Pineapple, I'll just say, I don't know. It seems to work for your children, doesn't it?

MARTIN: Tell me a little bit about what happened to Pineapple. The education piece - not the poverty side as much, but the education side. She had - not only had such large classes, but teachers kept quitting because it was an unbearable situation for a teacher, so she had, like, seven different teachers in the course of two years. The principal thought that she could compensate for this by a very rigid uniformity in curriculum, heavily test-driven. This was just prior to No Child Left Behind, but this was, in a sense, a prelude to what we now have on a national basis.

KOZOL: And it simply didn't work because Pineapple was turned off completely by these little test prep booklets they were given all year. They had no wonderful literature to read. You know, I know what lovely suburban schools are like and little kids get to read all the treasures of the earth, you know, whether they're multi-ethnic or whether they're just beautiful books like "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" and all those lovely books that entice you into reading.

So here is the answer to your question. I went to a priest in the neighborhood, a wonderful woman Episcopal priest who loved Pineapple, also, and this was a priest who shared my sense that public education is the bedrock of democracy and neither of us would willingly abandon public schools. But, in this case, the priest did exactly what any wealthy parent would have done. She used her connections to get Pineapple into a really terrific prep school for rich children and, suddenly, with 15 kids in her class and teachers who weren't under the sword of teaching to the test so they could listen to Pineapple and follow her curiosities, she made up three years in the course of four. Then, she won a scholarship in ninth grade to a wonderful prep school up in New England on the coastline of Rhode Island, which, fortunately, was also a racially mixed school and she told me this later. She said, in 10th grade, Jonathan, I knew that I had made the breakthrough. I knew that I could do it, that I could go to college.

And I'm happy to say she did. In fact, just last month, she entered her senior year of college. And what I love even more about Pineapple - not just the grit it took to get through all that - is the fact that she's decided to take an extra year in order to get certified as a teacher because she wants to go back and work in public schools in the South Bronx. As she put it, I want to go back and help the ones I left behind. I'm very proud of her.

Now, the obvious question will come up. You know, how many kids get that kind of chance? That's kind of the heart of the book. You shouldn't have to be a little charmer to get an equal shot at education in America.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, thank you for taking the time to talk with me.

KOZOL: I love talking to you.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. If you and I get together five years from - how about - let's make it 10. Let's make it 10. What kind of conversation do you think we'll be having about education in America, especially education for poor kids?

KOZOL: I think we'll be having a more hopeful conversation because, despite this tremendous sort of privatizing juggernaut right now that's really demoralizing teachers terribly and leading some of the best ones to quit and go teach in prep schools where they won't be humiliated - despite this, I've seen trends come and go. You know, I've been doing this for half a century. I started teaching in 1964 and I've seen these pendulum swings and this one will pass, also, and I suspect that, 10 years down the road, we're going to see a - and if we have the political leadership we need, I think we're going to see far greater equality in our public schools. I think we're going to see the federal government taking a larger role in guaranteeing a level playing field, which the local districts simply can not provide because of the great extremes and differences in their local wealth, property wealth, which is the present basis for school funding.

I think we're going to see a terrific teaching force, perhaps the best we've ever had in America because there's an increasing trend and I encourage this for students who want to teach to first get a liberal arts education. They'll minor in teaching and education and I love teachers, anyway. They're my heroes. I just think - especially at elementary level, I just think that's the best thing you can do with your life.

MARTIN: Jonathan Kozol is the author of many books about children and their education. Most recently, he's the author of "Fire in the Ashes: 25 Years Among the Poorest Children in America," and he was kind enough to join us from Boston, Massachusetts.

Jonathan Kozol, thank you for speaking with us.

KOZOL: Thank you, too, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.