More than a decade ago, at Saint Ann’s Episcopal Church in the South Bronx, site of a thriving after-school program that now serves nearly 100 inner-city children, Jonathan Kozol encountered a 12-year-old boy named Anthony who loved to read. Anthony had heard that Kozol was an author and announced that he, too, was a writer. He then showed Kozol his “novel,” which, at twenty-two pages, Kozol remembers as a “pretty good read.” Anthony went on to graduate from college and is now pursuing an advanced degree in English. Along with many others who have been touched by Kozol’s motivating influence, he credits Kozol with “waking us up.”
Back at homey Saint Ann’s on December 6, Anthony is among those present to honor Kozol, renowned educator, activist and blue sneaker-clad author, as he is awarded the 2005 Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship. The prize, awarded annually to an American citizen for “distinctive, courageous, imaginative, socially responsible work of significance,” is presented jointly by The Nation Institute and the Puffin Foundation, honoring Kozol for his relentless efforts to expose the educational and social inequities that exist in contemporary American schools.
Kozol began his career teaching in the freedom schools of Massachusetts, amid the civil rights struggle of the late 1960s, and he has been working with inner-city children ever since. He has written eleven books, and for his latest, Shame of the Nation (Crown), about the ever-widening racial divide in American schools, Kozol visited sixty schools in thirty districts, situated in eleven different states. Everywhere he goes he immerses himself in the schools and communities, talking to kids on the playground (when there is one) and staying up late listening to teachers. Then he resurfaces to tell the world how it is, in books chock-full of straight-talking observations.
In Shame of the Nation, Kozol recalls one of his first experiences teaching in Boston: “One windy afternoon that fall, an entire frame of windows in our make-shift class collapsed. I was standing close enough to catch the rotted frame before the glass could shatter on the children sitting just beneath it.” Kozol writes bluntly about poor children’s lives; the dire circumstances communicate themselves.
Kozol reports what he sees: schools in utter disrepair, like the high school where “a stream of water flowed down one of the main stairwells on a rainy afternoon” and “green fungus molds were growing in the office where the students went for counseling.” He relays what he hears from children like Anthony, a bright student who nevertheless did terribly on standardized tests. Anthony said he “felt beaten down by so much else that went on in the South Bronx…the test was one more beating.” He commiserates with besieged teachers, like Louis Bedrock, the science teacher at PS30X in the South Bronx to whom Shame of the Nation is dedicated and who is also present at the award ceremony. Bedrock is one of the many who call Kozol at 2 in the morning, knowing he will be awake, probably working and willing to chat or, at the very least, listen.
The irony of accepting an award for work accomplished in a realm where the work never ceases is not lost on Kozol. Nor is the fact that New York City, once the bastion of liberal, progressive movements in education and where Kozol stands to accept the award, is now the epicenter of segregation in American schools. In a country where words like “diverse” have become synonymous with “segregated” and usually mean “all black and Hispanic,” he speaks candidly about the segregation of today’s schools, worse in New York than anywhere else in the United States, and worse today than in any year since 1968, the year Martin Luther King Jr. died. And there is not much of a difference, Kozol says, between the legally enforced segregation of the Old South and the social and economic apartheid of today. The reality is the same: It is the children who suffer.