Saturday, September 29, 2012

Death At An Early Age

“If poison were not spreading at this moment, I might agree with the people who say that Negroes ought to sit and wait a little, and let some of these things change at their own pace. But when time is destroying the present lives of your own children, I do not believe anyone should wait. No child in the ruined Fourth Grade at my school can ever have that terrible year returned to him (pg 84).”

                This is just one of the many powerful lines in the book Death At An Early Age, in which the author, Jonathan Kozol, serves as somewhat of an undercover agent-teacher at one of Boston’s  most over-crowded inner-city public schools in 1964. He details many disturbing scenarios that occur at a school in which White teachers were instructing a predominately Black student body. The reader encounters so many disturbing stories in this book that one rightfully wonders what chance the students have for productive futures. The real kicker is that these stories are true.

                From corporal punishment (although teachers weren’t supposed to be hitting the children), to calling the children “niggers”, to setting low expectations for their scholastic performance (and therefore teaching them to have low expectations of themselves), Kozol navigates the physical, emotional, and psychological consequences that these children suffer presently and those that they will most likely suffer into adulthood. Beyond poor treatment, the children are also relegated to attend a school that is in disrepair. Who can sit and pay attention in a school that doesn’t have enough books or classrooms and with a roof that leaks when it rains? (Actually, too many schools are still dealing with these issues today, less the blatant racism).

                Kozol published Death At An Early Age in 1967. He was born and raised in Boston, and this Harvard grad is best known for being a public education reform and civil rights advocate. Death At An Early Age was his first nonfiction book, garnering a National Book Award in Science, Philosophy and Religion.  He still participates in speaking engagements around the country to this day (my mother went to one of them a few years ago. I wish I could have attended with her).

                This book is both disturbing and enlightening.  To know that these things were happening in public schools around the country (because we know that this didn’t just happen in Boston) during my parents’ generation is uncomfortable, to say the least.  My father grew up in an inner city just a few hours south of Boston.  Did he face teachers like the ones in this book?  Did your parents or did you, yourself, deal with this?  What’s worse is that the mentality that these teachers pretty much forced on these kids, one of self-worthlessness, feeling unintelligent, and probably hating school, was most likely passed down to the children and grandchildren of many of these inner city students.  If you’re treated like you don’t matter at school, why would you want to go?  Why would you take it seriously? If you’re not learning what you’re supposed to be learning, because you have teachers who think you’re incapable, then what’s the point?  And how then, can you raise children to believe that education is the path to success? And what about your grandchildren? It becomes a generational cycle.

                Because I take education seriously, reading this book was kind of emotionally draining for me, but it was so worth it. It’s an important part of recent Black history (and inner city Latinos can probably relate too) that shouldn’t be swept under the rug, as we can see the devastating impact it’s still having on many inner city kids today. Let’s re-read this 45 year old book, and consider how far we’ve come, how far we haven’t, and what we need to change.
                Do you know about Jonathan Kozol?  Have you read the book?  What do you think about Death At An Early Age?

Signing Off,
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