Suffer the Children

All children are equal in the eyes of God — but not in the eyes of America.

By Jonathan Kozol

Sometimes, I admit, I feel lonely. I live alone, with nobody except my dog to keep me company, in a small town in Massachusetts. Four years ago, on the birthday that was really hard to face, my 60th, virtually everyone I knew forgot me. I got a visit from my closest friend, who is a priest; he liked me and my dog, Sweetie Pie. Other than that, I was alone.

But when I went out to get the mail that day I found a birthday card from a little boy in the South Bronx named Elio, a 6-year-old whose face is very round and looks like a light brown olive with a smile painted on it—one of the sweetest little kids I’ve ever known. It was the only birthday card I got. My publisher forgot, my editor forgot, my mother forgot, but Elio remembered. I’m very grateful for that card. I carry it with me everywhere I go. Whenever I struggle to fight off despair and weariness, I think of Elio and I thank God for giving wise hearts to small children.

I’ve spent most of my life working with little kids like Elio. I started back in 1964, 36 years ago, in the segregated public schools of Boston. The murders in June of that year of three young people—Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman—in Mississippi had an extraordinary effect upon the nation. It did on me as well, and for some reason I can’t explain, I simply got on the train in Harvard Square and went to the other end of the line, to Roxbury, a black community in Boston. I taught reading that summer, and I loved it, and it changed my life.

I became a teacher in the Boston public schools, the hardest thing I ever did in my life. Winning a Rhodes scholarship was easy compared to walking into an inner-city school as a young teacher wholly unprepared. The first time I ever taught, they sent me to teach kindergarten. I was terrified. I remember walking in and seeing those 35 little creatures, and having no idea what to do with them. But I survived and I’ve spent most of the decades since working in one way or another with black and Hispanic kids in various parts of the nation, for most of the years since 1993 in the South Bronx.

As those who have read Amazing Grace know, many of the children I write about suffer from chronic asthma. Nearly a quarter of them see their fathers only when they visit them in prison. Many know hunger. Many have seen homicides. Most have lost a relative to AIDS. All attend profoundly segregated schools. Of 11,000 children in the school district that serves this neighborhood, exactly 22 are white, a segregation rate of 99.8 percent. That .2 of one percentage point marks the difference between legally enforced apartheid in the South of 50 years ago and socially and economically enforced apartheid in New York today.

The public schools these kids attend are not just segregated, but outrageously and unacceptably unequal. At the present moment, at the start of the new millennium, we spend about $8,000 a year on little boys like Elio, a very low figure. That’s like $5,000 in Maine or New Hampshire. You lift up little Elio in your grown-up, loving arms and you plunk him down in any average, typical, white suburb of New York and you’d be spending $12,000 a year on Elio’s education. You lift him up again and plunk him down in one of the wealthiest, most opulent suburbs of New York, like Great Neck or Manhasset, and we’d be spending close to $20,000 every year on Elio’s education.

We say in church or synagogue that all our children are of equal value in the eyes of God; and in the eyes of God, I’m sure they are, but not in the eyes of America. In the eyes of America, children come into the classroom with a price tag on their forehead. These little ones that I write about are just $8,000 babies. If you want to see a $20,000 baby, you have to get in your car and drive out to the suburbs. Of course, these inequalities transcend racial bounds. New Hampshire has some of the most unequal schools in the United States. Even after the courts have ruled in favor of the poorer districts, New Hampshire’s allegedly liberal governor has refused to take courageous action on the court’s decision. If our politicians do not act on our courts’ decisions, people will act some day in ways that will be far less civil and less patient than some of us would like.

Despite the angry things I’ve said and written, my newest book, Ordinary Resurrections, is actually a cheerful book. The children I describe in it are very young and innocent and haven’t yet been soiled by the knowledge that their country doesn’t like them. They’re lucky children, in one way, because some of them go to a good public elementary school called P.S. 30. Almost all these little kids go after school to a wonderful, small Episcopal church, St. Ann’s, which runs a program of tutorial instruction.

The children of St. Ann’s are beautiful. They’re kind to strangers. They worry about older people. They worry about me, far more than I can worry about them. The first time I met Elio, I asked how old he was. I’m 6”, he said. “How old are you?” I told him I was 60. He immediately crossed himself, then said, “Oh, Jonathan, I hope you’re not going to die.”

Like all adults, I try to be cheerful when I’m with the kids, but you can’t fool little kids. One day I was at the church reading a book with Elio, a day my elderly father was in the hospital for surgery. Elio noticed that I kept looking out the window. He said, “Jonathan, why are you looking out the window?” I told him I was looking at a squirrel. And he said, “For real?” I said, “No, I was thinking of my father.” He said, “I knew you were feeling sad.” I asked him how he knew, and he said, “Because you looked as if you were about to cry.” Then, this little boy, this 6-year-old, took his hand and turned it in reverse, so the soft backside of his hand faced me. He stroked my wrist three times, ever so softly, then looked at me and said, “Are you all better now?” as if that was exactly the proper medication for a moment of unhappiness.

Occasionally I’ll bring people with me to meet the children. The person they loved most is somebody with whom every student at Bates—and, I’ll bet, every alumnus and alumna—would love to spend a day, a man named Mr. Rogers. Fred Rogers said he’d like to meet the kids, but asked me if I thought that it would be intrusive. (I couldn’t help smiling at the thought of Mr. Rogers being intrusive.) We went up on the No. 6 train, and it was a nice experience to ride with Mr. Rogers on the train. There he was, the same sweet guy that children have been learning from for 40 years. He even had his sweater and his sneakers and his bow tie, and people on the train kept looking at him kind of strangely. We got off the train at Brook Avenue. We walked one block, and a garbage truck came screeching to a halt. The driver, a 50-year-old black man, jumped out and hugged Mr. Rogers.

We went to St. Ann’s, where Elio spotted Mr. Rogers from across the crowded room. He zoomed straight across the room with his arms spread wide. At the moment of collision, he gave him a big kiss on the forehead. He said, “Welcome to my neighborhood, Mr. Rogers.”

Still, when you visit Elio’s neighborhood you fear what will happen to these children when they leave the safe little church and the protective world of elementary school. A few win admission to good innovative secondary schools in the South Bronx. A few, a very few, get into racially mixed schools in other sections of New York. But most children in this neighborhood never do escape. They go to two or three large high schools in the Bronx. The largest numbers of them are trapped by race and class in a single school called Morris High, the very symbol of millennial apartheid in this nation. Twelve hundred ninth graders enter this high school, and I’ve never seen one who is white. Of those 1,200, only 90 make it to 12th grade, and of those 90, only 60 graduate. More of these kids will go to prison than will go to college. Not more than two or three out of a thousand children at that school ever has the chance to come to a distinguished college such as Bates.

It’s a crime that inequalities such as this should exist within a democratic land. It’s a crime that half the preschool children in poor neighborhoods like the South Bronx and many right in the state of Maine, as well, are excluded from the Head Start program. It’s a crime that medical and dental care is not provided, or provided only stintingly and inconsistently, to poor children. It’s a crime that politicians place their emphasis on easy-to-demand tests and standards, but not on giving kids an equal chance to meet those standards and prevail on these exams. The emphasis on tests—they’re the cheapest thing in the world—has come to be obsessive. Politicians across the country, and this includes almost every governor, don’t want to talk about the abiding cancer of apartheid on the body of America. They don’t want to talk about money. They don’t want to talk about inequality. They don’t want to talk about any of the elemental dictates of the gospels. They don’t want to talk about the language of Isaiah. They talk about tests and standards and exams: “We’ll hold these kids accountable!” That’s well and good, but who will hold society accountable for what we do to them?

All these are crimes in which the victims are entirely innocent. These little kids I write about do nothing to offend us. They have done nothing wrong. They are too small to hurt us and too sweet to fear us and too innocent to hate us. Their only sin, if such it is, is to be born poor in an opulently rich society in an inhumanely cold moment in our nation’s history. When will we ever know, as Auden wrote, “what all schoolchildren learn: Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return.” The miracle is that these kids do so little evil.

Many have read about Anthony, a wonderful boy who dominates Amazing Grace. We met one day in 1993 on Cypress Avenue in the Bronx, not far from the filthy medical incinerator the city put there (they didn’t want it poisoning the air of rich, white neighborhoods), in a neighborhood where so many of the kids have asthma. There was Anthony, this 12-year-old Puerto Rican kid. He looked at me and said, “Sir, I understand you are a writer. I, too, am an author.” I asked what kind. He said, “A novelist.” He took a 12-page “novel” that he’d written out of his backpack and made me read it.

He was in love with the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe. His life was hard. His mother was a wonderful woman, but the poorest of the poor. If it hadn’t been for St. Ann’s Church, Anthony would probably have ended up at Morris High. But Anthony was fortunate in this respect. A wealthy man read Amazing Grace and called me up one day out of the blue. This happens now and then; it’s like in a Dickens novel. He said, “I want to meet you. Can you come to New York?” So I did. I spent one hour with this decent man and he looked in my eyes and said, “What should I do?” He sent Anthony to a great boarding school in Massachusetts.

The headmaster at this school looked at Anthony’s dreadful grades and test scores and just did not believe Anthony could survive a school so hard. I asked him to spend a day with Anthony. He agreed and afterwards called me up and said, “I want him.”

It was hard, and Anthony had to draw on everything he had—his love of literature, his courage, his charm and humor, and religious faith. He went to summer school every summer; he worked through his vacations. He still loves Edgar Allan Poe, but he soon found new favorites as his intellectual horizons were expanded. He struggled hard and he prevailed. When he walked across the stage at his commencement, his good headmaster let me have the privilege of handing him his degree.

Anthony was given this terrific opportunity because he caught the eye of privileged adults. As I said, this child is a charmer. But in a democracy, children should not have to charm us with joyful personalities in order to win a fair share of the pie. They ought to get it by the right of birth. They ought to get it by the fact of being human.

We fail, in our God-given responsibilities as individuals and institutions, when we pick and choose among the children of the poor and give the ones we like a better chance, while ignoring thousands of their neighbors. In the press, one of the grave misconceptions of my work is that I am a nice old guy who loves to spend my time with children and raise money now and then to send a couple of kids to college, to sweeten up my sense of guilt. But I am also a political man at heart and I have not renounced my politics. I write of charity and beg for charity because I need it for the children whom I love, but I do not believe that charity will ever be a substitute for justice.

Justice is a different thing. Justice means we enter history in order to transform it. Many college students I meet are wonderfully inspired about their dreams; they are not passive in the least. But far too many come to college with an utterly passive sense of history. Listening to them, I get the sense that in their minds, history is something that takes place each night for 30 minutes on TV narrated by Peter Jennings or Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw, and after 20 years, is translated into even columns of dull writing in a textbook.

I would like to suggest a different and less passive way of viewing history. History, I would propose, is what we do in the morning about the things we read and cried about the night before. History is not something we watch or read or memorize to win good grades on exams. History is something we create by our own acts of conscience and our restless longings to be actors on the stage within a drama we have helped to write.

I pray that some of today’s Bates students will share this vision of an active and transformative existence, rooted in the knowledge, wisdom, and moral judgment you acquire during your college years, and, with this vision, turning intellect to action, generous ideas to lived ideals, and technocratic skills into the instruments of justice.

To those who share this vision, I wish you strength and joy and lots of fun—because that is a part of social change, as well—and plenty of energy and a terrific sense of humor (you will need it!) and the capability to live at times with loneliness and fear, with the innocence of children and the passion of the prophets, and impatience and persistence and survival, and, long years from now, when you look back upon the full course of your lives, the taste of victory.

© 2001 by Jonathan Kozol