City Lit: Little Fait

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Mott Haven is familiar to those who have read Jonathan Kozol’s previous books describing the forces that have shaped life in this blighted section of the South Bronx. In his 1996 book, Amazing Grace, he painted a poignant portrait of a community torn by alcohol, drugs and violence. Kozol’s Mott Haven was just as riven by policies aimed at reducing residents’ access to vital city services, resources that could have ameliorated the difficult conditions of their lives.

In his latest book, Ordinary Resurrections, Kozol turns us to a different view of the neighborhood, this time from the perspective of its young children. While the realities of AIDS, violence, absent fathers, and the not-so-benign neglect of City Hall form the context of this book, Kozol has refocused his attention to a world where children make crayon drawings, play with electronic games and dream of hopeful futures.

Ordinary Resurrections has a point of view that diverges decidedly from Kozol’s previous writings. His earlier work is given over to conversations with policy-makers, analyses of arguments by city officials or interviews with social service workers commenting on the effects of cutbacks. Here, Kozol spends time with children who attend an after-school program at St. Ann’s Church in Mott Haven. He sees kids here not as pawns of policy but rather as imaginative, curious people with friends, fathers, mothers, toys and broken pencil sharpeners. Kozol writes, “The actual kingdom that they live in for a good part of each day is not the land of bad statistics but the land of licorice sticks and long division, candy bars and pencil sets, and Elmo dolls and…bewildering computer toys called Giga Pets that make a squeaking sound and are the bane of their schoolteachers.”

The book has a self-reflective, even confessional, quality. Kozol is weighed down by worries about his ailing parents, and his visits with the children at St. Ann’s prove to be self-healing. He goes there often over two years to meet with the children, because he likes to be with them and because “the world felt safer in their company.” There’s Pineapple, one of the young girls Kozol meets and befriends. Pineapple is very protective of her adult friend when he visits her school. She makes sure he gets lunch in the cafeteria, and when a boy asks him about the words he’s writing in his notebook, she instructs him, “Don’t answer him,” pointing out that Kozol shouldn’t have to answer questions from a stranger.

Kozol also draws out the “roller-coaster of emotions” felt by the residents of Mott Haven, where resignation at their lot is followed by hope at the first promise of more housing and lessening crime, and disappointment again when promises are broken and changes prove to be cosmetic. This never-ending cycle suggests the death and rebirth of a community every day.

Kozol’s sensitivity also allows him to see children change and grow. “Every time I think I’ve got the personalities of certain children ‘fixed’–‘established’–in my mind,” he reflects, “something new is said or something unexpected happens that dismantles my assumptions and compels me to go back to zero and start over.”

These close-up profiles of the children’s lives do not mean Ordinary Resurrections is empty of policy implications. Kozol shows us that programs like the one at St. Ann’s are important for children’s development, and often help children that schools fail to reach. To support these initiatives, Kozol suggests that there be funding beyond those programs whose goals can easily be subsumed within “outcomes-based” language; narrowly defined academic programs should not be the only ones the city underwrites. Rather, he maintains, support for programs should be based in part on the universal need of children to have fun and make friends in a safe environment, something that St. Ann’s does very well.

Finally, we can learn a lot by thinking of teachers and youth development professionals as “specialists in opening small packages,” as Kozol puts it. Teaching adults who work with children to listen well and to gain the respect and attention of the kids is no small task. It requires finding adults who retain a sensitive ear, a sense of playfulness, and a commitment to what Kozol calls the “ministry” and “poetry” of teaching.

The battles Kozol has fought before no longer captivate his imagination in Ordinary Resurrections. “Complicated arguments with angry intellectuals lost much of the attraction they had held for me in previous years,” he writes. Here, the conversations are with those who are most affected by the city’s policies.

And often these conversations touched on matters of spiritual faith. It’s obvious that the book’s focus on religion has much to do with Kozol’s own doubts when faced with his parents’ mortality. The children’s opinions on God and religion serve as foils to Kozol’s own reflections on faith. And with them, he identifies another kind of faith in the reciprocity of relationships between adults and children–especially the ways that Elio, Pineapple, Piedad and the other children help their friend Jonathan rise above his own loneliness.

Bill Penuel is an educational researcher working in Silicon Valley. He has worked as an after-school program director, mentor and evaluator.