Rereading Jonathan Kozol's Death at an Early Age on the 50th anniversary of his firing from the Boston Public School System is to be forced to confront the unrelenting horror of school segregation. Its subtitle is The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools.
We first meet Kozol's fourth grade student, Stephen, who talks to himself and stares "with unusual concentration at a chosen spot on the floor." Stephen is beaten in his foster home, and ridiculed and subjected to corporal punishment at school.
Before long, we read about Frederick who is hospitalized after suffering an injury when he moved his hand as he was punished. The teachers who do the beatings might, in all other instances, seem to be decent persons, but the way they make a fetish out of inflicting pain on children seems inexplicable. When a mistake is made and a child is injured, the perpetrator forcefully protests that he "done the whipping right." But, as Kozol explains:
When you hear of a sixty pound mentally ill fourth grader being guarded by two men and whipped by a third for acts that are manifestly crazy, and when the teacher who prepares the punishment is not only gleaming with excitement but has, not ten days before, been speaking of the niggers Down South or the little bastards causing trouble up there in room four, then ... something has gone wrong.
Teachers didn't seem to notice when an emotionally disturbed child walked backwards up the stairs or made frog noises as he hopped like a frog. It was easier to dismiss such children as impossible to teach, and resort to physical punishment. Even the Reading Teacher, who appeared to be one of the better of the educators, reacted cruelly to a student who cried when he fell behind in reading. She told the struggling student, "'I'll not have it.'" When doing so, the Reading Teacher was "virtually seething with her decision-making power."
Neither did the teachers notice the "bright and attractive and impatient Negro girl who showed her hatred for school and teacher by sitting all day with a slow and smoldering look of cynical resentment." Only Kozol, it seemed, appreciated the creative insubordination of the boy who was asked the antonym of dry and replied "isn't there something called a dry martini?"
The faculty seemed united in its condemnation of Kozol's building of personal relationships with students, giving kids gifts and driving them home after school, as well as communicating respectfully with their parents. Part of the rationale was that a teacher had to protect himself, especially against those parents. But, the prime reason for refusing to show affection is that it supposedly would make teaching more difficult.
Kozol gave a writing assignment to his elementary school students where they were supposed to record details of the school or their neighborhood but without fear of being punished with a bad grade for using poor grammar or misspelling words. One student wrote:
In my school, I see dirty boards and I see papers on the floor. I see an old browken window with a sign on it saying, Do Not unlock this window are browken. And I see cracks in the walls and I see old books with ink poured all over them and I see old painting hanging on the walls. I see old alfurbet letter hanging on one nail on the wall. I see a dirty fire exit I see a old closet with supplys for class. I see pigeons flying all over the school. I see old freght trains thogh the fence in the school yard. I see pictures of countryies hanging on the wall and I see desks with wrighting all over the top of the desks and insited of the desk.
The Reading Teacher recoiled at such an assignment, accusing Kozol of prompting students to complain. Kozol especially wanted to understand that teacher because she was a liberal supporter of civil rights, who was frustratingly blind to the brutality of their school. After discussing this and other issues, Kozol understood that "the Reading Teacher couldn't face the facts because she had a long career with "a great deal of apparent success in inducing the children she taught to write cheery and pastel little letters and stories and book reports to correspond to her own views."
Most of the racism witnessed by Kozol was buttressed by a simpler rationale of "we did it, and we never had any fancy schools either." He concluded that "former Irish boys beaten by Yankee schoolmasters may frequently make ungenerous teachers for little boys whose skins were black."
It is fortuitous that the anniversary of Death at an Early Age coincides with the summer of the Charleston massacre, on the heels of the killings of unarmed black suspects in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, Baltimore, Tulsa, Oklahoma and so many other places. Some might be tempted to reread Kozol to buttress their personal positions on criminal justice, the War on Drugs, in support of the contemporary school reform movement, or in opposition to that approach to school improvement.
That is not the way to approach this masterpiece. We should unflinchingly face The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools, and then mourn. After a decent interval, there will be a time for debate and the politics of education, the criminal justice system, economic justice, and civil rights.