Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hopeby Jonathan Kozol
Like his most recent book, Amazing Grace, this work also takes place in New York's/b>/b>
In a stirring departure from his earlier work, Jonathan Kozol has written his most personal and hopeful book to date, an energized and unexpected answer to the bleakness of Death at an Early Age, the prize-winning classic that he published more than 30 years ago.
Like his most recent book, Amazing Grace, this work also takes place in New York's South Bronx; but it is a markedly different book in mood and vantage point, because we see life this time through the eyes of children, not, as the author puts it, from the perspective of a grown-up man encumbered with a Harvard education. Here, too, we see devoted teachers in a good but underfunded public elementary school that manages, against all odds, to be a warm, inviting, and protective place; and we see the children also in the intimate religious setting of a church in which they are watched over by the vigilant grandmothers of the neighborhood and by a priest whose ministry is, first and foremost, to the very young.
A work of guarded optimism that avoids polemic and the fevered ideologies of partisan debate, Ordinary Resurrections is a book about the little miracles of stubbornly persistent innocence in children who are still unsoiled by the world and still can view their place within it without cynicism or despair. Sometimes playful, sometimes jubilantly funny, and sometimes profoundly sad, they're sensitive children, by and large -- complex and morally insightful -- and their ethical vitality denounces and subverts the racially charged labels that the world of grown-up expertise too frequently assigns to them.
The author's personal involvement with specific children deepens as the narrative evolves. A Jewish man, now 63 years old, he finds his own religious speculations growing interwoven with the moral and religious explorations of the children, some of whom have been his friends for nearly seven years. The children change, of course, from year to year as they learn more about the world; but the author is changed also by the generous and tender ways in which the children, step by step, unlock their secrets and unveil the mysteries of their belief to him.
Salvation in these stories comes not from the promises of politicians or the claims of sociology but from the ordinary resurrections that take place routinely in the hearts of children. "We all lie down," a theologian tells the author. "We all rise up. We do this every day." So, too, when given a fair chance, do many of the undervalued urban children of our nation. In this book, we see some beautiful children as they rise, and rise again.
Onion AV Club
The New York Times Book Review
“Deeply moving. This is the most personal of Kozol’s efforts.” –New York Times Book Review
“Warm and affectionate portraits…Kozol has written an eloquent love letter to a set of children…whom he has grown to know, cherish, and delight in. Deeply moving and beautifully written.” – Washington Post Book World
“I think God finds consolation in the tiny triumphs over daily oppressions by the least noticed of us, In the plainest places. So too does Jonathan Kozol, a great man who has written another great book that is all compassion, conviction, and encouragement.” –Mario Cuomo
“What a gift! A magnificent testimony to the communion of grace through the human touch.” –Fred Rogers, creator and host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
“Kozol’s authenticity has not diminished with time, nor has his power to put a human face on Northern urban segregation.” –Library Journal
“Kozol retains his anger and contempt at the city’s neglect of his small friends, but he takes a moment here to marvel at their silliness and sorrows, gentleness and bravery.” –Booklist, starred review
“A persistent voice of conscience…His sensitive profiles highlight these kids’ resilience, quiet tenacity, eagerness to learn and high spirits, as well as the teachers’ remarkable dedication.” –Publishers Weekly
“By demonstrating the resilience of children in a meditative and measured voice, Kozol quietly intensified the indictment he has made in previous books of the inequalities that jeopardize the growth of children in our poorest neighborhoods. Ordinary Resurrections is a human work of the spirit that holds up a candle in a dark time.”—Henry Mayer, author of All on Fire
“Acutely observed, utterly unsentimental…and heartbreakingly beautiful.” –Frederick Buechner, author of The Eyes of the Heart
“What a wonderful book! I have devoured it—replete with the laughter, tears, and wise insights that all of Jonathan’s books produce…I cannot tell you how moved and touched I was.” –Rabbi David Saperstein, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
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Read an Excerpt
Elio is seven and a half years old. A picture of him taken near the doorway of the kitchen on the first floor of St. Ann's shows a light-brown child with a head shaped like an olive and a small stuffed rabbit under his right arm.
He's almost smiling in the picture. It's a careful look and it conveys some of the tension that is present in his eyes on days when he's been struggling to keep his spirits up. It's not a gloomy look, however; I have other photographs in which he looks as if he's close to breaking out in tears, but this one's balanced about halfway between cheerfulness and something like the vaguest sense of fear. If you studied it a while and were in an optimistic mood you might finally decide it was the picture of a child who is somewhat timid, almost happy, and attempting to be brave.
Fred Rogers took the photograph. He was in New York to do something for PBS and told me he would like to meet the children at the afterschool. We went together on the subway to Brook Avenue, walked to a local school to talk with kindergarten children there, and found our way to St. Ann's Church at three o'clock. He and Elio became acquainted with each other very fast.
Elio is like that. He makes friends with grown-ups easily. He isn't a distrustful boy; nor is he prematurely worldly-wise, as many inner-city children are believed to be and frequently portrayed in press accounts. He has no father to take care of him--his father is a long way from the Bronx, in one of the state prisons--but he has a competent and energetic mother, blessed with a congenial temperament and an immense amount of patience. She looks weary sometimes and develops a wry smile when he goes on for a long time with his questions; but she's understanding with him and she always tries to give him a good answer.
Some of the older boys here pick on him because he's very small. They usually get the best of him in verbal repartee because he has no skill at using words sarcastically and doesn't seem to know how to defend himself when he's been teased. Often he reacts by growing sullen and morose, at other times by breaking into tears; but now and then, just as it seems that he's regaining his composure, he goes to the boy who has been teasing him and hits him hard--he clobbers him!--right in the mouth or nose. Small as he is, he fights ferociously.
The grandmothers at St. Ann's, who help to supervise the children when they come here after school, are forced to isolate him in the kitchen when this happens so that they can keep an eye on him until he has calmed down. Miss Katrice, who helps to run the kitchen on most weekday afternoons, has many conversations with him on important subjects like repentance.
He was in a fight this afternoon. When I arrived I found him in the kitchen, sitting on a blue upended milk box in the corner opposite the stove. Tears in his eyes, he had the overheated look of the unjustly persecuted. When I asked Katrice what happened, she just nodded at him as if that was all it took to make it clear that he'd been misbehaving.
"Fighting again . . . ," she grumbled, as she piled milk containers on the counter.
His moods change rapidly. He cries if he's been teased, or if he thinks that he's been left out of a joke, or game, or conversation, or if someone fails to keep a promise that was made to him. When, on the other hand, he's been surprised by being given something he did not expect, the look of satisfaction that can sweep across his face is like a burst of summer sunshine in the middle of the darkest winter afternoon and it immediately makes one feel ashamed to recognize how little it has cost in time or in attentiveness to make this moment possible.
On 42nd Street one afternoon, I see a man who's selling imitation baby chicks that make a realistic sound--"cheep cheep!"--when held within the warmth of someone's hand. A group of kids are looking at the chicks with fascination. They cost only five dollars. Their father buys them one. I buy one too and find a box to put it in. When Elio unwraps the box the next day in the kitchen of St. Ann's and rests the yellow creature in his hand and it begins to "cheep," his eyes grow wide. "Katrice!" he says, and strokes the chick repeatedly and brings it up to show the priest. The next afternoon, he says, "I put him in his box next to my bed." But, one week later, when Katrice refers to it again--she asks him if he's "taking good care" of his chick--he looks bemused by this and, though he says that he still has the chick, it doesn't seem of interest to him anymore.
One day in the end of March, while sitting with me in one of the reading rooms upstairs, he tells me of his aunt.
"I feel so sorry that my Titi died," he says.
Titi is a Spanish word for "auntie," a diminutive of tía (aunt), used by Hispanic children in the neighborhood, and Elio has several aunts. I ask which of his aunts he means.
"My best one," he replies.
I ask if he means his mother's sister, but he doesn't want to be precise about it in the way that I would like.
"She was my best Titi," he insists, and leaves the matter there.
Two days later, he comes up to me looking concerned and staring straight ahead of him, directly at my shirt.
"Uh-oh . . . ," he says.
I look down to see what's wrong.
"Oh, Jonathan! I fooled you! April Fool's!"
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
JONATHAN KOZOL received the National Book Award in Science, Philosophy, and Religion for Death at an Early Age, the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award for Rachel and Her Children, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Amazing Grace. He lives in the village of Byfield, Massachusetts.
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This was my first introduction to Jonathon Kozol, and I have since obtained more of his previous works. This is a must-read book for anyone involved in the lives of children. Kozol provides the ideal example of how to respect children and make them feel important just by listening to them. And the stories intertwined throughout drive this point home.
I heard Johnathan Kozol speak at a Congregational church in Hartford this summer. I bought this book and cherished the time that I spent reading it. The intimacy with the children at St. Anne's surrounds you like a warm hug. It reminded me of what it was like to be a kid. The courage of Mother Martha and the women who staff the afterschool center give you cause to hope again for the redemption of a society that brands a community and its childeren as expendible. Johnathan Kozol is a remarkable writer and a even more remarkable human being. This should be required reading for every city, state, and federal official before they take office so that they can see the effects of their failed policies on the public.
Jonathon Kozol, a driven former teacher from Boston, has found a spiritual home at St.Anns in the Bronx (my old neighborhood!). He gazes, he listens with wonder at the children,most of whom are forgotten little souls in our society. Best of all, he engages us with their lives, their dreams, their strength. The young people-- and the heroic adults in their world-- become our family too as, indeed, they are. Casually, Kozol assaults a system that makes Mott Haven possible.
Even if you are not a non-fiction fan, this book is worth your diversion from fun, fantasy and someone else's dreamed up story.I heard on interview with the author on NPR and was so impressed that I ordered the book at once and read it in two sittings. The stories of Pineapple and her friends in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the South Bronx are delightful in their own right, but when you add stories from St. Ann's Church and Mother Martha, they make a fabulous book, well-written with much insight and compassion. This book should be required reading for all teachers, and the rest of the human race, too. I hope this book wins the Nobel/Pulitzer and any other award given to books who tell true and compelling human stories.
If you cry when reading this work, it is because the moments are too beautiful. I often hear that others cry when reading Kozol's other works, but then, they cried because they thought the truth was too hard to bare. Ordinary Resurrections asks us to see children as they really are: their resiliancy and their struggles. It asks us to see hope where we have no right too, such that suddenly you realize how much love there really is in life, even in its toughest moments. As a soon to be school teacher in the inner city, I read this work and learn to forget the doom of statistics and instead see each child as a person ready to grow, designed for goodwill, and overcoming odds if we only nurture her. In introducing his work, Kozol is unafraid to mention his age, his loneliness, and his religion. One senses in this work the light these children have given to his life.