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It was a long time since I'd been with children in the pubiic schools.
I had begun to teach in 1964 in Boston in a segregated school so crowded and so poor that it could not provide my fourth grade children with a classroom. We shared an auditorium with another fourth grade and the choir and a group that was rehearsing, starting in October, for a Christmas play that, somehow, never was produced. In the spring I was shifted to another fourth grade that had had a string of substitutes all year. The 35 children in the class hadn't had a permanent teacher since they entered kindergarten. That year, I was their thirteenth teacher.
The results were seen in the first tests I gave. In April most were reading at the second grade level. Their math ability was at the first grade level.
In an effort to resuscitate their interest, I began to read them poetry I liked. They were drawn especially to poems of Robert Frost and Langston Hughes. One of the most embittered children in the class began to cry when she first heard the words of Langston Hughes.What happens to a dream deferred?
She went home and memorized the lines.
The next day, I was fired. There was, it turned out, a list of "fourth grade poems" that teachers were obliged to follow but which, like most first-year teachers, I had never seen. According to school officials, Robert Frost and Langston Hughes were "too advanced" for children of this age. Hughes, moreover, was regarded as "inflammatory."
I was soon recruited to teach in a suburban system west of Boston. The shock of going from one of the poorest schools toone of the wealthiest cannot be overstated. I now had 21 children in a cheerful building with a principal who welcomed innovation.
After teaching for several years, I became involved with other interests--the health and education of farmworkers in New Mexico and Arizona, the problems of adult illiterates in several states, the lives of homeless families in New York. It wasn't until 1988, when I returned to Massachusetts after a long stay in New York City, that I realized how far I'd been drawn away from my original concerns. I found that I missed being with schoolchildren, and I felt a longing to spend time in public schools again. So, in the fall of 1988, 1 set off on another journey.
During the next two years I visited schools and spoke with children in approximately 30 neighborhoods from Illinois to Washington, D.C., and from New York to San Antonio. Wherever possible, I also met with children in their homes. There was no special logic in the choice of cities that I visited. I went where I was welcomed or knew teachers or school principals or ministers of churches.
What startled me most--although it puzzles me that I was not prepared for this--was the remarkable degree of racial segregation that persisted almost everywhere. Like most Americans, I knew that segregation was still commonin the public schools, but I did not know how much it had intensified. The Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education 37 years ago, in which the court had found that segregated education was unconstitutional because it was "inherently unequal," did not seem to have changed very muchfor children in the schools I saw, not, at least, outside of the Deep South. Most of the urban schools I visited were 95 to 99 percent nonwhite. In no school that I saw anywhere in the United States were nonwhite children in large numbers truly intermingled with white children.
Moreover, in most cities, influential people that I met showed little inclination to address this matter and were sometimes even puzzled when I brought it up. Many people seemed to view the segregation issue as "a past injustice" that had been sufficiently addressed. Others took it as an unresolved injustice that no longer held sufficient national attention to be worth contesting. In all cases, I was given the distinct impression that my inquiries about this matter were not welcome.
None of the national reports I saw made even passing references to inequality or segregation. Low reading scores, high dropout rates, poor motivation--symptomatic matters--seemed to dominate discussion. In three cities--Baltimore, Milwaukee and Detroit--separate schools or separate classes for black males had been proposed. Other cities Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia among them--were considering the same approach. Black parents or black school officials sometimes seemed to favor this idea. Booker T. Washington was cited with increasing frequency, Du Bois never, and Martin Luther King only with cautious selectivity. He was treated as an icon, but his vision of a nation in which black and white kids went to school together seemed to be effaced almost entirely. Dutiful references to "The Dream" were often seen in school brochures and on wall posters during February, when "Black History" was celebrated in the public schools, but the content of the dream was treated as a closed box that could not be opened without ruining the celebration.
For anyone who came of age during the years from 1954 to 1968, these revelations could not fail to be disheartening. What seems unmistakable, but, oddly enough, is rarely said in public settings nowadays, is that the nation, for all practice and intent, has turned its back upon the moral implications, if not yet the legal ramifications, of the Brown decision. The struggle being waged today, where there is any struggle being waged at all, is closer to the one that was addressed in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson, in which the court accepted segregated institutions for black people, stipulating only that they must be equal to those open to white people. The dual society, at least in public education, seems in general to be unquestioned.Savage Inequalities. Copyright © by Jonathan Kozol. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.