Jonathan Kozol visits Webster University

Moriah Boyce

Jonathan Kozol spoke at Webster University’s Loretta Hall on Sept. 24. Kozol, non-fiction writer, educator and activist, is known for his books on the public education for children in the United States.

When he spoke to the room full of 900 people, one of the first things Jonathan Kozol said was, “History is what we do in the morning.” Kozol said, “I always feel safer when I am in a room full of teachers. Teachers are my heroes.”  

Kozol said he never intended to become a teacher, but that one day he got into his car and drove into the black part of town of Roxbury in Boston, where he is from. Kozol asked a black minister what he could do to help and was told that he could become a teacher and teach the less privileged children. That is exactly what he did.

The first time he taught was a kindergarten class, and Kozol said, “I was terrified!” For 40 years he has been working with children in inner-city schools.  While Kozol was teaching children, many of them never recovered from the battering they received by the way people treated them, how horrible of an education they received and the conditions that they were taught in. Kozol received a standing ovation and the Webster University’s 2012 Global Reader in Residence award.

Kozol talked about this little girl that he taught, who he fell in love with very quickly. He calls her Pineapple.

When he saw her house for the first time, he was horrified. Kozol said, “Pineapple lived in an awful building. Deplorable conditions, no plumbing and dangerous elevators, and the schools were even worse.”

The schools were vile looking and medieval. The cafeteria was in the basement and smelled like a feeding trough for animals. The class sizes were huge. They varied from 32 to 38 children. The teachers would quit quickly, even very good teachers wouldn’t stay. Class sizes are still growing. In some places, classes had 40 children, Kozol said.

Kozol looked around the auditorium and said, “If an education is good enough for the members of the Senate, a daughter of a billionaire or the president of the United States, then it’s good enough for the poor Latino and black children!” The whole auditorium erupted with applause with this.

The reading materials that children get in the poor schools are Phonics, no books, no stories, no plots. One story that the children in Pineapple’s class received was called “Sad Sam” and the only sentence was “Sad Sam sat on the sand.” This was the only sentence for 18 pages.

Kozol declared, “No child left behind was a total failure.” The children in Pineapple’s class learned next to nothing. Pineapple could barely read a sentence larger than four or five words. Kozol said these children are “artificially retarded” because of the learning material they are given.

When Pineapple was taken pity on, and someone paid for her to have a good education in a “rich kids’ school,” as Kozol said, she was able to make up three years of school in only four years. This was the year that Pineapple knew she could do it, she could go to college. She was the first person in her neighborhood to go to college.

Before Jonathan Kozol said goodnight, he made one last statement to the students in the audience. He said, “Life goes fast, so use it well!”

Dr. Sarah Riss, WGSD superintendent, said, “Kids come to school with the gaps already existing, and I think Mr. Kozol does a good job of showing this. Mr. Kozol seems to me to be a very caring person.”

Dr. John Simpson, WGSD assistant superintendent, said, “I felt like he was holding everyone responsible. He was calling people, schools, universities, and presidents to action. So many people don’t see themselves as change makers.  Students that are living in poverty learn at the same pace as other students, but since they started behind, they can’t catch up.”

Dr. Simpson liked the idea that charity is not a substitute for substance.  Dr. Simpson said he liked this idea because fighting for justice, in terms of inequalities for children or people, isn’t a part-time activity or something that can be bought, it’s an every moment activity that lasts a lifetime.

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