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ing trouble up there in Room Four, then even the administrators of the system are going to have to admit that something has gone wrong.
The room in which I taught my fourth grade was not really a room at all, but the corner of an auditorium. Three or four blackboards, two of them unstable, made the area seem a little bit set apart. The first time I approached that classroom I noticed a huge torn stage curtain, a couple of broken windows, and about thirty-five bewildered-looking children, most of whom were Negro. At the other end of the auditorium there was a classroom similar to mine.
The room was relatively quiet during the first hour of the morning. Not until ten o'clock did the bad cross fire start. By ten thirty it attained such a crescendo that the children in the back rows of my section couldn't hear my questions, and I couldn't hear their answers. The room, being large and wooden, echoed every sound. Sometimes the other fourth-grade teacher and I would stagger the lessons in which our classes had to recite aloud. But this makeshift method meant that one class had to be induced to maintain an unnatural rule of silence during major portions of the day. We couldn't always do it anyway, and usually the only solution was to try to outshout each other, so that both of us often left school hoarse or wheezing.
Hours were lost in this manner, yet that was not the worst. Soon after I came into that auditorium, I discovered that our two fourth grades were also going to have to share the space with the glee club, with play rehearsals, special reading, special arithmetic, and at certain times a third- or fourth-grade phonics class. I began to make head counts of the numbers of pupils:
Seventy children from the two regular fourth grades before the invasion. Then ninety with the glee club and remedial arithmetic.
One hundred and seven with the play rehearsal.
One day the sewing class came in with their sewing machines, and then that became a regular practice in the hall. Once I counted one hundred and twenty people, all talking, singing, yelling, laughing, reciting. Before the Christmas break it became apocalyptic. Not more than half of the planned lessons took place throughout that time
One day a window whose frame had rotted was blown right out of its sashes by a strong gust of wind. I had noticed several times before that it was in bad condition, but so many other things were broken in the school building that I had not said anything about it. The principal and custodians and other people had been in that building for a long time before me. I felt they must have known the condition of the window. If anything could have been done, I assumed they would have done it.
First there was a cracking sound, then a burst of icy air. The next thing I knew, a child was saying: "Mr. Kozol-look at the window!" As I turned, it was starting to fall in. I was standing, by coincidence, only about four or five feet off and was able to catch it. But the wind was so strong that it nearly blew right out of my hands. A couple of seconds of good luck kept glass from the desks of six or seven children and very possibly saved several of them from being injured. I soon realized that I was not going to be able to hold the thing up by myself, and I was obliged to ask one of the stronger boys in the class to give me a hand. Meanwhile, as the children beneath us shivered in the icy wind. and as the two of us now shivered also since the mercury was hovering close to zero, I asked one of the children in the front row to run down and fetch the janitor.
When he asked me what he should tell him, I said, "Tell him the house is falling in." The children laughed. It was the first time I had ever said anything like that when the children could hear me. I am sure my reluctance to speak out more often must appear odd to many readers, for at this perspective it seems odd to me as well.
Certainly plenty of things were wrong within that school building, and there was enough we could have joked about. The truth, however, is that I very seldom talked like that, nor did many of the other teachers. Unless a teacher was ready to buck the system utterly, it would become far too difficult to teach it an atmosphere of that kind of honesty. It was a great deal easier to pretend as much as possible that everything was OK.
Some teachers carried out this posture with so much eagerness, in fact, that their defense of the school ended up as something like a hymn of praise. "You children should thank God and feel blessed with good luck for all you've got. There are so many little children in the world who have been given so much less." The books are junk, the paint peels, the cellar stinks, the teachers call
you nigger, the windows fall in on your heads. "Thank God that you don't live in Russia or Africa! Thank God for all the blessings that you've got!"
After the window blew in on us, the janitor finally came up and hammered it shut with nails so that it would not fall in again, but also so that it could not be opened. A month passed before anything was done about the missing glass. Children shivered a few feet away from it. The principal walked by frequently and saw us. So did the various lady experts who traveled all week from room to room within our school. At last one day the janitor came up with a piece of cardboard and covered over about one quarter of that lower window so that no more wind could come in, but just that much less sunshine too. I remember wondering what a piece of glass cost in Boston, and thought of going out and buying some and trying to put it in myself. That rectangle of cardboard covered our nailed-shut window for half of the term, and it was finally removed only because a television station was going to visit in the building and the school department wanted to make the room look more attractive. But it was winter when the window broke, and the repairs did not take place until the middle of the spring.
Other schools in the ghetto were no better than my own, and some were worse. One of the most unfortunate, according to those who made comparisons, was the Endicott School, also heavily imbalanced. Endicott, I learned, had become so overcrowded that in some classes the number of pupils exceeded the number of desks and the extra pupils had to sit in chairs behind the teacher. A child absent one day commonly came back the next and found someone else sitting at his desk. These facts had been brought out in the newspaper, but nothing had been done. When the parents of the Endicott children pressed the school department to take action, a series of events transpired which told a large part of the story of segregation in a very few words.
The school department offered, in order to resolve the problem, to buy a deserted forty-year-old Hebrew school and allot about $7000 to furnish it with desks and chairs. Aside from the indignity of getting everybody else's castoffs (the Negroes already lived in former Jewish tenements and bought in formerly Jewish stores), to buy and staff this old Hebrew school with about a dozen teachers would cost quite a lot more than to send the children down the street a couple of miles to a white school which had space. The Hebrew school was going to cost over $180,000. To staff it and supply it with books and equipment would cost $100,000 more a year. To send the children into available seats in nearby white classrooms (no new teachers needed) would have cost $40,000 to $60,000 for the year. The school department was willing to spend as much as an extra $240,000 in order to put the Negro children into another segregated school.
As it happened, the school committee debated the issue in so many directions that most of the school year passed before anything of a final nature was decided. Meanwhile, the children in the Endicott classrooms had lost another year from their lives.
In my own school there was another bad situation in the third of the three fourth grades. This class had been subjected for most of the year to a highly unstable teacher-a man of goodwill and mild disposition, who, however, had been dismissed from another position within the Boston system after serious trouble of a psychiatric nature. It was readily apparent that he was in no emotional condition to handle the problems posed by a crowded ghetto class. Beginning in October and continuing through March, his teaching had brought little to the children besides unending noise and chaos. Yet all the complaints of the bewildered Negro parents and even the stated dissatisfaction of the principal had not been able to effect a change.
At last in early April, after about six months of agony, the man was leaving. But the school administration did not have the competence or insight to assign a better-qualified person in his place. Instead of a confident or experienced instructor, a bashful and quite terrified young lady took over the class, and then, after her departure, a string of substitute teachers, who seemed at times truly to have been grabbed off the street at seven thirty, knocked over the head, handed a twenty-dollar bill, and shipped over to our schoolhouse in a taxi. Some of them were nice people, but few had any kind of real qualifications.
One fellow, I remember, did not even get there until about ten thirty because he had been out driving a cab the night before, and he announced within about forty-five minutes that he would certainly not be coming back. The consequence of all this in academic terms was an overall retardation of almost the entire class.
A chart on the wall gave some measure of the situation by keeping a record of math and spelling grades. The math average of the class for weeks had remained, almost without exception, below the point of failing-for certain stretches of time, as much as 30 points below. The spelling and writing had fluctuated around the third-grade level. Reading levels were a year, and often two years, beneath the national norm. All of these subject failures were major tragedies because in many respects and for a number of the children the stunting of their learning at such an early age was likely to prove almost irreversible.
But the setbacks in math and spelling and writing were not as serious for them as the lack of continuity in their work in social studies. For at least in the basic subjects, no matter how poorly they were doing, the children had had some cotinuity of material. In geography and history, there had been no continuity, but rather a frantic shifting of focus almost every day.
One morning a substitute teacher, groping for a way to kill an hour, would have the children read aloud to him about India. The next day, another teacher, not knowing what had been done before, and having a special fondness for another country, Holland perhaps, would tell the class to flip back a hundred pages and read about dikes and wooden shoes. Then someone would appear long enough to get some help from one of the full-time teachers, and the children would get two or three abortive sessions on the desert, but the day after that they would be doing India over again; then off to Lima, Peru; suddenly to American cotton production, or the corn belt, or coal production-or then, with the arrival of a new teacher, back to dikes and wooden shoes. It is not surprising that with a crazy arrangement of this sort, the children would frequently start out by lying to a new substitute and would do their best to break him down. Nor is it surprising that their sense of place and time soon grew to be disastrously confused. They could make no distinction, even in the most tentative and general manner, between a city, town, state, or country, or even between a continent or island. Words like Yangtze River, hemisphere, Himalayas, pyramid were all mixed up in their minds. A question about what one could get from rushing streams in Switzerland might elicit such an answer as "population" or "migration." and a question about what "self-evident" meant, or "created equal," would easily bring back from the class such answers as "Red Coats," transportation," or "white coal."
Seven different teachers in the course of ten days became the final catastrophe of this classroom. The children grew wild, and the atmosphere from day to day grew more explosive. At this point, on the morning of the third of May, the principal called me into her office and asked me if I would agree to take the class for the remainder of the year. With the assurance that my own students would not be getting a string of substitutes. I agreed to make the transfer.
Consider what it is like to go into a new classroom and to see before you suddenly, and in a way you cannot avoid recognizing, the dreadful consequences of a year's wastage of so many lives. You walk into a narrow and old woodsmelling classroom and see thirty-five curious, cautious, and untrusting children, aged nine to thirteen, of whom about two-thirds are Negro. Lifetime records of seven of them are missing, symptomatic and emblematic at once of the chaos of the teacher changes. On the first math test the class average is 36. The children tell you with embarrassment that it has been like that since fall.
You check around the classroom. Of forty desks five have tops with no hinges. You lift a desktop to fetch a paper, and you find the top has fallen off. There are three windows: one can't be opened. A sign on it written in the messy scribble of some custodial person warns: "Do No Unlock This Window It Is Broken." The general look of the room is that of a bleak-light photograph of a mental hospital. Above the one poor blackboard, gray rather than really black, and hard to write on, hangs from one tack, lopsided, a motto attributed to Benjamin Franklin: "Well begun is half done." So much within this classroom seems to be a mockery of itself.
Into this grim scenario, drawing on your own pleasures and memories, you do what you can to bring some kind of life. You bring in some cheerful and colorful paintings by Joan Miró and Paul Klee. While the paintings by Miró do not arouse much interest, the ones by Klee become an instantaneous success. One picture in particular, entitled Bird Garden, catches the imagination of the entire class. You slip it out of the book and tack it on the wall beside the doorway, and it creates a traffic jam every time the children have to file in or file out. You discuss with your students some of the reasons why Klee may have painted the way he did, and you talk about the things that can be accomplished in a painting which cannot
be done in a photograph. None of this seems to be above the children's heads. Despite this you are advised flatly by the art teacher that your naïveté has gotten the best of you, and that the children cannot possibly appreciate these drawings. For poetry, instead of the materials recommended by the course of study, you decide to introduce a poem of William Butler Yeats. The poem that you select is "The Lake Isle of Innisfree." The children do not go crazy about it at first, but a number of them seem to like it as much as you do, and you tell them how once, two years before, you were living in England and you helped a man in the country to make his home from wattles and clay. Many of them grow more curious than they appeared at first. Here again, however, you are advised by older teachers that you are making a mistake: Yet it is too difficult for children. They can't enjoy it, won't appreciate it, wouldn't like it.
On a number of other occasions, the situation is repeated. The children are offered something new and lively. They respond to it energetically, and their attention doesn't waver. For the first time in a long while, perhaps, there is actually some real excitement and some growing and some thinking going on within that room. In each case, however, you are advised sooner or later that you are making a mistake. Your mistake, in fact, is to have impinged upon the standardized condescension upon which the entire administration of the school is based. To hand Paul Klee's pictures to the children of a ghetto classroom, particularly in a twenty-dollar volume, constitutes a threat to the school system. The threat is handled by a continual underrating of the children. In this way many students are unjustifiably held back from a great many experiences that they might come to value, and are pinned down instead to books the teacher knows, and tastes that she can handle easily.
My own feeling was that it was precisely the familiar material which had so deadened the previous three years of schooling and which had been so closely identified with the misery and chaos and intellectual aridity of this most recent year. To attempt to revive or reawaken a child's curiosity long gone dead or long sedated by use of the same poison that had laid him low seemed futile. Only by introducing new and totally fresh materials did there seem a chance to make a difference. Although the poems and pictures I brought in did not appeal to every student, there is no doubt at all of the degree to which the will to learn, as well as the most simple will to laugh or speak or smile or joke, reappeared among the children.
The change in attitude carried over, curiously, into utterly unrelated areas. One teacher of an older grade, who had little fonduess for me, felt impelled, nevertheless, to come upstairs and offer me a compliment. "Everyone has been so impressed," she said, "by the way your children have been filing in the stairways." In an odd way, I felt pleased by what she had told me. I couldn't have cared less how my pupils were filing in the stairways, but it was a source of satisfaction to me to think that they were doing something which, within the context of this school, was so much to their advantage.
A more serious measure of the impact of these changes came to light when I started testing the class on the intensive work we had been doing in math and English. In less than month, the math average went up to a median well above grade level. Test score averages over the course of three weeks began at 36, rose to 60, and leveled off at 79.
There was no unusual expertise at work within the classroom. There was. in fact, total professional naïveté as well as considerable technical incompetence One thing was present, however, and this was the personal motivation of the children. It was there, unused and wholly unawakened, but very much in evidence as soon as it was looked for and believed in. To care about their work, the children asked only a few grains of faith and expectation, a small degree of fun, a mood of relaxation, and an open understanding between their teacher and themselves that the things that had been going on that year were not their fault. A great deal has been written in recent years about the purported lack of motivation in the children of the Negro ghettos. Little in my experience supports this, yet the phrase has been repeated endlessly, and the blame in almost all cases is placed somewhere outside the classroom. Boston's former deputy superindendent, in putting forward the aims of the compensatory program, presented it in this way:
"It is our hope through this program to raise the achievement of these pupils closer to their potentials, which have for too long been submerged by parental lack of values."
Such language belies a sense of failure on the part of those who run these schools. The suggestion is made that the child will be offered a certain amount
of compassion, just so long as it is made absolutely clear ahead of time that the heart of the problem is the lack of values of his family. Unquestionably, there are Negro children whose school careers give testimony to the problems that plague their parents' lives. Both Stephen's original and foster parents are pertinent examples. But the greater number of Negro parents whom I have known in Boston do not lead lives lacking in real values. Faced with the particular nature of the deputy superintendent's rhetoric, we have to ask whose values we are talking about-and deprived in the eyes of whom. To say that Negroes in Boston are deprived of rights would be an honest statement. It would also be honest to say that they are deprived of good schools, and at least to that degree, of a fair chance for democracy, for opportunity, and all the things these words are supposed to mean. But to say that they are deprived culturally, in the face of the present school administration and in the face of the profound callousness and cynicism of the entire system, seems to me meaningless.
Glimmerings of a personal understanding of these points and of the ironies involved in them can sometimes be perceived among the teachers. I recall a conversation I had with an unusually frank red-neck teacher in my school. "They talk about the Negroes being culturally deprived," he said with an unembarrassed smile, "I'm the one who's been goddamn culturally deprived, and I don't need anyone to tell me. I haven't learned a thing, read a thing that I wished I'd read or learned since the day I entered high school, and I've known it for years, and I tried to hide it from myself, and now I wish I could do something about it, but I'm afraid it's just too late."
The same teacher confided to me on another occasion that he had been beaten around and treated rough and whipped by his parents and by his Yankee schoolmasters when he was a child. To him, this seemed to clear the field for beating others around today. The attitude of many people in Boston and other cities has been consistent with this view: "We had a hard time of it. so why shouldn't they?" This less than gentle attitude seems characteristic of a less than gentle society, in which the prevailing viewpoint of those who are moderately successful is too likely to be that they have got theirs, and the others can damn well wait a while before they get the same.
[From Newsweek, Oct. 16, 1967]
In Boston public schools, teachers beat schoolboys with a thin, rattan stick as an accepted way of life. In fact, “rattaning” is officially condoned (Section 211 of the Code of Discipline) and privately praised. "A good whack," says Joseph Lee, a member of the city's School Committee, "often makes the kid feel better." Physical punishment in Boston runs to extremes. A junior-high-school pupil was beaten last week, for example, for blowing his nose too loudly in class. Still, says associate school superintendent Thomas Meagher, "the consensus seems to be that if the rattan is properly used, it's a good method of discipline." Section 211 has been in effect since 1958; if Jonathan Kozol has anything to say about it, rattaning will go the way of Salem's stocks and pillories.
Kozol, an intense 31-year-old Harvard graduate, taught a year in the Negro ghetto of Roxbury. Last week he published a sensitive book based on that experience, "Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools" (240 pages, Houghton Mifflin, $4.95). The book attacked the practice of rattaning, charging that it often is employed by white teachers against Negro pupils in a thinly disguised form of racism. Children, wrote Kozol, "are whipped at times for no greater offense than for failing to show respect to the very same teachers who have been describing them as niggers." Officially, this whipping of pupils is confined to boys only-and only on the hand.
Infected.-Kozol, who attended the private Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, tells of a teacher in his Roxbury elementary school who beat a child across an already infected knuckle. sending him to City Hospital for several days. Another student, Arthur C. Moore Jr., 16, still has a welt from a rattaning two years ago. "The teacher always has an excuse for having hit your kid," says his mother.
Indeed, Boston places such a heavy emphasis on discipline that Clarence Edwards Junior High in predominantly white Charlestown has a "dean of discipline" for each grade. The "dean" is supposed to perform the rattaning