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Best, Mary Leue, Reviewer AMAZING GRACE The Lives Of Children And The Conscience Of A Nation by Jonathan Kozol Crown Publishing New York, NY Reviewed by Mary Leue
For over two decades Jonathan Kozol's life has been totally dedicated to the lives of the most vulnerable and forgotten children in the nation. The titles of his books bear eloquent witness to his faithfulness to these little beings:
Death at an Early Age, for which he won the National Book Award, chronicles Jonathan's early struggles to teach these children in the manner he was instructed to employ, and his growing awareness of the genocidal implications of this institutional mangate as applied to the children of the urban poor.
Free Schools is his exploration of schools that actually work to address the needs of this population, highlighting the necessity of parental involvement and control and the importance of shaping the curriculum to the child rather than the other way around.
This book also documents Jonathan's awareness of the signal failure of the newly "enlightened" young people of the sixties, who wrote, spoke and marched in support of a social revolution which was supposed to reverse the horrifying injustices of the society, to stay with the problem long enough to learn the skills, acquire the means, take on the staying power to see these changes through to completion.
His bitter characterizations of this abdication lost him many friends and colleagues among his own age group, but he persisted in his single efforts to do his best, whether singly or as a member of a group. The Night is Dark and I am Far From Home is a product of this period of his life.
Jonathan's travels and explorations on behalf of the children of the poor led him to Cuba as a possible source of a model for social/educational success in resolving the plight of the oppressed. Children of the Revolution documents his discoveries and conclusions.
On Being a Teacher and Illiterate America are the fruits of Jonathan's explorations of the American public school system in all its aspects. At this time, and perhaps still, for all I know, Jonathan seemed to me to be putting all his philosophical eggs in the public school system basket as our best hope for turning around the horrifying inequities generated by our socio-economic system. In contrast with private and religious schools, it is true that public schools alone do not pick and choose their entrants, and, in this sense, are the only democratic schools we have.
In the face of recent social changes such as the steady disappearance of unskilled jobs, the increasing concentration of the poor in the great cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and so on, society's safeguards against personal and familial disaster, never very effective at best, destructively heartless and begrudging for the most part - the social workers, teachers, principals, doctors, nurses, police, landlords and so on, became to an increasing degree, the chief source of daily oppression for these people.
Jonathan's personal explorations of these conditions led to his writing Rachel and her Children (which won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award) and Savage Inequalities, a best seller and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two passionate chronicles of the appalling misery suffered by the forgotten families at the bottom of the heap in our cities. By focusing on the conditions of lives of a few of these people, especially the children, their plight becomes totally vivid to the reader, totally impossible to ignore! Jonathan's writing skill, always keen, has been further honed by the depth of his warm, heartfelt human caring about their plight.
Amazing Grace is Jonathan' newest book, and its subject is still the children of the poor, but in it I sense an even further deepening of his ability to share the world of his friends in the ghetto: in this case, the people of the Mott Haven neighborhood in Harlem about which he writes. The inner rage he has been carrying all these years over the incredible ability to ignore these conditions of those in a position to change them has softened, modulated into a kind of tacit acceptance of the enormity of the problem, an awareness that it is now far beyond the powers of any one person, group, law, reform, improvement, alleviation or whatever to solve. Instead, Jonathan focuses on the astounding humanity, courage, grace, acceptance, even wisdom of many of these people, including the children.
I look at my notes as the plane crosses Connecticut. I'm looking forward to getting home and sitting at my desk and trying to make sense of everything I've learned. But I don't really think I will make sense of anything and I don't expect that I'll be able to construct a little list of "answers" and "solutions," as my editor would like. I have done this many times before; so have dozens of other writers; so have hundreds of committees and foundations and commissions. The time for lists like that now seems long past.
Will the people Reverend Grover called "the principalities and powers" look into their hearts one day in church or synagogue and feel the grace of God and, as he put it, "be transformed"? Will they become ashamed of what they've done, or what they have accepted? Will they decide they do not need to quarantine the outcasts of their ingenuity and will they then use all their wisdom and their skills to build a new society and new economy in which no human being will be superfluous? I wish I could believe that, but I don't think it is likely. I think it is more likely that they'll write more stories about "Hope Within the Ashes" and then pile on more ashes and then change the subject to the opening of the ballet or a review of a new restaurant. And the children of disappointment will keep dying.
I think that Mrs. Washington is right to view the years before us with foreboding. I have never lived through a time as cold as this in the United States. Many men and women who work in the Bronx believe that it is going to get worse. I don't know what can change this.
It is as though Jonathan is coming to acknowledge the gifts they each have for him in teaching him how to live his own life, so that the experiences they share become very much give-and-take. They value his willingness to listen, to record, to report out, to share their despair when it overtakes them. They sense his differences but clearly don't resent them. He in turn, by simply being there with them in all their suffering, by being allowed to share their agonies, is enabled thereby to take on a kind of nobility of spirit that matches their own. This is a deeply spiritual book. I myself feel uplifted by having read it, and thus shared Jonathan's own shared experience with his friends.
He ends his account thus:
Mrs. Washington makes more coffee and we spend the rest of the evening talking about ordinary things that are entirely unrelated to the worries and the problems of the people in the neighborhood. We never had nights like this when we first met. A feeling of emergency was always in the air. Now, with the respite in her illness, she seems more at peace. Perhaps something has changed in me as well.
At two A.M., she walks with me to the East Tremont station. Then, however, because it's so late, she says she doesn't want me to go back by train and so she helps me to flag down a cab.
I have always told myself that I was here as a "researcher" of some sort, maybe a "social anthropologist" or an "oral historian," something of professional significance, that this was my job and I would do my best to get her words down right and be as faithful as I could to everything she told me. But there has been more to this than research and, of course, I feel it now that I am really leaving.
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