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.
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July 24, 2012
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Excerpt from Ordinary Resurrections by Jonathan Kozol
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.