Death at an Early Age

About Death at an Early Age

In 1964, Jonathan Kozol entered the Boston Public School System to teach fourth grade at one of its most overcrowded inner-city schools—a place where “the books are junk, the paint peels, the teacher calls you nigger, and the windows fall on your heads.” This book is his own unsparing, heart-wrenching account of the year he spent there—the most shocking and powerful personal story ever told by a young teacher, now updated with an epilogue by the author.

Praise for Death at an Early Age

The New York Times

“The breathtaking story it tells has to be read…Mr. Kozol charges the Boston School Committee and the system they run with spiritual and psychological murder. Nothing in what they say. Some of it supplied word for word in the book’s notes, makes the accusation seem excessive.”

 

Christian Science Monitor

“Simple, lucid, horrifying…Mr. Kozol has written a very disturbing book. He is writing of the Boston Public School system, but he could be writing of the system in almost any city in the country.”

 

Kirkus Review

“An eloquent documentary…written with implacable understatement which does not undermine its power to reach and touch almost anyone.”

 

John Hold, New York Review of Books

“Through Kozol’s voice, we hear the children calling for help…what he tells us is the truth.”

 

Chicago Tribune

“This book will anger you to the boiling point and may make you want to weep…I recommend—with considerable urgency—Death at an Early Age.”

 

Robert Coles, The New York Times Book Review

“Honest and terrifying…the heartbreaking story it tells has to be read!”

 

Peter Schrag, Saturday Review

“A major document in the literature of urban schools.”

Read an Excerpt:

Death at an Early Age

Preface by Robert Coles

 

I hope some of those Congressmen who are now looking into the causes of riots will find time to read this honest and terrifying book by Jonathan Kozol, a young teacher fired from his job by the Boston school system for using a poem by Langston Hughes that was not on the prescribed list of “reading materials.” Mr. Kozol may even be called to Washington, and asked to tell our Congressmen what he experienced in an awful, hellish struggle waged—of all places—in a city that fancies itself “the cradle of liberty,” and dotes on its illustrious past. If he testified, perhaps the gentle, earnest, thoughtful quality of his mind, so apparent in this book, might be caught by the same television cameras that usually bring us our daily quota of evasive, pointless rhetoric from “important” people.

 

Death at an Early Age is not a long book. Its content can be easily summarized, but the heartbreaking story that it tells has to be read, and cannot be distilled into a review. Mr. Kozol entered the Boston schools as a substitute teacher in 1964, and the next spring he was summarily dismissed. Very simply, his book tells what happened in between, to him as a teacher and to the children, mostly Negro, he tried so hard to help and befriend. What emerges is an unsparing picture of American education as it exists today in the ghettos of our major Northern cities. Perhaps the United States Information Agency will not want to use the book abroad.

 

Right off, Mr. Kozol found himself torn, confused and appalled. His “classroom” was the corner of an auditorium in which other classes were also held. In that same building children sat in a “dank and dirty urine-smelling cellar.” One day a large window fell in as Mr. Kozol tried to teach his class. Not only was the school a disgraceful hovel—overcrowded, understaffed, something out of a Dickens novel—but the city did not provide police for the children who had to cross dangerous streets to reach the building, though once inside the teachers made sure no boy or girl felt at loose ends or unwatched.

 

In point of fact, the children were relentlessly and at times brutally tyrannized, and the major portion of this book documents exactly how. The rattan is used. The author describes the welts he saw, and even the serious injury one child sustained. All day long the children learn rules and regulations—to the point that whatever is original in them, whatever is theirs by virtue of experience or fantasy, becomes steadily discouraged and denied. What is even more awful to contemplate, boys and girls are taught by men and women who refer to Negroes as “black stuff” and worse.

 

The reader will find out about the cynicism, condescension, outright racism, and severely anti-intellectual attitudes that Mr. Kozol quite easily and openly encountered as a teacher among teachers. The city of Boston may someday (when is anyone’s guess) tear down its already crumbling school buildings and provide its poor children with the best imaginable “facilities” and “materials.” But it is quite another question whether any American city is ready to look into its own soul, and admit to the subtleties of hate and terror that persist in the disguise of “education” or “law-enforcement.”

 

The finest moments in his book are those in which the author quite openly examines his own, ordinary (“normal,” if you will) willingness to go along with the rest, to submit to the very mean and stupid practices he so clearly recognized. Teachers in Boston and elsewhere may find him harsh on the “profession,” but he does not spare himself, either.

 

Like the rest of us, he can excuse and condone—or simply ignore—events that threaten his “standing,” his job, his yearly income, his day-to-day relationship with  his peers. Like us he is capable of justifying the unjustifiable, or at least denying his own obligation to oppose what can easily be considered an impossible situation.

 

There are moments in this life when to do the practical or wise thing is, in fact, to take the most corrupt and hurtful course possible. Mr. Kozol lets us see how those moments fall upon all of us—the would-be friends and supporters of what is “good” and “right,” and of course “professional.”

 

Eventually—inevitably we only now know—Jonathan Kozol slipped and brought down upon himself the self-righteous wrath of what emerges in his book as a hopelessly insensitive bureaucracy. The charges leveled against him were absurd: he taught Langston Hughes and Robert Frost to Negro children; he showed them pictures of Paul Klee, and read to them from Yeats—with surprising responses from his “disadvantaged” class.

 

Like so many of us, he can move on, obtain another job—and write this book. What of the children he describes, and their cousins and parents and neighbors? At the end of this book we are taken to a meeting of the Boston School Committee, to meet up with the vulgar, tricky and abusive comments of those “leaders” who control and direct the education of thousands of American children.

 

In the strongly worded title he has given this book, Mr. Kozol charges the Boston School Committee and the system they run with spiritual and psychological murder. Nothing in what they say, some of it supplied word in the book’s notes, makes the accusation seem excessive.
 

 

Chapter One

 

Stephen is eight years old. A picture of him standing in front of the bulletin board on Arab Bedouins shows a little light-brown person staring with unusual concentration at a chosen shot on the floor. Stephen is tiny, desperate, unwell. Sometimes he talks to himself. He moves his mouth as if he were talking. At other times he laughs out loud in class for no apparent reason. He is also an indescribably mild and un-malicious child. He cannot do any of his school work very well. His math and reading are poor. In Third Grade he was in a class that had a substitute teacher much of the year. Most of the year before that, he had a row of substitute teachers too. He is in the Fourth Grade now but his work is barely at the level of the Second. Nobody has complained about the things that have happened to Stephen because he does not have any mother or father. Stephen is a ward of the State of Massachusetts and, as such, he has been placed in the home of some very poor people who do not want him now that he is not a baby any more. The money that they are given for him to pay his expenses every week does not cover the other kind of expense—the more important kind which is the immense emotional burden that is continually at stake. Stephen often comes into school badly beaten. If I ask him about it, he is apt to deny it because he does not want us to know first-hand what a miserable time he has. Like many children, and many adults too, Stephen is far more concerned with hiding his abased condition from the view of the world than he is from escaping that condition. He lied to me at first when I asked him how he got his eye so battered. He said it happened from being hit by accident when somebody opened the door. Later, because it was so bruised and because I questioned him, he admitted that it was his foster mother who had flung him out onto the porch. His eye had struck the banister and it had closed and purpled. The children in the class were frightened to see him. I thought that they also felt some real compassion, but perhaps it was just shock.

 

Although Stephen did poorly in his school work, there was one thing he could do well. He was a fine artist. He made delightful drawings. The thing about them that was good, however, was also the thing that got him into trouble. For they were not neat and orderly and organized but entirely random and casual, messy, somewhat unpredictable, seldom according to the instructions he had been given, and—in short—real drawings. For these drawings, Stephen received considerable embarrassment at the hands of the Art Teacher. This person was a lady no longer very young who had some rather fixed values and opinions about children and about teaching. Above all, her manner was marked by unusual confidence. She seldom would merely walk into our class but seemed always to sweep into it. Even for myself, her advent, at least in the beginning of the year, used to cause a wave of anxiety. For she came into our class generally in a mood of self-assurance and of almost punitive relentlessness which never made one confident but which generally made me wonder what I had done wrong. In dealing with Stephen, I thought she could be quite overwhelming.

 

The Art Teacher’s most common technique for art instruction was to pass out mimeographed designs and then to have the pupils fill them in according to a dictated or suggested color plan. An alternate approach was to stick up on the wall or on the blackboard  some of the drawings on a particular subject that had been done in the previous years by predominately white classes. These drawings, neat and ordered and very uniform, would be the models for our children. The art lesson, in effect, would be to copy what had been done before, and the neatest and most accurate reproductions of the original drawings would be the ones that would win the highest approval from the teacher. None of the new drawings, the Art Teacher would tell me frequently, was comparable to the work that had been done in former times, but at least the children in the class could try to copy good examples. The fact that they were being asked to copy something in which they could not believe because it was not of them and did not in any way correspond to their own interests did not occur to the Art Teacher, or if it did occur she did not say it. Like a number of other teachers at my school and in other schools of the same nature, and anything that seriously threatened to disturb her point of view could be effectively denied.

 

How did a pupil like Stephen react to a teacher of this sort? Alone almost out of the entire class, I think that he absolutely turned off his signals while she was speaking and withdrew to his own private spot. At his desk he would sit silently as the Art Teacher was talking and performing. With a pencil, frequently stubby and end-bitten, he would scribble and fiddle and cock his head and whisper to himself throughout the time that the Art Teacher was going on. At length, when the art lesson officially begun, he would perhaps push aside his little drawing and try the paint and paper that he had been given, usually using the watercolors freely and the paintbrush sloppily and a little bit defiantly and he would come up with things that certainly were delightful and personal and private, and full of his own nature.

 

If Stephen began to fiddle around during a lesson, the Art Teacher generally would not notice him at first. When she did, both he and I and the children around him would prepare for trouble. For she would go at his desk with something truly like vengeance and would shriek at him in a way that carried terror. “Give me that! Your paints are all muddy! You’ve made it a mess! Look at what he’s done! He’s mixed up the colors! I don’t know why we wasted good paper on this child!” Then: “Garbage! Junk! He gives me garbage and junk! And garbage is one thing that I will not have.” Now I thought that garbage and junk was very nearly the only real artwork in the class. I do not know very much about painting, but I know enough to know that the Art Teacher did not know much about it either and that, furthermore, she did not know or care about anything  at all about the way in which you can destroy a human being. Stephen, in many ways already dying, died a second third and fourth and final death before her anger.

 

Sometimes when the Art Teacher was not present in our classroom, and when no other supervisory person happened to be there, Stephen would sneak up to me, maybe while I was sitting at my desk and going over records or totaling up the milk money or checking a paper, so that I would not see him until he was beside me. Then, hastily, secretly, with mystery, with fun, with something out of a spy movie, he would hand me one of his small drawings. The ones I liked the most, to be honest, were often not completely his own, but pictures he had coped out of comic books and then elaborated, amended, fiddled with, and frequently added to by putting them under some kind of mock announcement (“I AM THE GREATEST AND THE STRONGEST”) which might have been something he had wished. I think he must have seen something special and valuable about comic books, because another thing he sometimes did was just cut out part of a comic book story that he liked and bring it to me as a present. When he did this, as with his paintings and drawings, he usually would belittle his gift by crumpling it up or folding it up very tiny before he handed it to me. It was a way, perhaps, of saying that he didn’t value it too much (although it was clear that he did value it a great deal) in case I didn’t like it.

 

If the Art Teacher came upon us while he was slipping me a picture he had drawn, both he and I were apt to get an effective lashing out. Although she could be as affectionate and benevolent as she liked with other children, with Stephen she was almost always scathing with her comments and made no attempt at seeming mild. “He wants to show you his little scribbles because he wants to use your affection for him and make you pity hum but we don’t have time for that. Keep him away. If you don’t, I’ll do it. I don’t want him getting near you during class.”

 

For weeks after that outburst, when we had been caught in the act of friendship,  he stopped coming near me. He stopped bringing me his drawings. He kept to his seat and giggled, mumbled, fiddled. Possibly he felt that he was doing this for my sake in order not to get me into further trouble. Then one day for a brief second he got up the nerve and darted forward. He crumpled up some paper in his fist and handed it to me quickly and got back into his chair. The crumpled paper turned out to be more funnies that he painstakingly cut out. Another time he dropped a ball of crunched-up math paper on my desk. On the paper he had written out his age—eight years old—and his birthday—which I seemed to remember came at Christmas. I also remember that once he either whispered to me or wrote to me on a note that he weighed sixty pounds. This information, I thought, came almost a little boastfully, even though it obviously isn’t a lot to weigh if you are almost nine, and I wondered about it for a time until it occurred to me that maybe it was just one of very few things that he knew about himself, one of the half dozen measurable facts that had anything to do with him in the world, and so—like all people, using as best they can whatever they’ve got—he had to make the most of it.

 

I think that much of his life, inwardly and outwardly, must have involved a steady and, as it turned out, inwardly at least, a losing battle to survive. He battled for his existence and, like many defenseless humans, he had to use whatever off little weapons came to hand. Acting up at school was part of it. He was granted so little attention that he must have panicked repeatedly about the possibility that, with a few slight mistakes, he might simply stop existing or be seen at all. I imagine this is one reason why he seemed so often to invite or court a tongue-lashing or a whipping. Doing anything at all that would make a teacher mad at him, scream at him, would also have been a kind of ratification, even if it was painful, that he actually was there. Other times, outside of school, he might do things like pulling a fire alarm lever and then having the satisfaction of hearing the sirens and seeing the fire engines and knowing that it was all of his own doing and to his own credit, so that at least he would have proof in that way that his hands and his arm muscles and his mischievous imagination actually did count for something measurable in the world. Maybe the only way in which he could ever impinge upon other people’s lives was by infuriating them, but that at least was something. It was better than not having any use at all.

 

I remember that the Art Teacher once caught him out in the back, in the hallway, in front of a big floor-length coat-closet mirror. She grabbed him by the arm and pulled him into the classroom and announced to me and the children in the classroom that he was “just standing there and making faces at himself and staring.” While she talked, he looked away and examined the floor with his eyes, as he did so often, because he was embarrassed by being exposed like that. I thought it was needlessly cruel of her to have hauled him before the children in that manner, and surely a little hesitation on her part might have given her a moment to think why he might like to see himself in a mirror, even if it was only to see a scratched reflection. I didn’t think it was shameful for him to be doing that, even to be making funny faces. It seemed rather normal and explicable to me that he might want to check up on his existence. Possibly it was a desperate act, and certainly it was a curious one, but I do not think it was unnatural. What did seem to me to be unnatural was the unusual violence of the Art Teacher’s reaction.

 

Another time, seeing him all curled up in one of the corners, I went over to him and tried to get him to look up at me and smile and talk. He would not do that. He remained all shriveled up there and he would not cry and would not laugh. I said to him: “Stephen, if you curl up like that and will not even look up at me, it will just seem as if you wanted to make me think you were a little rat.” He looked down at himself hurriedly and then he looked at me and he chuckled grotesquely and he said, with a pitiful little laugh: “I know I couldn’t be a rat, Mr. Kozol, because a rat has got to have a little tail!” I never forgot that and I told it later to a child psychiatrist, whose answer to me made it more explicit and more clear: “It is the absence of a rail which convinces him that he has not yet become a rat.” Perhaps that is overly absolute and smacks a bit of the psychiatric dogmatism that seems so difficult to accept because it leaves so little room for uncertainty or doubt; yet in this one instance I do not really think that it carries the point too far. For it is the Boston schoolteachers themselves who for years have been speaking of the Negro children in their charge as “animals” and the school building that houses them as “a zoo.” And it is well known by now hoe commonly the injustices and depredations of the Boston school system have compelled its Negro pupils to regard themselves with something less than the dignity and respect of human beings. The toll that this took was probably greater upon Stephen than it might have been upon some other children. But the price that it exacted was paid ultimately by every child, and in the long run I am convinced that the same price has been paid by every teacher too.