Reading, writing, and rebellion
CAMBRIDGE - Jonathan Kozol appeared shrunken in his chair at Harvard's Memorial Church, his blazer tossed aside, the sleeves of his pinstriped shirt rolled up to the elbows to expose bony arms. His thin ankles, swathed in black socks, disappeared into his signature navy blue Keds.
Over the past 24 hours, he had consumed only half a bowl of frosted cornflakes, half a cheese sandwich, several glasses of grapefruit juice, and a French vanilla latte, a treat he granted himself before beginning his lecture this week to hundreds of teachers and education activists packed into the church pews.
Since early July, the 71-year-old education warrior of the 1960s has shed 29 pounds from his slender 5-foot-9-inch frame, subsisting on a mostly liquid diet. His point: to protest the federal No Child Left Behind Act now up for reauthorization. He said he will continue his partial fast until US Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who sponsored the original bill, agrees to drastically overhaul what Kozol called a punitive law that relegates urban schoolchildren to an inferior, stripped-down education and demoralizes teachers, who he believes are forced to teach to the test.
Despite his emaciated 132-pound figure, Kozol is anything but battle weary.
"I'm too old to bite my tongue," he said. "I don't care what happens to me now. I intend to keep on fighting this issue to my dying day."
Surrounded at this week's lecture by grizzled, longtime allies and idealistic college students who regard him as the high priest of public education, Kozol hoped to energize a new generation of teachers in his four-decade-long fight for equity. These are his people, the only family of sorts for a man who never had children and who lives alone in a Byfield cottage filled with books and fan mail.
"My goal is to connect the young teachers to the old, to reignite their sense of struggle," he said, urging audience members to sign up with his new Cambridge-based nonprofit, Education Action!
Kozol, a Newton native who rose to fame as one of the most prolific authors on urban education and social justice in America, spent the first part of the week in Washington, D.C. He met with reporters and members of Congress, and attended an evening rally for teachers to promote his new book, "Letters to a Young Teacher," inspired by his correspondence with a Boston first-grade teacher, in which he rails against standardized testing.
No Child Left Behind, Kozol believes, has plunged urban education back to the dark ages before desegregation. Under the law, schools whose test scores don't improve each year could eventually be shut down, a specter hanging over a disproportionate number of city schools that educate mostly poor, minority children.
"We have apartheid schools, and MCAS has unwittingly introduced an apartheid curriculum," said Kozol during an interview, likening inner-city classrooms to test prep factories. "I'm determined to mobilize teachers and parents to fight this bill aggressively and bombard Senator Kennedy with a very clear message: If he fails to introduce dramatic revisions to No Child Left Behind, it will be devastating to the enormous faith we've had in him all these years."
Kennedy, chairman of the Education Committee, said in a statement yesterday that he hopes to introduce the reauthorization bill to his panel later this month or in early October after he reviews the ideas and recommendations of parents, students, and educators, including Kozol.
"No Child Left Behind advanced the commitment first made during the Great Society, the promise that every child counts, regardless of race, background, or disability," Kennedy said. "We must renew our commitment to its noble purposes, but also make the common-sense changes needed to ensure that it works better for our students and our schools."
Kozol said he has considered Kennedy a friend for more than 40 years. As a young senator, Kennedy defended Kozol after he was fired from the Boston Public Schools in 1965 for "curriculum deviation" for teaching a Langston Hughes poem to his fourth-grade class. Kozol chronicled his harrowing year teaching under deplorable conditions in a mostly black Dorchester elementary school in his first book, "Death At An Early Age."
But, according to Kozol, the senator has thrown up a "cold, stone wall" to his repeated attempts to meet with him this summer about No Child Left Behind. Before the Senate recessed in July, Kozol said, Kennedy's staff offered to squeeze him in for a few minutes.
"At that point, I just threw up my hands, because there's no way of presenting a thoughtful argument in five to seven minutes," Kozol said.
During his lecture at Harvard this week, Kozol likened No Child Left Behind to a "shaming ritual" in which the federal government holds up "impossible demands without money to pay for it." Against this backdrop, it's no wonder that half of urban teachers quit within their first three years, he said.
"Wonderful teachers should never let themselves be drill sergeants for the state," he said, peering at the crowd through gold wire-rimmed glasses. "I don't want them to quit. I want them to stay. But I want them to stay and not lose their souls."
From their front-row seats, three elderly, African-American women nodded gravely.
They were Kozol's old friends, former Boston public school parents who staged a sit-in protesting his firing from a school where children were routinely lashed with a rattan whip in a basement that smelled of urine.
They worked with Kozol to start alternative schools in the South End and Roxbury for black parents shunning the inferior public education their children were subjected to.
"All we wanted was an education for our children," said Julia Walker, 74, as she waited in line to greet Kozol.
"You know what? Sometimes it sounds like we're right back at the beginning," said Joyce Johnson, 75.
"Exactly," Walker said.
"And sometimes it sounds like there's still hope," Johnson said. "My children have picked up the torch."
Tracy Jan can be reached at email@example.com.