They Rise and Rise Again

Ordinary Resurrectionsby Jonathan KozolCrown. 313p $25

For many years Jonathan Kozol has attended to school children in impoverished neighborhoods. The author of several award-winning books, including Death at an Early Age and Amazing Grace, he has taught those boys and girls, observed them carefullyand in some instances has come to know them well outside the classroom. And in his writing he allows readers to learn from the young and from himself as their older friend, advisor and instructor. In a sense, his books are a continuation of that educational effort, begun in Boston decades ago and now being accomplished in the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx in New York City. This is where he spent the last few years, we learn in this the latest of his books, at one elementary school (P.S. 30) and at a church, St. Ann’s of Morrisania, an Episcopalian community that includes a religiously sponsored after-school aimed at helping the education of the African-American and Polish-speaking families who make up the population.

In his introductory chapter Kozol tells us of his intentand by implication we are asked to realize the daily commitment of time and energy that made possible the writing of the following pages: This is a book about the children’s games and stories, and their silliness and sorrows, and the many intricate and sometimes elegant theologies they manage to create in order to invite into their lives the little mysteries that make them brave. Soon enough, we meet those childrenElio and Pineapple and Ariel and Damian and Amber, their sometimes colorful names a good match for their spiritual, imaginative, even lyrical remarks. They understandably held the closely listening Kozol in considerable awe, as is evident in the comments, asides, inquiries and introspective reveries he offers throughout the book. Boys and girls from what is called these days a culturally deprived or culturally disadvantaged world (the dreariness of such language!) are able to teach their well-educated and well-meaning older visitor rather a lot, and indeed, do so on his own intellectual turf. Hence this affecting and ever so instructive moment in a Bronx elementary school class:

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After a time the boys take out their writing and we get some work done for three quarters of an hour. Benjamin is the only one who never settles down. He stays by the bookcase looking at a book he’s taken from the shelf, but in a way that seems halfhearted.

There it is, another prospect of gloom, the proverbial wayward youth set to disappoint, if not to irritate and then enrage his earnest teacher. But what happens tells a lot about not only Benjamin but Jonathan, who won’t let a student’s unruliness or disinterest be the end of the matter:

 When the other boys finish their work and go downstairs, I ask him to remain for a few minutes more and let me see the book. It turns out to be a book by Langston Hughes I’ve never seen before, poems written about animals, that someone must have given to the church. He shows me a poem that he’s been looking at and asks me if I know the man who wrote it. When I say I never had the chance to meet him and that he died long ago, the boy seems disappointed.

 But the boy thereafter would be encouraged to read aloud various wonderfully vivid poems Langston Hughes wrote, and in so doing would become his teacher’s teacher. Eventually, the learning and enlivened middle-aged white man, who had studied poems at a fancy Ivy League college, began to realize how much he owes the Bronx ladand not only for acquainting him with a particular poet’s work, but for prompting an important line of psychological thinking that in a way informs this book from start to finish. If I hadn’t had this opportunity to talk with him alone, Kozol recounts, I don’t know if I’d have gotten past my first impression of him as a rather loose-limbed, casual, and superficial boy who seemed to laugh too easily at other kids’ mistakes.

The point, we are told through a remembered story’s indirection, is to take careful heed of children, respond to them as constant purveyors of surprise, of thoughtful awareness and, yes, of spiritual enlightenment. This is what the book’s title suggests; it is a daring suggestion that the hope Jesus came to give us about life’s possibilities can be found in obscure precincts of big-city America, where, in a sudden, surprising moment, promising light shines on an all too noticed and remarked-upon atmosphere of darkness.

Jonathan Kozol has given us another compilation of experiences and meetingsaccounts of children who entered his life, made it different, stirred him to extend what he has received and realized to us, his needy readers, who have much to consider as we learn of the children he describes as living during the years of hope. Throughout Ordinary Resurrections we are also given, by inference rather than explicitly, a thought-provoking duality of sorts: egoism as it struggles toward altruismthe former a part of all our lives (certainly including those who write) and the latter itself an aspect of hopefulness, whether in the Bronx or across the river in Manhattan. Our self-preoccupations soon give way to a devoted watchfulness tending outside ourselves, toward others. So it is that irony yet again affirms its ever-present aspects: Vulnerable and hurt children, with little going for them socially and economically, become soul-mates, it can be said, of one who is blessed materially, yet ever so eager to look beyond a given life’s outcome. Thereby he himself finds the very moral and spiritual awakening given documentary description, with regard to the Bronx’s children, in this book.

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