My name is Jose Vilson and I have a confession to make: I hadn’t read the entirety of Jonathan Kozol’s seminal work Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools. I read so slow that I’m often drawing pictures line by line, making connections between every experience I’ve ever had with that sentence, and branch out into some reflective wondering before I get back into the text. At times, I zone out wondering if the phrase I just read applies to me, has anything to do with what I’m doing now, or if I could ever imagine myself doing what I just read. Often, it’s little things that can trigger it. The use of the word “differentiation.” The implication of alcohol-induced nights. The name Schomburg.
The first time I picked up the book was in 2007, during my most disappointing year in the classroom in my career. A couple of months into the 07-08 school year, and I knew I had already done a disservice to the kids by not being absolutely prepared for the worst scenario. While I won’t go into the composition of the class or the personal parts of my life during that period, I will say it was the best and worst time to pick up Kozol’s work. For the normal reader reading such a text, they can disconnect from the narrative and see the manuscript for the set of facts and narratives laid out before them with little judgment on the person themselves. I’m not that. If anything, every other page infuriated me on a globally conscious level.
When I got to page 83 of Savage Inequalities, I already found myself tightening up even worse. In a serene setting, like a waiting room, I thought I could breeze by the chapter without the usual distractions like Facebook and my own desperate classroom situation that year. Then I came across settings I recognized. New York City. District 10. Riverdale. The Bronx. The funeral home on Jerome Avenue. White. Black. Hispanic. New York Post. The wringing of this paperback must have been noticeable to any observer as I scrolled through these words. Then, I came across this:
While we talk, three children who look six or seven years old come to the door and ask to see the nurse, who isn’t in the school today. One of the children, a Puerto Rican girl, looks haggard. “I have a pain in my tooth,” she says. The principal says, “The nurse is out. Why don’t you call your mother?” The child says, “My mother doesn’t have a phone.” The principal sighs. “Then go back to your class.” When she leaves, the principal is angry. “It’s amazing to me that these children ever make it with the obstacles they face. Many do care and they do try, but there’s a feeling of despair. The parents of these children want the same things for their children that the parents in the suburbs want. Drugs are not the cause of this. They are the symptom. Nonetheless, they’re used by people in the suburbs and rich people in Manhattan as another reason to keep children of poor people at a distance.”
Soon after reading the paragraph, I smacked the book to the ground and wondered what the hell I was doing. For 2 out of my 3 classes, I was at least an adequate teacher, but for my most needy class, I felt only a little better than nothing. What am I even doing in the classroom if the problems are so much deeper than my class? How can just one infuriated individual make a change that might make conditions even workable for relatively new teachers like me?
The book was such an emotional investment at the time that I literally stopped reading it that very moment. I kept it around, collecting dust on various bookshelves. I looked at it with a certain sense of fear every time I walked by it, hoping it wouldn’t take me to those dark places when I picked it up again. A few weeks ago, I noticed it there, but this time, I felt differently. For one, there was a certain march on the horizon where I’d get a chance to ask Kozol about this and his subsequent works.
But, more importantly, I had just enough time to separate myself from the 2007 edition of me that I forgave myself for the things I couldn’t possibly do on my own.
I picked up from the aforementioned paragraph and finished the book 3 days ago. Without interruptions or anxiety. I felt an equal amount of passion after reading the book, but now I know how to channel it. Now, the only thing drawing my anger is the fact that it’s been 19 years since this book was published. And very little has been made equal since.