Savage Hopelessness

May 5, 2010
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Life of the Affluent

"We have a meritocracy of money in which good public education is passed on from one generation to the next. With privilege goes the opportunity to earn enough money so that you can live in a wealthy suburb and perpetuate this inequality by passing it on to your children" (Brock) .

I have gone to affluent private schools all my life. I have never lived in a poor neighborhood. I have always been told I can be anyone I want to be.

As an affluent, Asian-American private school student, my parents and teachers have always told me that as long as I just work hard in school, I can grow up to have any career I want--doctor, lawyer, psychiatrist. I can become anyone I want to be; I can become respected, looked up to, admired. Because children in my schools always spoke of the common stereotype about Asians (they are all intelligent), I always felt as if my half Asian heritage would also help me to succeed in school and thus become successful in life. Hearing my father's stories of how he was immediately hired to work at one of the nation's most prominent communications companies stratight after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania gave me the impression that becoming wealthy and successful in life was easy. Graduate high school with good grades, graduate college, graduate graduate school, move on to a high-income job. Simple.

This is the message I have always received from the adults around me. I thought this was everyone's story. But I discovered a whole different kind of story after reading Kozol's book, Savage Inequalities. The kind of story that makes me shudder with sadness; an unfathomable kind of story to people like me who have always been surrounded by encouraging people from privileged circumstances.

It was the stories of poor, inner-city public school students who had a slim chance of ever leaving their situations that immediately changed my perspective on life. In Savage Inequalites, Kozol successfully illustrates the horrors that many children go through in poor public schools. He portrays the dirty, grimy floors and walls of the poor schools in sharp contrast to the clean, newly renovated buildings of the wealthy private schools. Children go to schools each and every day searching for something new, something better, something to get them out of their current living hell. But how are they to have any hope of a better life when their parents have been stuck in poverty all their lives, when most of their teachers have been poor all their lives, and when almost no one they know have ever moved up in society? The destitute school environments these students are surrounded by--toppling buildings, old, dirty walls, impoverished and dejected teachers and parents--squelch even the tinniest rays of hope the students may cling to for a better life and in the process set these students up for failure.

Kozol Experiencing Poverty

"The greatest difference between now and 1964, when I began teaching, is that public policy has pretty much eradicated the dream of Martin Luther King" (Brock).

In 1989, in preparation for writing the book, Jonathan visited and interviewed both rich and poor schools in over 30 different communities--observing the tumultuous lives of the impoverished children, exploring schools in which the walls and roofs were in the process of toppling over, touring school zones in which minorities were in danger of getting shot at every time they walked down the street.

Kozol's novel reflects the great amount of firsthand experiences he has had dealing with poverty and oppression of public school children. Does he, however, know enough information just from interviewing a few schools? In fact, Kozol has done more than just that. He actually taught in a public school himself in 1964, when he moved into a poor black neighborhood of Boston to teach a fourth grade class. After reading poetry that was not on the curriculum the school had assigned (Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes), however, he was fired. Although it was an unfair experience, Kozol learned from getting fired of the injustices in many schools--teachers are fired or reprimanded for giving the students a higher education. Even after being fired from teaching the fourth grade class, he still pursued a teaching career for impoverished children. According to Leslie Stebbins, an acknowledged librarian and coordinator at Brandeis University, Kozol proceeded to work as a teacher in a freedom school in Boston, the majority of the students being low-income blacks. Kozol not only experienced life with impoverished minorities in American schools, but he also moved to a poor neighborhood in Paris and examined schools there for a portion of his early life, specifically to experience and observe oppressed public school students in other countries (Stebbins) .

Clearly, Kozol's years of personal experience dealing with poverty in schools is undeniable; he has observed the way the children are severely segregated, the violence that occurs, the injustice of the circumstances the impoverished citizens are forced into. After personally dealing with the terrible conditions of the schools, Kozol has learned all about the effects of school environments on the teachers, students, and parents' attitudes and futures--how easily their dreams of moving up in class can shatter like glass by being surrounded by such horrific school climates. Kozol writes this book in a very successful attempt to enlighten readers of the way some inner-city public schools leave their students with no other option but failure. The reader is left with a changed heart, a new perspective, and a compelling notion to repair the issues Kozol addresses.

Loss of Hope

"Kindergartners ares so full of hope, cheerfulness, high expectations. By the time they get into fourth grade, many begin to lose heart. They see the score, understand they're not getting what others are getting. They begin to get the point that they are not valued much in our society" (Chiles) .

School climates--the building conditions, the amount of support from the people, the supply of necessary resources--set the children in schools up for either success or failure. In my case, the wealthy private schools I have attended have all set me up for success, with their clean, new buildings, their ample supply of computers and books, and the many lectures from the faculty that we students can graduate and become successful in life. Other schools, for example the schools Kozol examined, unintentionally set their students up for failure due to their lack of money to provide the children with the necessary resources and the gloomy atmosphere that destroys the childrens' hopes of success.

East St. Louis, Illinois. This name may not mean anything to people who have not read Kozol's vivid, heart-wrenching book. But to those who have, this name represents depression, hatred, discrimination, injustice. Kozol illustrates the poor schools of this city with vivid detail: the paint on the walls are all chipped off, the windows are barred to keep criminals out, the floors are covered in dirt (there is not enough money to afford enough janitors.) The grime on the walls of every room mock the students passing by. The classes contain all African American or Latin American students; maybe one or two whites or Asians among them. Many of the students have lost a close friend or relative due to disease that sweeps the city from a broken sewage system. Children drop out of schools everyday to join gangs, or simply because they have lost hope of change, lost hope of moving to an easier life. On average, only 55 percent of students graduate high school, and only 10 percent go on to college. Several high school girls get pregnant every year, because "there's no reason not to have a baby. There's not much for (them) in public school" (Kozol 29) . The crumbling buildings and lack of books cause the high school students to easily sense the extremely low possibility of moving on from high school to get a high-paid job. 90 percent of the students do not even graduate high school because they feel as if they have no reason to complete a school that will not help them become successful or get them out of their current living situations. The lack of money in these schools bring down the spirits of the faculty and students; all hopes and dreams of a brighter future are lost in the grime on the desks and the dirt on the walls.

When comparing the schools in East St. Louis to my school and the other private schools around me, I am horrified. Whereas my school is a college preparatory school and prepares me for famous colleges where I can learn to become a top executive at a law firm or a research scientist at a laboratory or a doctor at a prominent clinic, the high schools in East St. Louis prepare their kids for just the opposite. While the Introductory Home Ec. does not even prepare their children for any type of job at all, the Advanced Home Ec. (the highest level of home ec.) prepares the students for jobs at fast food places. The private school I attend has a variety of advanced courses: Advanced Placement Biology, Advanced Placement Chemistry, Advanced Placement English, Advanced Placement History, and much more. The public schools in East St. Louis do not even have enough materials to support their basic classes. Most of the inner-city public schools do not have enough textbooks for all the students, sufficient laboratory equipment to follow the high school curriculum, large enough classrooms to hold the forty-student classes.
The lack of proper materials and the classes to prepare students for minimum-wage jobs rather than high-wage jobs help keep the children from succeeding in life. How will the students ever be encouraged to work hard and graduate high school if the schools they attend do not even have enough resources to give them a proper education? How can they be expected to ever get a high-wage job if they only learn up to middle school or even elementary school information? It is not the fault of the children; it is the dreary, hopeless atmosphere the children are surrounded by at school that keeps them from being motivated to graduate school and become successful. When I picture the lives of the children in these schools, I think of a painting called It's a Long Road Ahead, by Jenny Salyers, college student at Mountain Empire Community College (Salyers) . The illuminated child with so much potential is traveling down a long, endless, gloomy road where all that can be seen are dark trees and dead grass. Similarly, when I picture the futures of the students at impoverished public schools, I see nothing but a, black, endless road where the students can not find a different path.

While it is evident that students in toppling, poor public schools mainly do not graduate and become successful, some think that money does not have an effect on the academic success of schools. However, while money is not the only resource that will improve a school's education, it does help a great amount. According to Paul D. Mageli, scholar and writer for Magill's Literary Annual, "Kozol will surprise many readers with his demonstration of just how high are the obstacles to learning arising from inadequate school funding" in his book (Mageli) . If schools renovate their buildings to look welcoming and hopeful, if schools are able to buy books for each and every student, the students will be more inclined to feel as if they have a chance to receive a higher education and potentially gain a well-paying job and move out of the poverty they are in.

A Chance for Resurgence

"What happens to the children who are left behind?" (Brock).

Kozol's Savage Inequalities is an important book for anyone to read no matter what age or gender. This book provides the reader with awareness about the reality of many low-income cities and schools that most people do not know about.

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