It's true. Even though it is the most positive of Kozol's books (I have read several, since then) the point of his books - nonfiction, a mix of human stories and the sociological phenomenon behind those lives - is to point out how we have failed the poor, especially poor children, as a nation of wealth and plenty. This does not make for light summer beach reading. The anecdotes are pointed, heart-breaking and often accusatory. And as a college student needing desperately for a cause to latch onto, for some specific purpose, Amazing Grace was like a manifesto for me. Go to the Poor!!
That's not exactly where I've landed.
Yet I jumped at the chance to hear Kozol speak at UAF last night, mostly because he had been such a mighty figure for me eight years ago. He was funny and personable. Self-effacing yet obviously incredibly intelligent. He rambled around his topic like a disheveled professor, and looked the part in his too-short suit pants and tennis shoes. He made some well-deserved jabs at Bush's lamentable education policy. He told his stories well, both sweet funny stories and his requisite heart-rending examples of how unjustly we are treating the children born poor in our country.
I hardly noticed that it was after nine o'clock when the packed auditorium broke for cookies and punch, and an informal question-and-answer session (that I did not stay for.) It was a strange experience, listening to a man whom I hold in such high regard, whom I idolized for so long, whose work I still hope, in the recesses of my mind, to emulate if I ever come into my own as a writer. Yet a man who's mission no longer holds me in its sway. I was not inspired by his speech. I was amused by it, and it made me angry and frustrated and sad. That was it's purpose, after all. But I did not come away singing a war hymn, planning to move a ghetto and make a safe place of learning and peace for other people's children. I came away exactly as I came in. Utterly unsure which path to choose for myself. Vaguely guilty for leaving behind those early 20's passions and ideals, tempered by a realization of how utterly unrealistic those ideals were, yet still worried by the thought that I've given something up. Something precious and real.
I found myself raising my eyebrows at the standing ovation as Kozol ended his well-polished rambling rant without proposing much in the way of a solution to the monster of institutional injustice. Perhaps because there is none? I want to believe otherwise, but the hour and the wine and all the things I've read and seen and done since reading Amazing Grace lead me away from that hope. Is that why I'm up here, looking after my own dreams instead?
I first read Jonathan Kozol's book Amazing Grace in college. I don't remember the context - if it was a class assignment, something for a student organization or simply a recommendation from an encouraging professor. I do remember the book. I read it over some break or other, and my sister Sarah quickly started trying to take the book away and hide it from me. "It puts you in a bad mood," she said. "You aren't any fun, then."
Posted by tangle at 8:36 PM