The origin of resurrection is the Greek word anastasis, which is defined as standing up again. In his most recent book, Ordinary Resurrections, Jonathan Kozol takes his readers on a journey into the lives of some of New York’s poorest children. The setting is an inner-city church, St. Ann’s. We meet a group of poor, minority children and adults who live each day with seeming insurmountable challenges. Yet, each day they come back to St. Ann’s and rise again with hope for the future.
Kozol taps the innocence and sincerity of children to tell his story. While sometimes shy and playful, they are also brutally honest. Kozol also has a gift of being able to get people to trust him. He asks simple, yet important questions and elicits true answers. It is clear to any reader that there is a terribly important story here for our nation and for our world. This book is not filled with educational pedagogy or methods, but is a work that everyone who works with or cares about children should read.
Throughout the journey we are introduced to some hardworking and committed adults who must teach and nurture children who have fathers and mothers in jail or prison, on drugs, or in the grave. They must also comfort the poor and homeless, people without jobs or futures. In addition to being a stable and positive influence, the people Kozol meets help the children to believe in themselves.
There are some wonderful examples here for educators to treasure, as when Kozol enters P.S. 28, one of the New York public schools his subjects attend. After engaging a third-grade class in a discussion that gets out of control, Kozol watches as a gifted teacher uses an unorthodox yet effective tool to regain focus. She begins by coming to the front of the room and curling her fingers in the shape of an instrument. After making sure that the children are focused on her, she begins to hum softly, followed by the children. As she continues this strange exercise at one point she does a little dance, again followed by the children. Finally, after the “song” is complete, the teacher puts her “instrument” away and the discussion is able to continue in an orderly fashion.
Much of the world Kozol describes revolves around the church, with St. Ann’s and its priest clearly the anchor for everyone in the community. The young and the old gather daily in this place of refuge to receive spiritual and physical food. There are rules and expectations, but it is home for anyone who needs a place to receive nourishment. As our nation continues to search for ways to improve relations between people from different ethnic and economic backgrounds, and to improve education for the urban poor, this church and community stand as a model of what is possible. The captivating thing about the successes in this book is that they are all centered on children. We see their frailty and fear, but also watch them learn to trust and grow. Their innocence is refreshing in an often cynical world.
This is an important book, but not because it reveals any earth-shattering information about how to eradicate the ills of the poor. Instead, it leads readers to an inevitable conclusion about the value of institutions like St. Ann’s. For supporters of school choice or “vouchers,” this book will clearly make a strong case that religious schools can and do provide many things that public schools are not able to offer students. Ordinary Resurrections shows us how a faith filled community is not a threat to children so much as it is a sanctuary.
Kozol comments in the book on the disparity between the suburban student expenditures versus the city public schools, and wonders out loud what would happen if the same amount of money was spent on these poor children. Kozol marvels at the remarkable successes achieved with meager resources. With inner-city religious schools educating urban children at half the cost of the city public schools with markedly better results, supporters of vouchers or charter schools wonder what those schools would do with even the more modest amounts allocated for urban kids.
Anyone who reads this book should prepare to be changed. From television’s Mr. Rogers, who visited the children of St. Ann’s, to the graduate researchers from around the country, everyone who stepped into the lives of these children was transformed. They also saw the dedication of a community of adults who could serve as a model for all of us. The stories of St. Ann’s children help all of us to keep hope alive.
Brother Bob Smith is principal and president of Messmer High School in Milwaukee.