Rather than attempting yet another broad indictment of society’s indifference to the state of inner-city schools or the ravages of poverty and violence on young Americans, in Ordinary Resurrections Jonathan Kozol has written a lyrical portrait of children on the verge of innocence. The anger and indignation that so clearly marked his early books has been tempered by experience, and perhaps a certain amount of disillusionment. His pace has slowed, his attention now wanders; his focus has shifted from the immediate goal of exposure and elucidation of social evils to a gentle contemplation of the power of spirituality and the resilience of youth. Perhaps unintentionally, he has also penned an intensely personal and moving account of his own attempt to come to terms with the apparent inescapability of the social, educational, and political inequalities that he has fought against for so long.
Kozol does not journey from school to school anymore. Age, concern for his own ailing parents, and asthma — an affliction he shares with many of his young friends — make travel and exploration increasingly difficult. The majority of his time and effort is spent at one particular church, St. Ann’s in the South Bronx, where he attends services, teaches in the after-school program, talks with the priest, and engages children in conversations about God, life, love, and loss. Occasionally he pays a visit to a classroom or a school, but there is much less emphasis on the specific details of educational disparity than in many of his other works. Instead, he deliberately and methodically looks for the good about him. He shows children learning despite their surroundings, teachers who are committed and intense advocates of their students, and a warm and supportive environment at St. Ann’s, where parents, the priest, other helpful adults, and the children form a mutually beneficial and loving community from which they can all draw strength.
This is not to say that this is an apolitical or entirely optimistic book. While it concentrates on resistance and buoyancy, there are moments when Kozol’s tone becomes either hard and unforgiving or simply anguished. His outrage at the dumping of waste material in residential neighborhoods, where significant numbers of children suffer from bronchial problems, is vehement. His dismissal of the assertion that money makes no difference in the quality of schooling is acerbic. And his despair when speaking of children discussing their regular trips to visit their fathers, brothers, and uncles in state penitentiaries is palpable. In this sense, many of the themes he plays are reminiscent of those from his earlier books, and they lose none of their power here.
Nonetheless, Ordinary Resurrections is generally a tale of triumph over tragedy. The lilting voices of the children are authentic and sincere, and Kozol’s love and respect for them is warmly apparent. Anyone looking for a ray of light in an otherwise dismal sky would do well to listen to their conversations for a while. After all, as Kozol writes, we all “look continually for reasons to be hopeful. [We] just want them to be genuine” (p. 155).