August 2, 2004
The Old and the Young
by Linda Anderson Krech
Low-income, inner-city kids often have a lot to contend with. Maneuvering skillfully through a maze of drugs, violence, abuse, poverty, crime, gangs, and broken homes would be a stretch for even the most mature among us.
What can be done to help such kids? Can one person really make a difference? Jonathan Kozol, author of Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation (1995), is convinced that one person can make a major difference. Kozol first became familiar with inner-city poverty in 1964, while teaching in public schools, and the outrage that he experienced has fueled his work ever since. During the course of his research in the South Bronx, Kozol had the honor of getting to know many of the grandmothers in these families, whose strength and beauty, in the face of so much suffering, was striking. "They are the solid rock of this community. If it weren't for them, I think the community would disintegrate."
Kozol urges volunteers, including seniors, to share some of their love with these kids at risk. When Kozol was visiting a classroom some years ago, he came upon a situation that deeply impressed him. In a huge class, in an underfunded, shabby school, an older man was engaged in the corner of the room with some of the boys. Kozol first thought he was a reading expert of some sort. "But no, he was a man near 80, a resident of a Hebrew home for the aged. He'd lost his wife, and he had volunteered to do this.
He was having a great time with the children, and they obviously liked him. He originally volunteered to come one day a week for a couple of hours, but he liked it so much, he was coming almost every day. These hours had given new purpose to his life."
Kozol advocates for a cross-generational alliance, played out in schools, church basements and Head Start centers. He urges us to "seize golden moments" with these children, who still have sparks of innocence, who in the midst of ugliness and danger still have the magic of childhood within. "When I was younger, I thought the problem was lack of information: if the nation knew, it would act. Now I believe it's more a lack of moral will to act on what we know already. I try to write as a witness: This is how it is. This is how innocent children are forced to live."
"The presence of a considerably older person in the lives of children is a blessing that goes beyond anything that an old schoolteacher like me can adequately describe."
— Jonathan Kozol