Savage inequalities

Anna Quindlen

December 17, 1992|By Anna Quindlen

EVERY school smells the same, an amalgam of disinfectant chalk, steam table lunches and a faint whiff of wet coats. The odor rises around you inside the door at Public School 291. So does the sound, the high-pitched Babel of elementary education. Linoleum, blackboards, the marbled covers of copybooks. Universal school.

But every school is its own self too, unique, specific. Sandwiched into a commercial strip on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, P.S. 291 from the outside is a strange flat slab of a building, blank and unwelcoming.

History tells us why -- it was, in a past incarnation, either a movie theater, a bowling alley or a skating rink, depending on whom you are talking to. Now it houses 558 children, grades K through 4, its walls their universe. Their universe has no windows. No light except the jaundiced glow of fluorescence. In one classroom there is a window made of paper taped to the wall, a hopeful charade.

The biggest story in the New York City school system these last few weeks has been the battle over a curriculum called "Children of the Rainbow." The idea behind it is simple: Kids should learn that the world is an amalgam of different cultures, races and ways of life and that all are worthy of tolerance.

Selling school boards on the concept has not been simple at all. Here, as elsewhere, there are those who want kids to grow up with righteous contempt and fear. In the battle over the Rainbow curriculum, contempt and fear focus on gay people, the heirs to the Communist threat in the minds of those who believe in evil empires and conversion conspiracies.

But it's important, while we are supporting lessons in respecting others, to remember that many of our youngest kids need to learn to respect themselves. You learn your worth from the way you are treated. The children at P.S. 291 learn that they barely deserve oxygen.

Oh, this is a place where good is routinely done, from hot breakfasts to parent volunteers. Some teachers work very hard, and some students thrive.

But they thrive despite the fact that the school has no windows, no gym, no playground and no auditorium, that parts of it are partitioned like a railroad flat. Mrs. Cohen's second graders listen attentively when they are read a story. This is remarkable because you can hear most of what is going on in the second grade next door; the wall between the two stops short of the ceiling. This open classroom approach is because one ventilation outlet must serve both rooms.

Some teachers would like to take their students for a walk on the street to fill their heads with uncirculated air, but there is the fear that bottles might be thrown at them from the elevated tracks. And so first graders, who were created for the express purpose of running manically after one another at recess, are indoors from morning until late afternoon. You've got to shake your sillies out in the cafeteria, where everything from music class to school performances takes place.

We know the limits of government. We understand that we may espouse tolerance but we cannot graft it onto the world view of the unwilling. We cannot arrange by law for women to love babies they do not want, or for fathers to remain with their families rather than moving on.

But there are obvious places in which government can narrow the chasm between haves and have-nots. One is in public schools, which have been seen as the great leveler, the authentic melting pot. That, today, is nonsense. In his scathing study of the nation's public school system entitled "Savage Inequalities," Jonathan Kozol made manifest the truth: that we have a system that discriminates against the poor in everything from class size to curriculum. Universal school is a myth, a construct of our egalitarian imagination.

These are children who live in crumbling buildings, who walk on filthy streets. And yet we assume they will magically develop a sense of the dignity of humanity. When they are grown-up disappointments, in trouble or on welfare, we wonder what went wrong. There are many answers, but some of them are small and simple. A building without windows is a metaphor so obvious that a writer might reject it. But P.S. 291 is no literary device; kids are trying to become people there, learning how the world looks without a view.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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