"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
“Segregation is not something that happens by chance, like weather conditions,” says Jonathan Kozol. “It is the work of men.” So it is not without irony that it has taken a hurricane — and the excruciating images of stranded black faces, beamed across cable airwaves — for Americans to confront the reality that vast numbers of their fellow citizens live in segregated ghettos and suffer from abject poverty. But for Kozol, who has built his career on exposing the race- and class-based injustices endemic to the United States’ educational system, the knowledge that we live in a deeply divided society has long been a foregone — if heartbreaking — conclusion.
For 40 years, in bestselling books such as “Savage Inequalities” and “Amazing Grace,” Kozol has reported from urban schools across the nation, befriending teachers and students who, despite the promises of Brown v. Board of Education, still live and learn in crumbling buildings and in overcrowded classrooms with scarce supplies. “I cannot discern even the slightest hint that any vestige of [the Brown decision] has survived within these schools and neighborhoods,” he writes in his new book, “The Shame of the Nation.” “I simply never see white children.”
The America Kozol describes in “Shame” is in essence an apartheid state. White suburban districts receive disproportionate funding and praise, while inner-city schools that serve minorities are denied equitable federal aid, threatened by repressive testing mandates, and drained of creativity and joy. The book is also something of a polemic. Kozol accuses the Bush administration of implementing sinister educational policies in which rote memorization is valued more than imagination and children are treated as capitalist commodities to be molded into an army of obedient entry-level workers. Using the voices of dissatisfied students and teachers as a rallying cry, Kozol calls upon “decent citizens” of all political stripes to rise up against social and educational segregation — and reclaim the ideals of the civil rights movement.
Kozol, 69, lives outside Boston but was in New York last week on his book tour. I sat down with him and — in between sips of coffee and puffs on his cigarette — he explained why he believes that newspapers are partly to blame for America’s reluctance to discuss race, “Winnie the Pooh” is more essential than standardized tests, and lazy liberals need to “get off their asses” and fight for educational equity.
In some of your earlier books you raised fears that the aims of Brown v. Board of Education were quietly being undermined. But “Shame of the Nation” goes so far as to call the contemporary American educational system an apartheid regime.
In earlier books, like “Amazing Grace,” I certainly made it evident that the schools of the South Bronx were stunningly segregated. But it wasn’t until the last five years that I realized how sweeping this change has been throughout the nation, and how reluctant the media is to speak of it. Newspapers in general, including those that are seen as vaguely liberal, by a convenient defect of vision refuse to see what is in their own front yard — or if they do see it, they refuse to state it. So, in a description of a 98 percent black and Latino school, the newspaper won’t say what would seem to be the most obvious starting point: This is a deeply segregated school. They won’t use the word “segregated.” They do the most amazing semantic somersaults to avoid calling reality by its real name. “Gritty” is the New York Times’ euphemism for segregated; “serving a diverse population with many minorities” — as though they might be Albanians! Then I go to this “diverse” school and there are 1,000 black and Latino kids, 10 whites and 12 Asians. So “diverse” has actually come to be a synonym for “not diverse.”
Do you think the media is afraid of race?
Most newspapers, with a few notable exceptions, have a far greater interest in defending civic image and civic stability than in removing the cancer of segregation from the body of American democracy. It would cause them a lot of problems if they attacked school segregation in their own communities head-on, because then they’d also have to attack residential segregation. That would mean shining the spotlight directly at the prime architects of residential apartheid — major banks, lending institutions and realty firms. A large amount of the advertising revenues for newspapers comes from real estate.
Newspapers tend to boost almost any educational policy that seems to offer redemption, so every few years there’s a new one, and basically every expert has a seven-point plan to prove that segregated schools can be successful. I call it the myth of perfectible apartheid. Most of these plans are organized bamboozlements, full of unassailable banalities. For example, No. 1: “Principal should have clear goals,” as though most American principals have a secret predilection for obscurity. Or, No. 2: “Teachers should strive for excellence,” as though most teachers had a genetic attraction to mediocrity. I’ve seen dozens of these plans come and go; they’re boosted, schools claim immediate success and scores go up 3 percentage points — and five years later it’s declared a failure and abandoned. I refuse to play this game.
Clearly, you’re angry.
“Shame of the Nation” is a dead serious book, the angriest book I’ve written in my life. It is not a recipe book for polishing the apple of apartheid. It’s a call for an all-out struggle for decent citizens to wage an onslaught on apartheid schooling itself. The percentage of black children who now go to integrated public schools is at its lowest level since 1968. If you took a photograph of the classes I visit in New York, Chicago or St. Louis, it would look exactly like a class from Alabama in the 1940s.
Your view of the government and prevailing American culture is quite scathing. But do you really think policymakers and suburban families are actively racist? Or is this simply a case of cruel indifference?
Look, whether it’s cruel indifference or the natural predilection of a parent to do the best she can for her own child, or originates in some very profound racist suppositions about minority children — it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference to the kids that I write about. There are unquestionably overtly racist white folks in the country, but I don’t think that is an accurate portrayal of most white people in America. I think there is something peculiar about the culture wars that thrive in New York City; there’s a venomous atmosphere around racial issues here that I don’t find in most of the United States. Most white Americans with whom I talk — and I don’t mean people who read the Nation and the New York Times, just regular Americans — are fair-minded and generous.
For instance, some of the children I write about endear themselves to readers. One little girl in the Bronx named Pineapple, whom I first met in kindergarten, and still remain close friends with, was just an irresistibly charming little kid; she used to boss me around, like a pint-sized Oprah Winfrey. And people read about her in Ohio or wherever, and they fall in love with her. And if they met her, they would do anything they could to give her the same opportunities they gave their own children. The genius of segregation in America is that it never gives most decent white Americans the opportunity to meet a child like Pineapple. And because they don’t know these children in their years of innocence, they are protected from their own best instincts. If they knew them, most good people in this country could not tolerate the destruction of these children’s destinies. People are more decent than the politicians they elect. At the highest levels of government — and especially George W. Bush — our politicians appeal to the worst instincts of Americans rather than their most generous.
I couldn’t help thinking as I was reading your book that one unexpected outcome of Hurricane Katrina has been that it has revealed to Americans the state of poverty and segregation in their country, and given a pretty clear picture of what happens when the privileged desert the powerless.
Yes, it’s a lot easier for white folks of good conscience to acquiesce in the immiseration of thousands of black and Latino children if we keep them at a distance. To me, segregation is not simply a demographic dilemma or some kind of a bureaucratic mistake — it is a conscious, deliberate and morally intolerable form of social policy. It doesn’t happen by accident, it’s not like a weather pattern. American segregation has been created by men and will only be undone by the acts of men and women. And that’s why this book calls for another passionate political upheaval in this country. I hope I live to see it. I think there is a huge, untapped political restlessness in young people today, especially young teachers. And the teachers are the best witnesses to this crime because they see it in front of their eyes every day. You can’t tell them that apartheid is a vestige of the past; you can’t buy them off with sentimental stories of black kids crossing the color line 40 years ago.
Segregation is the oldest failed experiment in U.S. social history. We all know it didn’t work in the century just past, and it’s not going to work in the century ahead. And those that tell us otherwise are guilty of absolute deception. And if you read the newspapers, you know how it works — every year there is a new plan. This year it’s small segregated and unequal schools, last year it was segregated and unequal schools with scripted phonics texts and kids in uniforms, and another year it was segregated and unequal schools with self-help incantations plastered on the walls. There is a kind of evasive game being played by many liberals, which is basically, “Let’s try another cute and poignant way to make these schools more ‘innovative’” — and the press loves this because it gives them something entirely unthreatening to promote. But if interesting and even benevolent innovations on the part of school reformers were able to create successful segregated schools, we would have learned it in the past 100 years.
Is segregation simply inherently incompatible with effective education?
Yes, I don’t believe that segregated schools, with the exception of a very few boutique examples, will ever be equal to the schools that serve the mainstream of society.
And that is because there are more than academic issues at stake when you talk about school segregation?
Yes, it goes far beyond the question of academic concerns — it goes to the question of whether we are going to be one society or two, whether our children will grow up to know one another as friends or view each other eternally as strangers, and especially as fearful strangers. But it also speaks directly to academic issues, because overwhelmingly segregated schools in the United States are the schools that have the lowest scores, the highest class sizes, the least experienced teachers, and the most devastating dropout rates. And of course these are the schools that always receive the least amount of money. Segregated schools, despite occasional exceptions, are almost always funded at far lower levels than the schools that serve white and middle-class children. Nationally, on average, a school serving primarily black and Latino students gets $1,000 less per pupil than an overwhelmingly white school. That’s a lot of money when you realize that kids aren’t educated individually but in a class of 25-30 kids — that’s a difference of $25,000-$30,000 every year for every class. So when the neocons ask in their perennially idiotic way, “Can you really buy your way to better education?” I want to tell them to ask any principal anywhere in America what she could do with an extra $25,000 per class. In New York, the difference is twice that high. The kids up in the Bronx that I write about get a little over $11,000 per pupil, per year. But lift up one of them in your grown-up arms and plunk her down 10 miles away in the Westchester suburb of Bronxville, and she’d be getting $19,000 every single year.
So it is basically a capitalist system where kids are seen as investments — and it comes down to who is worth the money and who isn’t?
Exactly. What’s happened in many of these inner-city schools is that kids are no longer perceived as children but rather as economic units — like pint-size deficits or assets for the American economy. No one asks whether they are good or they are happy. The only question is will they be useful to our corporations in a global marketplace. It is not like this in the suburbs. There, children are still valued because they are children and childhood is still regarded not merely as a prelude to utilitarian adulthood but as a perishable piece of life itself. In the inner-city schools, even though most of the teachers I know would like to do the same, there is tremendous pressure on the principals to view these children as products, with “value-added” skills that they pump into them. And if you view children as products, it makes sense to have a lot of product testing.
I used to teach in the suburbs, and I heard many complaints about the testing system. It’s not really fair to ignore the effects there either, is it?
Principals and teachers in suburban schools don’t like the testing regimen — they find it to be a tremendous annoyance and distraction. But it doesn’t create a sense of siege, because they’re likely going to do well anyway. And besides, if the federal government penalizes them by withholding funds, they’ve got plenty. It’s the inner-city schools where the principal is subjected to the threat of public humiliation — because the lowest-scoring schools are named in the newspaper — and the more specific threat of being penalized by loss of federal funds, that makes principals and teachers feel compelled to turn the school into an efficiency factory. And because a lot of these schools are so poor, they are deluded into creating partnerships with businesses. Corporations love to claim they have become school partners with inner-city schools — so the very same banks that have redlined these kids into segregated lives then pose as allies to the children.
The direct result of this is that even the best principals and teachers — and I write this book with tremendous empathy for them — in poor inner-city schools, as compared to the suburbs, feel totally compelled to teach to the tests. They feel compelled to exclude from the curriculum anything that will not be tested, which means the children must be trained to give predictable answers and the teacher cannot indulge an unexpected answer. If one little boy, in the middle of a lesson on consonant blends, insists on telling the teacher about a visit to the zoo with his uncle, the teacher has to cut him off. She can’t let him get to the end of his story. The child who wants to ask the teacher about something he finds funny or something that brings him close to tears, she has to cut him off. In many of these schools teachers have to hold timers in their hands — especially schools using the Success for All classes — every minute has to be directed toward something that will be on state exams.
In the suburbs, a teacher can listen as a child piles on “ands” and “buts.” In good schools in the suburbs where the teachers aren’t running scared and may only have 16 kids in a class, teachers can listen. And at the end of all those “ands” and “buts” there may be a hidden treasure that can unlock a child’s motivation. In the test-driven school, the teacher will never find that key to motivation. Instead the school is based upon externally created motivations and in the worst of these SFA schools, the motivation is almost exclusively anxiety and fear. It is a stimulus-response curriculum based upon the rat control experiments of B.F. Skinner and the teacher is told they cannot deviate.
The country desperately needs engaged, intelligent teachers. Is the culture of No Child Left Behind actually driving good teachers out of schools?
So many teachers in poor, inner-city schools have great personalities, but they have to deny them and adopt a rigidity, a false persona. A teacher who loves literature cannot say, “I read ‘Winnie the Pooh’ aloud with my class today, and they loved it.” That would suffice in a good suburban school. But in the test-driven school in the age of George W. Bush, she can’t do that. She has to say, “I used the story of Pooh and Piglet to deliver the following three proficiencies that will be on the state exam.” And then she has to list those proficiencies on the blackboard with a number next to each of them, saying, “We used Pooh’s disappointment about the honey pot to deliver the following three skills.” What happens in these schools is not only that the children are treated as industrial products in preparation but that they’re also subjected to a type of rote and drilled training that denies them almost all access to the joy of learning and to any form of cultural capaciousness.
So even when school systems sometimes boast that they’ve reduced the learning gap between the races, in fact they have increased the cultural gap between the races. And these test score gains are always spurious and temporary. It means nothing; this is the result of teaching to the test, and in some cases, like Houston, it’s the result of cheating. If these were real gains — learning gains, not testing gains — you’d see the results four years later when they get to eighth grade. But I meet the same kids four years later and they can’t write a cogent sentence and they can’t read a social studies text, and by the 12th grade the difference is catastrophic. The numbers that come from the Education Trust say that the average 12th grade black and Latino student in America reads and does math at the level of the typical seventh grade white student. George Bush says his testing plan is working, and it is a flagrant lie; it’s a deadly lie because it’s deceiving the parents of the poor, and it’s the worst possible crime because once these years are taken from the kids you can’t ever give them back.
Probably the most shocking passage in your book is one in which you speak with a student named Mireya, from Freemont High School in Los Angeles, who is moved to tears of frustration because she wants to go to college, but the only classes available to her are sewing and hairdressing courses, rather than college prep classes.
Everyone who has read the book has said that is the story that made them cry. Mireya wanted to go to Boston University. She was eloquent, and her teachers said she was perfectly capable of going to a first-rate university. She said the school had made her take sewing the previous year, and when I spoke with her, they were going to make her take hairdressing. This was a school of 5,000 kids in South Central Los Angeles, with hardly a white kid in the school. Now, it turns out hairdressing and sewing weren’t exactly required, but that students were expected to take two classes in what were called “the technical arts.” But at Beverly Hills High School that requirement could be filled by taking a class in residential architecture, computer graphics or broadcast journalism — things that perhaps have some relevance to college preparation. At Freemont the choices were sewing and hairdressing. Mireya cried and said to me, “I don’t need to sew; my mother’s a seamstress in a sewing factory.” That’s when a terrific student, Fortino — he reminded me of a sort of Latino Malcolm X, because he had this look of cynical intelligence in his eyes — said to her, “The owners of the sewing factories need workers, don’t they?” And she said, “Well, I guess they do.” And he said, “They’re not going to hire their own kids for those jobs.” Another student naively said, “Why not?” And Mireya said, “Because they can grow beyond themselves, but we remain the same.” To me that was the most moving bit of dialogue in the whole book.
When I am in New York I go just outside Queens, on suburban Long Island, to visit the Roosevelt school district — which is a totally segregated district, 100 percent black and Latino. Seventh- and eighth-graders there have to take two mandatory years of sewing. You try doing that in Scarsdale, [N.Y.], Glencoe, [Ill.], Winnetka, [Ill.], Beverly Hills, [Calif.] or Concord, Mass. The principal would be fired in one hour.
What makes you so convinced that the inequalities stem from race and not class? If any one of the children you befriended in the Bronx suddenly inherited $100,000, wouldn’t they be able to buy themselves a new start? Poor is poor, whether you’re black or white.
I believe the racial factor is the most decisive. A lot of intellectuals, even radical intellectuals, love to shift the ground to class instead of race, and I think there’s a reason. It’s because for all its unfairness, class injustice sounds less toxic. It’s less of a theological abomination than racial injustice, which has its roots in the sins of American history. In this nation our racial history is our greatest national humiliation. In any case, it’s a distinction without a difference because the most deeply hyper-segregated schools in America are far, far more likely to be schools of concentrated poverty than are racially integrated schools. So I still believe race is at the heart of it.
There is a lot of controversy these days, both in urban and suburban schools, regarding the repercussions of using corporate money and sponsorships to infuse struggling school budgets with cash and supplies. Given the extent of their need, it seems as if the schools you write about would be particularly vulnerable to that influence. Do you believe a corporate presence in schools can ever be beneficial?
Some of the most grotesque examples of the apartheid curriculum are when corporate indoctrination invades not simply the high schools but the elementary schools. I’m thinking of the schools I write about in Ohio — and there are many like these across the country — where little kids in second and third grade were learning to read by reading want ads and learning to write by writing job applications. And they had on their desks earnings charts, which said, basically, “How much is my sentence worth?” And then there was a classroom bank on the wall where your earnings would be accrued and they had pictures of dollar bills as an incentive. I think most enlightened white American parents, because they have power, would tear down a school that made such a reductionist curriculum. Sure, most middle-class white Americans would love their kids to be successful economically, but they also want them to be culturally empowered, they want them to love beauty for its own sake, they want them to read a good book, not in the robotic voice of children who have been drilled nonstop in phonics and only in phonics, but with real comprehension.
You write that “passion and delight” are seen as luxuries in most inner-city schools. Do you mean to say white kids have the luxury of childhood and kids of color do not?
I go out of my way at the end of the book to devote an entire chapter to inner-city schools that try very hard to resist those trends. I go into great detail to describe one school in the South Bronx and one in Durham, N.C., in which good, hard skills are delivered to children but where it’s also fun to be in school and where the teachers have a chance to be fascinated by the children’s fascination, which is one of the great rewards for a teacher. If you take that away from a teacher, if you take away the delight and mischievousness of childhood, it’s hard to see what’s left to compensate her for her rotten pay and for the limited respect she gets in this society. The president has the arrogance to blame these teachers if test scores don’t go up; he accuses them of “low expectations” and charges them with “soft bigotry.” That’s a lot of chutzpah for a president who has never lifted a finger to even touch on the issue of school segregation or to give the segregated schools funds to meet his demands.
Just after Katrina, Bill O’Reilly went on the air saying that the looting of New Orleans should serve as a lesson to poor black kids who are messing up in school and “living the ghetto lifestyle.” Personal accountability is also a big buzzword in this administration. What’s the problem with telling kids to pull themselves up by their bootstraps?
Conservatives love to see ghetto schools that are plastered with self-help posters. I quote one where the children have to chant, “If it is to be, it is up to me.” Well, that’s about as far from the truth as imaginable. But accountability in the president’s worldview is all one way. Most of these kids, by the way, are denied preschool. The president has cut Head Start, so now less than 50 percent of eligible students get to participate. The president does nothing to provide these kids with pre-K education, while friends of mine send their children to $20,000-a-year preschools — lovely little Montessori schools — starting at the age of 2 and a half. When the kids who are denied preschool get to third grade, they’re given a high-stakes exam and they’re held accountable for their performance. There is something deeply hypocritical in a society that holds an 8-year-old accountable for her performance on an exam but doesn’t hold the president accountable for robbing her of what he gave his own kids when they were 2 and a half years old.
As someone who has had every educational advantage, I find it hard not to feel sick and ashamed after reading your book.
A lot of privileged white kids read my books because for some reason the wealthiest white high schools tend to assign my books to their seniors. And these kids send me poignant letters and say, essentially, “My victories are won in a game that was rigged to my advantage in advance.” And yes, they are proud that they got into Harvard or Michigan or Reed or wherever, but they also feel embarrassed by the fact that these are not pure victories, they are tarnished ones. We have a meritocracy in the U.S. but it’s increasingly a hereditary meritocracy in which the lines are both lines of class and of race.
I didn’t write this book simply to provoke another incestuous and interesting debate among inert liberals. I wrote this book to ask my liberal friends to get up off their asses and deal with an injustice which is right before their eyes. There are too many books about the heroic struggles of the 1960s and the courage people showed then. Those books exempt us from summoning up the courage we need to face the injustices from which we still benefit today.
Sarah Karnasiewicz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Until recently, she was senior editor at Saveur magazine; prior to that she was deputy Life editor at Salon. She has contributed to the New York Times, the New York Observer and Rolling Stone, among other publications. For more of her work, visit thefastertimes.com/streetfood and Signs and Wonders.More Sarah Karnasiewicz.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)