Jonathan Kozol began his talk at Holyoke Community College Monday by asking audience members to raise their hands if they were or had ever been a classroom teacher. He looked around the Leslie Phillips Theater, surveyed the crowd and smiled at the dozens of hands in the air.
"I always feel safer when I'm in a room with teachers," he said. "They're often scapegoats, but they're still my heroes. Everywhere I go I meet marvelous teachers who feel as if they've been humiliated by America, because there's a tendency to be very rough on teachers in public schools."
Kozol has built his career writing books that call attention to the desperate conditions suffered by children in poor, inner-city schools, including Death at an Early Age, Savage Inequalities, and The Shame of the Nation.
In his latest book, Fire in the Ashes: 25 Years among the poorest children in America, Kozol revisits some of the schools and children he has written about. "People ask me questions about the kids: Did they survive? Did they recover? Where are they now?"
The truth, he said, is that some of them didn't recover. Boys, he said, seem to suffer more than girls. Three young boys he wrote about are no longer alive - one committed suicide, another died from a heroin overdose and one was killed joyriding on the top of a subway train.
"Happily," he added, "an awful lot of kids battled back with extraordinary grit and courage against the obstacles they faced, with the help of teachers and other adults who intervened at critical times."
He talked about a Guatemalan girl, nicknamed Pineapple, who was eight years old when they first met, a student at a public school in Mott Haven, in the South Bronx, the poorest neighborhood in what is still the poorest Congressional district in the United States.
Despite the desperate conditions in her school (34 students to a class, a basement cafeteria that smelled like a cattle trough, a continuously revolving roster of teachers) and the "vile" building in which she lived, Pineapple had extraordinary spark and intelligence.
Instead of letting kids get excited about books, Pineapple's school forced children to read bleak and boring phonics readers he calls "the pedagogic version of Nembutal."
"It didn't work for Pineapple," he said. "By fifth grade, I discovered she couldn't read or write a sentence of more than five words."
Kozol said he is always amazed when asked by wealthy acquaintances if class size really matters with students who are that poor. "I always ask them where their kids go to school and how many students are in their classes. The answer is 15, 18 max," he said. "I don't like to sound impertinent, but if it's good for the son of a prosperous attorney or daughter of a politician, then it's good for the poorest children in America."
Fortunately, Pineapple caught the attention of adults who could afford to send her to a prep school, where she had 15 students in her class and teachers who were not constantly being bullied by administrators to teach a monotonous curriculum. It took several years, but she caught up on her schoolwork. In ninth grade she won a scholarship to a boarding school. Tenth grade was her breakthrough year, Kozol said, when she realized she could go to college.
Pineapple is a senior in college now and plans to be a teacher. She wants to go back to the South Bronx to teach children in the public schools, "the little ones" she left behind.
"I'm so proud of her," Kozol said.
Even though she worked hard, Kozol said, she was lucky. "Pineapple succeeded because of the philanthropy of adults who gave her scholarships. My friends, charity is not a substitute for systematic injustice in America."
Kozol also criticized standardized tests, like the MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System), which provide "results that are of no use to classroom teachers but give politicians a way to chastise our teachers."
In New York, he said, standardized test scores are used to rank teachers, whose names are published in the New York Post.
"The numbers are everything," he said. "The creative teachers -- those teachers are the ones who get the lowest grades because they won't teach to the test."
This "shaming process," he said, pits teachers against each other as they vie for the best students and the easiest classes. "It's driving the best teachers and principals out of public education."
In closing, he took a shot at Fox News, where he is frequently called upon to represent the liberal voice on the subject of education reform on the notoriously conservative station. "They're sociopaths," he said, "but they're smart."
As much as he loathes being a guest on Fox, he said, "I'm too old to bite my tongue. I intend to fight back until the day I die," a comment that resulted in loud applause as audience members rose to their feet.
Photos: Author Jonathan Kozol signs books at HCC after his talk.