Public Education, Poverty, Race, and Segregation: An Evening with Jonathan Kozol

This semester, I had the opportunity to plan a major campus event and see it come to life: Jonathan Kozol visited our campus as part of the Distinguished Lecture Series. I had written to Jonathan after reading two of his books, almost on a whim, fairly certain that such a renowned author would never respond. But when he did–personally–I set out on a quest to bring this $10,000 guest to UWM, despite the shoestring budget of my student organization. With the amazing support of professors and colleagues (most notably Jamie and Megan, who were at my side through what seemed like endless meetings and phone calls), I was able to write and defend a successful grant, and earn co-sponsorships from several university departments and community organizations. I got to partner with incredible people from Union Programming, who allowed me to lead planning of everything from publicity to contract details to the schedule of the evening’s events.

Best of all, I got to personally correspond with Jonathan (who insisted that I call him just that) as we narrowed down the message and content for the lecture.

The night his plane arrived, I was there with my father–the driver that I trust most–to pick Jonathan up from the airport. A simultaneously whimsical and serious man, Jonathan spoke in a continual string of questions about the local public eduction system and my own fieldwork in MPS. After we got him checked into his hotel, Jonathan invited us to chat with him for a while in the lobby. I couldn’t believe that I was sitting in a hotel lobby with my dad and Jonathan Kozol, drinking cranberry juice and eating Gardettos, talking about life and education.

The lecture was a standout success, with over 800 people in attendance: a full house. I had the honor of escorting Jonathan from the green room to the stage, as well as giving the introductory address. As I took the stage to give my speech, I was overcome with the thrill of seeing the idea that began as a simple e-mail come so vividly to life. I was proud to introduce this hero of mine–someone who used decades of his life to fight for equality, accountability, and joy in the education of all children. From memory, from my true heart, I gave the best speech I had to give. It was perfect.

The lecture that followed was simultaneously moving, humorous, electrifying, and vital. He discussed the segregation of American schools, the myriad ways that the current education system fails the children of the poor, and the standardized testing craze that has robbed teachers of their ability to truly teach. But he also shared poignant words about the joy and importance of teaching and gave an impassioned burst of inspiration to educators to fight for quality teaching for all children. I cannot do it justice by writing more here. The closest you might come to understanding it is reading one of Kozol’s books, where he details many of the stories that he shared during the evening. By the time he spoke the last word, Jonathan was met with standing applause. Afterward, I escorted him to the booksigning table, awed by the power and conviction of this slight, genial man. I was grateful for the part I was able to play in an event that brought so many educators, students, and community members together.

It was one of the proudest nights of my life. 🙂

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