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NONFICTION: Grade School Apartheid in Mark Twain’s Town

Susan Eaton, The Children in Room E4: American Education on Trial (Algonquin Books, 2009)

Two years in the life of a ghetto classroom in Hartford, Connecticut and a two-decade long legal suit aimed at ending the de facto segregation of that state’s schools are interwoven in Susan Eaton’s alternately inspiring and heartbreaking real-life tale. It’s a sprawling yet intimate story, brought home most vividly in Eaton’s tenderly written portraits of a handful of the children who are the victims of the system.

The classroom portions of The Children in Room E4 show the transformative power of compassionate teaching. The court case that frames the bigger picture of systemic inequality begins as a heroic narrative of social commitment but ends with the dream of educational equality deferred yet again.

Beginning in 2000, Susan Eaton follows the progress of the twenty children in Room E4, all of them black or Puerto Rican, and the nurturing effect their indefatigable teacher, a white woman named Lois Luddy, has on them, despite the poverty they return home to every night. In her parallel narrative, Eaton reaches back to the 1980s, when a pair of civil rights lawyers began to see how the gap between the idealistic language of Connecticut’s constitution and the dismal reality of its urban public schools could become a legal lever to force the state to provide better schools to its poorest citizens.

When the lawyers lose the first case, the Governor celebrates in public with champagne. When they win on appeal, the State Supreme Court directs the legislature to correct the injustice. Only limited reforms are enacted. The lawyers sue again.

A new judge, appointed by the champagne Governor (who is soon to be impeached, tried, and sent to prison for corruption), tells the lawyers to settle with the state. When they do, the state promises to integrate 30% of its students below the poverty line into better schools, and then reneges on the promise, again making only token reforms. Meanwhile, fifteen years have passed since the original suit was filed.

In the meantime, Ms. Luddy, whose empathy, intelligence, and unflagging optimism shine in every moment Eaton describes, is forced to drill her third and fourth grade pupils endlessly and repetitively from bland test prep booklets so they will pass the state standardized exams that the new hotshot school superintendent has decreed will be the beginning and end of their education. When the test scores rise, the superintendent’s reputation soars, and he immediately starts fishing for a better job elsewhere, which he gets. As he succeeds, the schools the lawyers are fighting to equalize and integrate become more and more segregated and inferior.

Yet for all the difficulty of her subject, the drawn-out intricacies of the legal action, and the grim domestic details of the children’s lives, Eaton keeps her focus on the heroism of her central characters: Ms. Luddy, her wise and supportive school principal, the team of lawyers behind the attempt to improve the system, and, most of all, the students in Ms. Luddy’s class.

When Eaton describes and quotes these children, always with precise affection, you feel the presence of real children, beleaguered and confused, but also curiously wise. When only two of them escape from having to move on to the miserable middle schools that pre-existed the long legal suit, it’s like watching an iron hand reaching to snuff out the little candles of human spirit, one by one.

The Children of Room E4 is not an easy book—a very small portion of the perseverance shown by its heroes is required of its readers. Its lesson, disappointing but utterly grounded in the realities Eaton describes, is worth the trouble. Symbolic victories, like electing a black president, are important, but only the first of many hard fights. Systemic change, the kind that balances the field of opportunity for the huge numbers shut out for generations, is a long, slow journey. Fortunately, there are people like Susan Eaton to show us the way.


Win Clevenger

Win Clevenger lives in Manhattan and is working on his first book.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2009

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