Welcome to all of you. It’s wonderful to be back here in this special place again, especially to be here in the company of my beloved friend and our nation’s most courageous and persistent advocate for children, Marion Wright Edleman. Thank you for a lifetime of devotion to our children, Marion. Thanks to all of you for being here on this bright Sunday morning in October, old friends and new friends too.

I confess I often feel intimidated when I come back to Washington. I always worry that I’ll lose my soul in the abstractions of the legislative process and get entangled in the acquiescent incrementalism of the Congress. My world is not the world of big abstractions but the world of very little people–children, five or six or eight-years-old, who do not live within the kingdom of abstractions but in the land of licorice sticks and long-division, pencil sets and belly buttons, tummy aches, and all the other miniscule, sweet details of which life is made for children.

The details of life, I always feel, renew our faith in life. It is in the tending of details that we see our children as they actually are, not as numbers in a study carried out too frequently by social scientists who do not know them and don’t seem to like them, but as the diverse, little miracles they really are, the bearers of God’s grace. And, if we treat them right, the promise of renewal that they bring to us.

Newspapers identify me as an advocate for children, but I believe that children are their own best advocates, if we will only listen to them carefully and let them speak. You can’t rush them, either. Children get distracted. They look out the window at a cat or squirrel. When they start to speak, they frequently meander, blissfully it seems, through acres of magnificent irrelevance. It’s in those moments of irrelevance that they unfold their mysteries.

I started listening to children long ago in 1964 when I became a fourth grade teacher in the Boston public schools. I’ve been working in one way or other with low income children ever since–the years since 1993 in the South Bronx in New York City in what is said to be the poorest urban neighborhood in the United States. Life is hard for children there. A quarter of all the children that I know within that neighborhood suffer from chronic asthma. Many go hungry. Almost all have lost a relative to AIDS. Most have witnessed homicides. One little boy I know was stabbed in the heart three times and died on Martin Luther King Day just last year. Nearly a quarter of these children sees their daddies only when they visit them in prison.

Yet, only a tiny fraction of these children, the poorest of the poor, can be admitted to be badly underfunded Head Start programs in the neighborhood. Many go with countless nights with bleeding gums and aching teeth before they see a dentist. Some wait for months to see a doctor. All, of course, attend profoundly segregated and unequal public schools. Eleven thousand children who go to the elementary schools that serve this neighborhood–11,000–only twenty-one are white–segregation rate of 99.8 percent. Two tenths of one percentage point now marks the difference between legally enforced apartheid in the South of fifty years ago and socially and economically enforced apartheid in New York today.

It’s the shame of the nation that New York, a city that once sent its greatest children south to save the soul of Mississippi, now runs the nation’s most unequal and most segregated public schools, although the schools of Washington, D.C., must come extremely close.

You go into almost any public school in the South Bronx, or here in Washington, D.C., you look around the room and then into the children’s eyes, and ask yourself, “If this apparently eternalized apartheid is what Dr. King and all our other martyrs died for?” One generation passes, and the cruelties we fought in Mississippi have come north in more attractive clothing–not in hoods and sheets, but coats and ties, and social Darwinist vocabularies, to denounce and shame us. Suddenly, no doubt unwittingly, we find ourselves opposed to simple things we would have died for thirty years before. National silence on this subject is a terrible betrayal.

Despite the sad things I’ve seen, I am not here today to mourn the darkness but to celebrate those many children, who no matter what we do to them or how we undervalue them or how we beat them down, refuse to die. Or yield to bitterness. But cling to elemental decencies and moral longings. And who get knocked down repeatedly, but then get up and rise and rise again. The little ones who are my friends in the South Bronx are nothing like the stereotypes of inner city children often pictured by the press or careless sociology. No children are. They are gentle, kind, unfailingly to strangers, and they worry always about older people.

I think of a little boy named Elio, seven year old whose face is absolutely round, looks like a light brown olive with a smile painted on it. First time I met him I said, “How old are you?” He said, “I’m six. How old are you?” I said, “I’m sixty.” He looked appalled. He crossed himself! Ran to the priest to tell her how old I was. And then came back and patted my hand, “Jonathan,” he said, “I hope you’re not going to die.” His daddy was in prison the entire time I knew him, but it did not make him hard and cruel. It made him tender. Once I came to the church in which this child goes for after-school, with a dear friend of mine, Fred Rogers, Mr. Rogers of TV. Mr. Rogers, sweet man that he is, asked me if he could come to meet the children. He’s so humble; he said, “Do you think I’d be intrusive?” I was so touched by the thought of Mr. Rogers’ being intrusive. And we went on the train, the subway in New York–alas no trolley in Manhattan–went up on the subway and walked through the neighborhood and visited a kindergarten and then at 3 o’clock we came to the church where the children go for after-school. The place was packed. Little Elio spots Mr. Rogers from across the room. When he seems someone he likes, he goes right at your like a World War II attack plane. I think of him like a little jet pilot bumblebee with his wings spread wide. Eighty children in the room. He goes straight to welcome Mr. Rogers. Arms out. The moment of collision, wraps them around Mr. Rogers arms, looks in his face, kisses him on his forehead, and says, “Welcome to my neighborhood, Mr. Rogers.” The children were concerned for Mr. Rogers because he became a little weak during the afternoon, needed to sit down. They brought him milk and cookies. Then they debated at some length and heatedly about how many grey hairs they had counted on his head.

They do the same with me. Climb all over me look in my ears, my nose, studying my teeth–as if I were a horse–see how old I am. Study us so carefully like pint size spies, like miniature espionage agents. Sometimes when somebody they love has died the children ask me, “Can we pray?” At first I hesitated when they asked. Perhaps I was a little shy, because I’m Jewish, and these are devoutly Christian children, and they pray in Christian prayers. But they reached across to me so sweetly that distinctions of this sort soon felt absurd. Now when they ask me if I’ll pray with them, I do. They pray for their mothers and fathers, and I pray for mine. I don’t always say that I can pray sincerely in sophisticated circles. I’ve never said a prayer that felt authentic when I was on Wall Street. Or with tough-minded Congressmen on Capitol Hill. It’s easier to pray among God’s lambs than with the wolves.

For this, I’m grateful to the children. We think with all our education that we’re going to these little ones to bring them blessings, but they turn the tables on us every single time.

They’re silly, too, like children everywhere–thank God. One little girl, Pineapple, told me she had a dream last fall that she was visiting with God for dinner. And she found out that God was married. I said, “How could you tell?” She said, “Because while we were eating his wife came in and kissed him.” She made it sound so real I asked, “Were you out at a restaurant?” She said, “No, there are no restaurants in heaven.” I said, “What did you do?” She said, “We ordered out.” A good answer for a real New Yorker!

I think of the little girl called Annabelle who knew my dog had died and comforted me by telling me that I should not despair because I’d see her later on in heaven. I said, “Do animals go to heaven?” She said, “Yes they do, but not exactly the same part of heaven that people go to. It’s a different section, called ‘animal heaven’.” When she saw the look of disappointment on my eyes she said, “Don’t worry, if you had a dog you loved who died you’ll get to visit with each other on the weekends.” I asked her, “How do you pay for things you need in heaven?” She said, “Oh, they don’t use money in heaven; in heaven you pay for everything thing you need with smiles.”

You know because of all the pressure now about examinations, many schools get worried about children’s playfulness, and silliness in children. In these drill and grill academies that we are now establishing in urban districts where the sharpened sword of testing hangs eternally above the teacher’s head, some teachers become scared of silliness, or animals in heaven. They think it’s wasted time. I always say to children, “Don’t be afraid of silliness in little kids–or big ones either! Treasure it. Revel in it while it’s there. They’ll lose it soon enough within this veil of tears.”

The little ones that I’ve described to you are beautiful because they are innocent, not having yet been soiled by the knowledge that their country doesn’t like them. They will, alas, discover that in time. For many, the discovery begins when they are tracked into the catastrophic secondary schools that serve their neighborhoods. The largest numbers will be tracked into a school abandoned thirty years ago by all white people and by all whom, indeed, had the means to flee. Twelve hundred children are in the ninth grade at that school; not one white child. Twelve hundred children in the ninth grade, of those children, only ninety will survive to twelfth grade. And only sixty-five will graduate.

Well, there are schools like that, of course, in Washington, D.C., and in every other city of this nation. Monuments to our contempt for innocence, embodiments of our eternal sin as a society. These ugly symbols of millennial apartheid bring into our minds the words of the great prophet of his race, Dr. DuBois. “They are the children of disappointment,” he said of young people of his race well over a century ago. And they are disappointed still.

And nothing that our presidential candidates are saying to us will alter these realities. Color-coated language about personal responsibility, accountability and standards will not alter this reality. Voucher schemes that filter off the least poor of the poor won’t alter this reality but worsen it. Seasonal philanthropy, the pacifying occupation in the month preceding Christmas at too many churches in this nation will not alter this reality. More examinations, non-promotions and expulsions will not alter this reality but only swell the prison population. Even the Internet, no matter who invented it, won’t alter this reality.

All those are false promises. Even the up-beat rhetoric that tells the children in a segregated and unequal school that they are really beautiful, and only need to learn the skills of competition and free enterprise, is a false promise. And a shameful one–because it marks reality. People are set apart in squalid, isolated places so that we may treat them squalidly. Once they are out of sight, we can deny them, and defraud them, and deplore their values.

But it is not the values of the children that have placed them in the places they reside. The children had no role in this at all. They have done nothing wrong. They are too small to hurt us and too sweet to fear us and too generous to hate us. Their only sin–if such it is–is to be born poor in an opulently rich society at an uncommonly cold moment in our nation’s history.

To those of the younger people here–and I see many who look frighteningly young from my perspective–to those of the young people here who share my feelings on these matter, I would ask you only this. Don’t wait too long to act upon your passions. Don’t let your dreams and longings be deferred until you’ve done something else like nailing down another graduate degree. You need to earn a Ph.D. in Public Policy to change the world. And once you get one, you won’t want to any longer. I meet young people at the JFK School–I live up in Boston–I meet people at the JFK School there at Harvard University. They come with dreams. They leave with resumes. By the time they are twenty-six, they sound as well accommodated to the weary world as if they were already eighty-three.

My friends, our moments on this earth are very few. Little children think we’ll live forever. Some grownups seem to live as if they think this, too. Even at my old age, some of us wish we could believe it. I have a mother ninety-six years old. God willing, she’ll be ninety-seven in a couple weeks. She’s a wonderful woman. She lives in Boston. An old fashioned liberal, too. Not embarrassed liberal, or tired liberal, or apologetic liberal, not neo-liberal–thank God! She’s still the real thing. Fanatic Red Sox fan as well. She’s not very happy this week. My mother’s old enough–I mean she’s lived a whole century!–she was a student in eighth grade the year the Red Sox won the World Series before World War I!–I love her! You would too! I pray, just like a six-year-old, that she will live forever. But of course I know she can’t. None of us can. We all know we will die and lose the ones we love the most, to death. The old trees and the silliness of children will outlive us all.

My friends, life goes so fast. Use it well.

God bless you. And God bless our children, every single one!