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Last year, I wrote a review of Jonathan Kozol’s book, Fire in the Ashes. A year after the book’s publication, the issues raised are just as relevant to the ongoing conversation on education in America, and so I’m offering it in this forum to spur more discussion — and generate possible solutions. The piece below initially ran in the Winter 2013 issue of Independent School magazine.
Review of Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America, by Jonathan Kozol
In one of the nation’s poorest neighborhoods, the Mott Haven neighborhood in New York’s South Bronx, many children lay in the ashes, ravaged by drugs, violence, illness, broken homes, and squalor. In the midst of such wretched circumstances, there are the children who, instead of being consumed in flames, are able to rise as phoenixes to become educated, conscientious young adults.
What sets these children apart? Jonathan Kozol provides an answer in his new book, Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America. For one, the survivors had intrepid, compassionate adults and private institutions, both educational and religious, taking an interest in their welfare. Kozol vividly describes the backgrounds and personal traits that brought these “children of hope” to the attention of outsiders at the right time. Pineapple stood out for speaking her mind, her “buoyant” personality, and a tight-knit Guatemalan family; Leonardo was raised by an intelligent mother and got along with everyone; Jeremy, mentored by a pastor and a poet, became known for his moral compass.
Regardless of these distinctions, Kozol is emphatic that, in “a genuine democracy,” outsiders offering charity to a select few children they deem have potential are not substitutes for a first-rate education system that benefits all children.
In Kozol’s descriptions of the families and children he has known since their grade school days and whom he has befriended is a narration so gripping that readers gain a visceral understanding of what life is like inside the poorest neighborhoods. There, lives unfold over a generation for good or for ill — many families struggling on a subsistence of $8,000 a year.
The stories are at turns moving and horrifying, a credit to Kozol’s sympathetic portrayals and his passion for exposing economic injustice. For Kozol — who won the National Book Award in 1968 for Death at an Early Age, about his first year teaching in Boston’s public schools — it is a lifelong pursuit. In gut-wrenching prose, Kozol assails the American institutions that have failed the children. The list is long: New York City’s social service system and political administration, which kept homeless people in the “decrepit, drug-infested” Martinique Hotel shelter in midtown Manhattan and then shuffled them to the South Bronx in the late-1980s, an immigration system that deported a father to Guatemala during his children’s formative years, middle schools in the Bronx where learning potential fell through the floor and did not rebound. Even the New York Times doesn’t escape unscathed, after the paper downplayed the poor sanitation in the Bronx, which residents said was responsible for their families’ chronic health issues.
Kozol also devotes much time describing young people’s dangerous choices that ended in tragedy. Fourteen-year-old Silvio lost his life while train surfing; another young man, Christopher, overdosed on drugs; a third teen, Eric, whose emotions were bottled up and was believed to be doing drugs, committed suicide.
The ticket out of the wasteland: a good education, very often at America’s elite private schools, which remain nameless in the book. Among the institutions referenced, these private schools stand out for their role in educating young minds to become productive young workers. It helped to have Martha, a priest and a tough-as-nails attorney who advocated for poor families and took in one child, Benjamin, as her own. Kozol describes how he and Martha are staunch supporters of public education’s role in American society and wrestled with whether private school might be right for Pineapple as she approached the crucial middle school years. Ultimately, Martha decided (and Kozol agreed) that they could not, as Kozol writes, “let her be denied the opportunities that lay beyond the options the city had prescribed.”
After being accepted to a private school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Pineapple benefited from a principal and teachers who were able to quickly assess a child’s abilities and pinpoint underlying problems. They determined she needed to repeat fifth grade because she was too far behind her peers academically. As Kozol puts it, not only were they aware of “her deficient writing skills and reading comprehension. They also recognized that she had never learned the whole array of study-skills that students who had had the benefit of reputable elementary education had mastered long before.”
On the other end of the private school spectrum was Leonardo. His mother, a high school graduate and a “very smart and largely self-taught intellectual” who read prominent black authors, said she taught her son “to read when he was three or four,” Kozol writes. Her place in her son’s education as he matured was evident, even after her husband was hauled off to jail. A teacher at his New England prep school marveled that “he came into the school at cruising speed.” A natural leader, Leonardo was dubbed “the Mayor,” and easily made friends with people of different races and classes.
The other main institution that guided children on a purposeful path was St. Ann’s Church. The church in the South Bronx nurtured youth with innovative projects, tutoring sessions, and intellectual stimulation. A preacher at St. Ann’s mentored Jeremy, who went on to a New England boarding school and later earned a college degree.
Coming into adulthood, Kozol’s children of hope have decided to pursue vocations that serve their communities. After failing to complete a graduate teaching program, Jeremy returned to St. Ann’s to work with children. “I’ve come to learn how many other ways there are to make a difference for these kids, and not only for the kids but for their parents and grandparents too,” he says in the book. Pineapple, too, held a desire to return to the Bronx and engage in social work as a way of passing on the torch or paying it forward, she said. After graduating from college, Leonardo was still mulling over his career path. If entertainment doesn’t pan out, he may go to graduate school and help “shape policies… that affect the lives of children,” he says. For his part, Benjamin, a recovering drug addict, came to assume responsibility for other drug addicts in recovery, which has strengthened his resolve. Hardship brought all of them greater meaning even as it exposed life’s fragileness, Kozol points out.
Kozol does not answer the question of what America as a nation can do to educate its poorest children. Perhaps the answer, like the spark, lies within the children. Pineapple, Jeremy, Leonardo, and Benjamin, wearing the armor of survivors and equipped with the tools of fine educations, are well positioned to be the stewards.
The views expressed here reflect those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of NAIS.