It has been 45 years since Jonathan Kozol published his first book “Death at an Early Age,” which detailed the abysmal conditions endured by indigent black children in Boston’s inner city public schools. It was a shocking exposé of pedagogical indifference and institutionalized violence for which Kozol received the National Book Award. The epigraph to that work is a quote from psychoanalyst Erik Erickson, who averred, “[T]he most deadly of all possible sins is the mutilation of a child’s spirit.”
An impassioned author, Kozol has chronicled the scandal of relegating successive generations of so many impoverished kids — especially children of color — to society’s scrap heap. In compelling books such as “Savage Inequalities” and “The Shame of the Nation,” vivid descriptions abound of criminal neglect that passes for schooling in a multitude of desperate communities. With unflagging zeal Kozol portrays lives of innocent kids caught in the appalling atmosphere of ineffectual schools. Outside crumbling classrooms many are pummeled by the chaos of troubled families. Such travails are compounded by dangers lurking on dismal urban streets.
The latest installment in Kozol’s running commentary is “Fire in the Ashes.” It is an eloquent testament to his abiding concern for the children and families he has depicted, and the hopes and dreams often thwarted by poverty and feckless schooling. As always his subjects are portrayed with respect and affection. Kozol revisits families and individuals he has known over the years and brings their experiences up to date. There is tragedy but also triumph.
Kozol reflects on the dispiriting conditions that pervaded the Martinique Hotel in New York City, home to 1,400 kids and 400 parents: “Christmas Eve of 1985 was not a good time for poor women and their children to depend on the public kindness or prophetic reenactments of the Christian gospel at the hands of civic and commercial leaders in New York. It was a time when opulence among the city’s newly minted rich and super-rich was flaunted with an unaccustomed boldness in the face of New York City’s poor and homeless people, thousands of whom were packed into decrepit, drug-infested shelters, most of which were old hotels situated in the middle of Manhattan, some of which in decades past had been places of great elegance.” One social worker told him bluntly that the Martinique was a “midtown death camp for the spirits of poor children.”
One family whose matriarch was named Vicki lived in Mott Haven, which “remains today the single poorest neighborhood in the poorest borough of New York.” Miraculously, the family was offered a chance for a new life in faraway Montana. A church community had decided to sponsor a family and provide them an opportunity for a fresh beginning removed from the inner city. So Vicki and her children made the trip west. Kozol maintained contact with Vicki as she became immersed in the exhilaration of life in Montana surrounded by newfound friends. But initial ecstasy gave way to troubles and, eventually, tragedy. Her son Eric had been having problems and they wore away Vicki’s optimism. His life ended with a shotgun blast to the head, which was ruled a suicide. Vicki never recovered emotionally from this dreadful loss and would later die due to pancreatic cancer.
Throughout the turmoil of their impoverishment and the radical challenge of moving west, Vicki’s daughter Lisette persevered. Now married, her husband is completing a degree in dentistry, and she hopes to become a paralegal. She tells Kozol: “I’m going to give a good life to my children. I have to do it. I’m the one who made it through. I’m a stronger person now. I guess that I was always stronger than I knew.”
Amid other poignant stories, Kozol gives a particularly touching account of Jeremy who was 12 at the time of their first encounter. His mother was born in Puerto Rico and did not speak English. She, Jeremy and his older brother lived “on the sixteenth floor of a badly rundown twenty-story building.” Jeremy loved books and reading. He was an aspiring writer. Because he was mild mannered and introspective, Jeremy was the target of bullies. Fortunately he became friends with a local Puerto Rican poet “who welcomed him into his home and talked with him for hours at a time about the books that lined his wall, immersing him in conversations about Greek and Roman history and reading him some of the famous British authors — John Milton, for example — and others he revered.” With the kindness of people like the poet and the help of Kozol himself, Jeremy’s story is one of hope and triumph.
However Kozol cautions: “Charity and chance and narrow selectivity are not the way to educate the children of a genuine democracy.” A steep price is exacted upon too many poor kids whose dreams are denied long before they reach adolescence. In “Fire in the Ashes,” Kozol reminds us that it is a steep price ultimately paid by us all. For the sake of our society and common humanity the time is long overdue to right this pervasive wrong.