Boston-born education activist Jonathan Kozol has been following the lives of marginalized children in the South Bronx for decades and through a dozen books, describing in award-winning detail how this nation’s “savage inequalities” have devastated the individuals, families, and communities he has observed firsthand.
In Kozol’s new book, “Fire in the Ashes,” he revisits those same families, bringing readers up to date on their often-troubled lives. What Kozol’s latest reveals in often-depressing detail is something far more valuable than dry sociological studies and mind-numbing statistics: He shows readers the everyday lives of people, especially children, doing their best with limited resources, such as flawed schools, uncertain security in their neighborhoods, absent or imprisoned fathers, and a lack of job opportunities. There are few triumphs in the bleak landscapes Kozol visits.
Kozol has an obvious gift for friendship, and a willingness to help in practical ways when he believes a child will leverage an opportunity into a better future. On numerous occasions, Kozol steps in and helps a promising student from the South Bronx get a scholarship to a good high school or college, calling headmasters, wealthy donors, or philanthropic organizations. Most of all, Kozol stays in touch with these families, making innumerable phone calls, visits, and simply acting as a positive influence in the lives of these children.
At times, they return the favor, as when a child named Pineapple recommends that Kozol buy a new suit to replace the fraying one he’s wearing: “‘Jonathan,’ she said, folding her arms against her chest, as people do when they’re sizing up a situation, ‘I’d like you to look more respectable.’ ” Kozol buys a new suit, though Pineapple later expresses some reservations about its color.
Yet “Fire in the Ashes” isn’t some saccharine account of how disadvantaged youth get a break and then triumph over adversity. Instead, Kozol shows us the very real costs of putting children in bad schools where they receive low-quality educations and then return to communities, like the South Bronx, where economic opportunity is woefully lacking and where criminality becomes the path for more than a few of the young people Kozol encounters.
Kozol helps one Bronx mother, Vicky, and her children relocate to Montana, where they’re helped by a local church group. While Vicky initially loves the change, her son Eric soon gets into trouble. Kozol closely follows Eric’s travails, staying in touch with Vicky, and later learns that Eric has died from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound. Vicky’s daughter Lisette, on the other hand, ends up married with a family and a well-paying job. Other children Kozol follows die of drug overdoses, in fatal accidents, or spend years in prison or addicted to drugs.
Kozol gets closest to a woman named Alice Washington whom he first meets in a New York hotel that serves as a homeless shelter. Kozol describes Alice’s powerful sense of humor, her ability to use caustically funny remarks to both laugh at her circumstances and expose darker truths. “She rose above the meanness that surrounded her,” writes Kozol, “with her cleverness and wit and with her eye for the preposterous. She laughed a lot.” In perhaps the book’s lowest point, Alice succumbs to HIV, though Kozol (like Alice herself) rejects any impression that Alice was “a victim” of anything.
Most of all, “Fire in the Ashes” is an account of struggle, about kids trying to get good educations and good jobs that will lift them out of some of this nation’s worst neighborhoods, like Mott Haven in the Bronx. Some do make it, such as Benjamin, who decides to give back by becoming a drug counselor in his old neighborhood. Others seek careers in teaching or social work. Throughout, Kozol connects with these kids and young adults on a human level, refusing to step on to some political soapbox.
But at book’s end, Kozol shifts focus, making a plea to open up educational and economic opportunities for all. He calls “for systematic justice and systematic equity in public education.” He deems the cost of doing nothing too high, in terms of the nation abandoning individuals and communities to diminishing futures. Kozol says what must be said, whether people want to hear it or not: that the inequitable distribution of educational resources is “not the way to educate the children of a genuine democracy.” That these children deserve better is obvious, though our political will to make the necessary changes seems less so.