The Conscience

Jonathan Kozol has spent 45 years reporting on the children left behind.

Jonathan Kozol.
Jonathan Kozol

Photograph by Gloria Cruz.

I recently spent a morning in family court in Brooklyn. In one of several cases over four hours, I watched Judge Daniel Turbow try to figure out whether a 9-year-old in foster care should go home to his mother. She wanted the boy back but admitted he’d missed day after day of school last fall because she couldn’t get herself or him up on time. She also blamed him, a little angrily, for dawdling in the bathroom. The boy’s teacher testified that she’d tried to help by giving him an alarm clock. Also that when he came to school dirty and smelly, she talked to the whole class about washing and doing laundry, so as not to embarrass him. The boy listened to all of this, looking clean and pressed in a turquoise polo shirt.

This wasn’t the most alarming case I observed in Judge Turbow’s court. But the complicated lives hinted at by the mother’s peevishness, the teacher’s helplessness, and the boy’s quiet attention left me with the feeling that to understand anything about these families, I would have to spend months in that building and, more importantly, outside it, with them.

For 45 years, that’s what we’ve had Jonathan Kozol for. He has been an exemplar of precisely this kind of long-term, painstaking reporting. After graduating from Harvard and going to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in the 1960s, he taught school in Boston’s mostly black neighborhood of Roxbury—until he was fired for using unapproved texts, including Langston Hughes’ poetry. Kozol’s journal became his first book, 1967’s Death at an Early Age. It won a National Book Award, and began his career as America’s conscience. Kozol has stayed resolutely on the poverty beat, the overeducated white guy determined to make the country see what it was like for black people to live in the Martinique, New York’s hellhole of a welfare hotel in the 1980s, or, when his reporting embarrassed the city into closing such disaster zones, in the poorest and most crime-ridden pocket of the South Bronx. If you work in an inner city school, you have surely read him. Ditto if you are one of the excellent writers who has followed him into the inner city: Alex Kotlowitz, Leon Dash, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Katherine Boo, David Simon, Paul Tough.

What, in the end, has such a distinguished career accomplished? Kozol himself sounds like Eeyore. “I’d say there’s a lot to be guilty about,” he told the Times in 1995, the year he published my favorite of his books, Amazing Grace. “If I had succeeded in everything I had tried to write, starting in 1965, there wouldn’t be a neighborhood like this. Now there are more, and they’re worse than ever before. I feel, in the end, as if everything I’ve done has been a failure.” That’s a surprising, and staggering, degree of power to imagine for oneself as a writer. But Kozol’s intensity and moral rectitude has always been part of his appeal. He is aghast about aspects of American life that most of us can’t defend but would prefer not to think about.

All of which is to say that Kozol is a particular sort of towering liberal figure, and if his politics have gone out of fashion, well, poverty and social dysfunction have not, as my day in Brooklyn family court reminded me. And so I turned to Kozol’s new book, Fire in the Ashes, with great curiosity about what he is thinking these days, at the distinguished age of 76. The book’s subtitle, “Twenty-five Years Among the Poorest Children in America,” is promising. What became of the children Kozol wrote about decades ago, and what does Kozol make of their experiences? Kozol is congenitally hesitant to answer those questions—the strength and the weakness of his approach. He’s reluctant to draw grand conclusions from individual stories, which is commendable enough—but at this late point in his career, also frustrating. If the book is his swan song, it should resound like one. If Jonathan Kozol can’t figure this out, who can?

Kozol begins with a grim pair of stories about two boys he calls Eric and Christopher (characters’ names have been changed to protect their privacy). For more than four years in the 1980s, beginning when he was 11, Eric lived in New York’s shelter hotels with his mother, Vicky, and younger sister, Lisette. “He was very much aware of the sordidness of his surroundings, the unscrupulous behavior of the governing officials, the open market for narcotics,” Kozol writes in his slightly formal prose. When he met Eric and his family in 1993, the city had moved them to a poor section of the Bronx, Mott Haven. “Eric struck me as a complicated boy,” Kozol tells us. “In spite of all he had been through, he had an element of likability and even of good humor. But he found it difficult to be transparent.”

One day in 1996, Kozol got a call from a doctor in Montana who’d read Amazing Grace and was part of a church that wanted to help a Mott Haven family resettle in their small town. Kozol was uncertain about this idea, but Vicky jumped at it. The social experiment went well for Lisette, who makes it to college and is about to become a paralegal when Kozol catches up with her at 26, but badly for Eric. Wary and suspicious of the adults who reached out to him, he dropped out of school, got a local girl pregnant, ran into trouble with the cops, and probably dealt drugs. When Vicky was evicted in 2000 from the home the church helped provide, the doctor blamed Eric for breaking into her house when she was working at night and blasting music with his friends. Vicky started drinking heavily, and then in 2001, she called Kozol with devastating news: Eric was dead, shot in the head, an apparent suicide.

Christopher also grew up in the shelter hotels and also moved to Mott Haven as a teenager. He didn’t go to Montana to unravel; he managed that in the Bronx, where he was convicted for attempted murder as part of a group that threw a boy onto the train tracks. Asked to write a letter to support Christopher’s bid to reduce his sentence, Kozol did so once, reluctantly, but refused to a second time, because “there was no indication that he felt remorseful or responsible for what he’d done.” It’s not surprising when Christopher dies of a heroin overdose after he’s released from prison. In fact, to be cold about it—in a way that Kozol would never be—Christopher’s death comes as something of a relief, because he has become a terrible drain on his much more functional younger sister, Miranda.

Kozol hesitates to draw connections between Eric and Christopher, or Lisette and Miranda. Instead of analysis, we get many pages of stilted dialogue between Kozol and Vicky, and then this elliptical semi-conclusion about why these two other brothers fell apart while their younger sisters rallied: “I did not look for ‘patterns’ but could not escape the sense that there were parallels.” For sure, but what do the parallels mean—what can we learn from them? Kozol does not say. He acknowledges the “poor judgment” of Eric and Christopher, terribly disadvantaged boys who turned into terrible men, but he does not want his readers “to see these outcomes as the consequence of circumstances far beyond society’s control.” I don’t either. But when Kozol simplistically asks why any city would house a mother and children in a neighborhood like Mott Haven, without any discussion of cost or context, I found myself getting cranky. It’s so much easier to ask the question than to grapple with the answers.

In the second half of the book, Kozol tells happier stories about children who in young adulthood have pulled themselves into stability, because they had especially devoted parents or with a major assist from a local priest and a private school education, paid for by a small foundation Kozol created for this purpose. “These children had unusual advantages,” Kozol points out. “Someone intervened in every case.” True, but again, not much of an explanation. Unlike Tough, for example, whose new book How Children Succeed also tracks the resilience of a few outstanding poor children, Kozol does not dive into social science or brain research, or even much into the debates, old and new, about the end of welfare, the culture of poverty, or education reform. He has been criticized before for “pious moralizing that is short on solutions,” in the words of the Times. Racial segregation is an obvious and long-standing villain in his work, but here as elsewhere he doesn’t make the empirical case for why integration is his favored solution. Maybe this is too much to ask: It’s just not Kozol’s thing. But I found myself longing for more of his thinking on the structural forces that drive poverty, given his depth of knowledge and experience.

As the book nears its conclusion, Kozol mentions to the child of Mott Haven to whom he is closest, a girl named Pineapple, that he is having trouble finishing his story. “I said I wasn’t sure how much had changed back in the neighborhood where she and I had met, but I told her I kept going back and forth on this because I didn’t want to end up on a dreary note.” She tells him to think positive; she says she and her sister are determined to go back to the neighborhood with their college degrees and “you know? Make little changes that we can? … Picking battles that we have a chance to win?”

It’s tempting to read Kozol’s doubts as a reflection not just on his book’s “dreary note” but as a self-judgment of his own life’s work. And Pineapple’s response—repeating back to Kozol his own aphorisms, uttered to her years before—is in fact an antidote to his own gloom. OK, Kozol hasn’t ended school segregation or convinced middle-class people to live side by side with poor ones. But that’s more than any writer, even one who has served for decades as our conscience, can ask of himself. Over his career Kozol has wrought many small changes and won many individual battles. When I’m 76 I hope I can say the same.

Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol. Crown.

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