The stories of the black and Latino children in New York City that Jonathan Kozol tells in his latest book Fire in the Ashes cannot be read with indifference. The author is no snapshot journalist, flitting in and out of lives with quick judgments; he approaches his subjects with an astute eye and an open heart. These painful, beautiful stories make us ask, “When did the system break? And what can we do about it?” Kozol reflects:

The word “accountability” is very much in fashion now. Children in the inner cities, we are told, must be “held accountable” for their success or failure. But none of these children can be held accountable for choosing where they have been born or where they have led their childhood. Nor can they be blamed for the historic failings of their schools. Nor, of course, are any of these children responsible in any way at all for the massive unemployment, and the flight of businesses and industries, that have put so many young men on the corners of the streets with no useful purposes within their daily live…

The question might be reasonably asked: If all of these externally determined forces of discouragement had not been present when these kids were growing up, would some of them have fallen into turbulent and painful lives in any case, or forfeited their lives before they even grew into maturity? There’s no way to know, but I suppose the answer would be yes. Unhealthy and self-destructive inclinations are not the “special illnesses” of young men and women who grow up in inner-city neighborhoods. I recall, from my father’s sixty years of practicing psychiatry, that he treated many affluent young people who seemed “hell-bent,” as he put it, “on finding any way they can to ruin their own lives,” and some of them attempted suicide repeatedly.

But, for the children of a ghettoized community, the pre-existing context created by the social order cannot be lightly written off by cheap and facile language about “parental failings” or by the rhetoric of “personal responsibility,” which is the last resort of scoundrels in the civic and political arena who will, it seems, go to any length to exculpate America for its sins against our poorest people.

The question of exceptionality needs to be dealt with here.

Pineapple lived in the Diego-Beekman housing and trudged up the street to P.S. 65. That was where she had the teacher she called “Mr. Camel,” one of the seven unprepared instructors who came and went throughout her third- and fourth-grade years. Jeremy lived in a tower of decrepitude where he was robbed at knifepoint, and sometimes had to walk the stairs to get to his apartment when the elevator, as he put it, didn’t “want to come” down to the lobby. He was fortunate to go to P.S. 30; but he was often beaten up and bullied when he was in middle school.

Yet both these children, as well as several of the others I was close to at St. Ann’s [Episcopal Church in the South Bronx], rose above the problems and the perils of the neighborhood, finished their schooling in a healthy state of mind, went on to college, and are now envisioning the range of opportunities their education will allow. . . .

Patience and Allan, in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Photograph by Chris Arnade


The point I need to emphasize again is that all these children had unusual advantages. Someone intervened in every case, and with dramatic consequences. In Lara’s situation, it was a devoted teacher in a failing middle school and, again, a teacher at an otherwise unsuccessful high school in New York who “spotted” her as a gifted student and gave her individual tutorial instruction that enabled her to have her choice of colleges. In Pineapple’s case, and ­Jeremy’s and Leonardo’s, it was either Martha [Rev. Martha Overall of St. Ann’s] or someone from outside the Bronx, or a group of people from outside New York City altogether, who shepherded these children into avenues of exit from the damage they’d already undergone, or would likely undergo, in the schools of the South Bronx. Other children from the Bronx and similar communities have been given access to good education through programs like A Better Chance, which serves children nationwide, or Prep-for-Prep, an institution in New York that looks for highly motivated students in minority communities and helps them gain admission to some of the most exclusive prep schools in the city.

All of this, however, depends upon the charitable inclinations of a school or philanthropic donors, and charity has never been a substitute, not in any amplitude, for systematic justice and systematic equity in public education. If any lesson may be learned . . . it is not that we should celebrate exceptionality of opportunity but that the public schools themselves in neighborhoods of widespread destitution ought to have the rich resources, small classes, and well-prepared and well-rewarded teachers that would enable us to give to every child the feast of learning that is now available to children of the poor only on the basis of a careful selectivity or by catching the attention of empathetic people like the pastor of a church or another grown-up whom they meet by chance. Charity and chance and narrow selectivity are not the way to educate the children of a genuine democracy.

From Jonathan Kozol, Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America (Crown, 2012; Broadway Books, 2013). Used by permission of Crown Publishers, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.