When poor kids grow up

Jonathan Kozol’s Fire in the Ashes asks: What happens to desperately poor children when they grow up? He follows up on children featured in his earlier books. Kozol, now 76, tells grim stories, but doesn’t analyze why some kids overcome their circumstances and others don’t, writes Emily Bazelon in Slate.

“Eric” (all names are changed) lived in New York’s shelter hotels for four years in the 1980s, beginning when he was 11, with his mother, Vicky, and sister, Lisette. Kozol met the family  in 1993, when the city had moved them to a poor section of the Bronx, Mott Haven. “Eric . . .  had an element of likability and even of good humor,” Kozol writes.

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. . . . 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 , who also grew up in the shelter hotels and moved to Mott Haven as a teenager, became part of a group that threw a boy onto the train tracks. He was convicted of attempted murder.

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.

Girls overcome when boys cannot? Kozol writes that he sees “parallels” but not “patterns.”

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.

When he wonders if anything has changed, a girl named Pineapple tells Kozol to think positive.

. . .  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?”

“Over his career Kozol has wrought many small changes and won many individual battles,” writes Bazelon.