November 27, 2020

Author Jonathan Kozol discusses new book, ‘Fire in the Ashes’

By Elise Rich and Danielle Rodgers

About 400 people filed into the Loretto-Hilton Center at Webster University to hear acclaimed author and educator Jonathan Kozol speak. Webster presented Kozol with the Global Leader in Residence Award during his address on Monday, Sept. 24.

During the presentation Kozol discussed his newest book, “Fire in the Ashes.” He also gave a speech on his experience as a teacher for inner-city students and how education is imperative to the growth of America.

Kozol said schools should strive for small classes, relaxed teachers and genuine diversity.

“Teachers are my heroes,” Kozol said. “Especially those dedicated teachers who pour their hearts out every single day in inner-city, urban schools. I think of those teachers not simply as technicians of proficiency. I think of them as the frontline soldiers for the ongoing struggle of American democracy.”

Audience members asked Kozol about the children he taught and wrote about throughout the years and where those children are now. Kozol explained some of them never did recover from the various abuses they underwent. He said boys seemed to have a higher casualty rate than girls. Kozol recalled three incidences of boys in his class who died: one died from suicide, another died from a heroin overdose and a 13-year-old died while surfing on top of subway cars.

Kozol spoke of success stories also, where teachers and adults were able to intervene in the childrens’ lives. He shared the story of a “bossy little girl with a big personality” that many “Fire in the Ashes” readers said touched them.

“Pineapple was 6 years old when I walked into her kindergarten class,” Kozol said.“When she was 8 years old, she decided that my social life was not interesting enough and she decided to fix me up with the teachers.”

Kozol said Pineapple lived in unfit conditions, and the conditions of her school were even worse.

“The cafeteria smelled like a feeding trough for animals,” Kozol said.

He explained that class sizes were huge in Pineapple’s school. Teachers continuously quit and conditions got progressively worse. Pineapple was able to escape her school system and attend schools with smaller class sizes and more opportunities. Despite the fact that no one in Pineapple’s family or neighborhood had gone to college, Pineapple attended a four-year college in Rhode Island.

“If there is any lesson to be learned from Pineapple’s success, it is not that we should celebrate exceptionality of opportunity, but that we should give the same terrific offerings — small classes, relaxed teachers, pleasant environment and as much as possible, genuine diversity — to all the kids she left behind in public school,” Kozol said.

Kozol’s address was part of Webster’s Global Leaders in Residence program.  The program, which started in 2012, hosts distinguished individuals who are considered leaders in their fields. Kozol is the third and final individual speaking at the university for the program this year. Webster also hosted World Wildlife Fund resident Yolanda Kakabadse and filmmaker Steve James.

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