Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America
About Fire in the Ashes
In this powerful and culminating work about a group of inner-city children he has known for many years, Jonathan Kozol returns to the scene of his prizewinning books Rachel and Her Children and Amazing Grace, and to the children he has vividly portrayed, to share with us their fascinating journeys and unexpected victories as they grow into adulthood.
For nearly fifty years Jonathan has pricked the conscience of his readers by laying bare the savage inequalities inflicted upon children for no reason but the accident of being born to poverty within a wealthy nation. A winner of the National Book Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, and countless other honors, he has persistently crossed the lines of class and race, first as a teacher, then as the author of tender and heartbreaking books about the children he has called “the outcasts of our nation’s ingenuity.” But Jonathan is not a distant and detached reporter. His own life has been radically transformed by the children who have trusted and befriended him.
Never has this intimate acquaintance with his subjects been more apparent, or more stirring, than in Fire in the Ashes, as Jonathan tells the stories of young men and women who have come of age in one of the most destitute communities of the United States. Some of them never do recover from the battering they undergo in their early years, but many more battle back with fierce and, often, jubilant determination to overcome the formidable obstacles they face. As we watch these glorious children grow into the fullness of a healthy and contributive maturity, they ignite a flame of hope, not only for themselves, but for our society.
The urgent issues that confront our urban schools—a devastating race gap, a pathological regime of obsessive testing and drilling students for exams instead of giving them the rich curriculum that excites a love of learning—are interwoven through these stories. Why certain children rise above it all, graduate from high school, and do well in college while others are defeated by the time they enter adolescence lies at the essence of this work.
Jonathan Kozol is the author of Death at an Early Age, Savage Inequalities, and other books about children and their education. He has been called “today’s most eloquent spokesman for America’s disenfranchised.” But he believes young people speak most eloquently for themselves; and in this book, so full of the vitality and spontaneity of youth, we hear their testimony.
Praise for Fire in the Ashes
Publishers Weekly (starred)
“National Book Award–winner Kozol . . . again traces the workings of Savage Inequalities—this time on a generational timescale—in this engrossing chronicle of lives blighted and redeemed. He follows the fortunes of people he met decades ago in a squalid Manhattan welfare hotel and in the South Bronx’s Mott Haven ghetto, whose stories range from heartbreaking to hopeful . . . Eschewing social science jargon and deploying extraordinary powers of observation and empathy, Kozol crafts dense, novelistic character studies that reveal the interplay between individual personality and the chaos of impoverished circumstances. Like a latter-day Dickens (but without the melodrama), he gives us another powerful indictment of America’s treatment of the poor.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“In this engaging, illuminating, often moving book, [Kozol] recounts the lives of poor black and Latino children—many now close friends—who once lived in Manhattan’s Martinique Hotel and were relocated in the late 1980s upon the closing of that crowded and filthy shelter to Mott Haven, a poor Bronx neighborhood . . . Clear-eyed, compassionate, and hopeful.”
Ellis Cose, author of The End of Anger and The Rage of a Privileged Class
“Jonathan Kozol is America’s premier chronicler of life among the children of societal neglect. And Fire in the Ashes may be his best book yet. . . Kozol does not just write about these people; he becomes an intimate part of their lives, sharing their triumphs, defeats, and, too often, mourning their deaths. . . If you care about the children who are the future of America, this is a book you must read.”
Marian Wright Edelman, president, Children’s Defense Fund
“Despite the steep odds stacked against these children, which too many cannot overcome, this is a hopeful book thanks to those who do. The incredible resilience, grit, and grace of children like Pineapple are a call to urgent action.”
Deborah Meier, Author of In Schools We Trust and The Power of Their Ideas
“Kozol has a knack for describing his relationships with poverty-stricken children with a sympathy that is so straightforward one cannot indulge in pity. Fire in the Ashes is a wonderful book. I couldn’t put it down.”
David Berliner, author of The Manufactured Crisis
“Fire in the Ashes is a terrific book—powerful, insightful, and heartbreaking.”
Read an Excerpt:
Fire in the Ashes
Chapter Eight: Pineapple Comes of Age
She was in kindergarten on the day we met when I walked into her classroom at P.S. 65. She was six, a bossy little person, slightly on the plumpish side, with carefully braided and brightly beaded cornrows hanging down across her eyes. She wrote her letters in reverse. Her teacher suggested I might try to help her figure out the way to get those symbols facing in the right direction.
But when I leaned across her shoulder to watch her shape her letters, she twisted around and looked at me with stern dissatisfaction. “You’re standing on the wrong side,” she instructed me and indicated that I ought to stand behind her other shoulder. Once I was standing over her left shoulder, she seemed to be entirely pleased, as if things now were as they ought to be.
We got to know each other very quickly because, at the end of school each day, she came to the afterschool at St. Ann’s. So I’d see her sometimes in her class at P.S. 65 and then in the afternoon I would see her wave to me as she and her schoolmates raced into the basement of the church to have their snack before they went upstairs for their tutorial.
Her authoritative inclinations became increasingly robust with every passing year. By the time she was in third-grade, she began expressing her displeasure at the nature of my social life—she knew I wasn’t married and she tried to fix me up with Miss Gallombardo, a very pretty third grade teacher at her school. Within another year, she began to comment on the suit that I’d been wearing ever since I met her. It was a black suit, a little on the formal side, from a store in Harvard Square, but she noticed it was kind of shabby and she made it obvious that this did not please her.
“Jonathan,” she asked me once, “is that your only suit?”
“No,” I said. “I have another suit.” But I told her that the other one was virtually the same.
She reached out to finger the lapel the way my mother might have done when I was much younger. We were sitting opposite each other on two metal chairs, so that she was close enough to see the white threads showing through the fabric near the buttonholes and at the bottom edges of the sleeves.
“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.”
Then, without the slightest hint of hesitation or any fear of impropriety in talking to a grown-up in this way: “Do me a favor. Someday, when you’re over there, in Manhattan”—“over there” was a term she used to indicate a nicer part of town—“go into a good store and buy yourself a nice new suit. Will you promise me you’ll do that?”
“Maybe,” I replied.
A month later, I went to a clothing store in Boston and bought myself a suit I thought was quite respectable. The only problem, from Pineapple’s point of view, was that the new suit was a black one, like the ones that I already had.
She sat me down for another conversation.
“Jonathan,” she said, “I know that you get sad sometimes. I can tell when you come in.” She put her hands on top of one of mine. “But you don’t always need to dress in black. . . .”
Pineapple was in love with life. In spite of the ugliness of the building where she lived and the one in which she went to school, she had a buoyant and affirming personality. Even her most serious complaints were usually conveyed within a set of terms that were peevishly amusing rather than self-pitiful.
The problems at her school, however, were severe. P.S. 65, the same school Ariella’s older boys had attended several years before, was almost always in a state of chaos because so many teachers did not stay for long. They’d often disappear in less than half a year, and there was a damaging reliance upon inexperienced and unprepared instructors. In Pineapple’s second-grade year, twenty-eight of the fifty members of the faculty had never taught before, and half of them left the school by the next September. In her third- and fourth-grade years she had seven different teachers.
She wrote a little essay once describing those who came and went. One, she said, wasn’t a real teacher, “only a helper-teacher”—presumably because she wasn’t certified to teach but had nonetheless been thrown into Pineapple’s class with nobody to guide her. Another was “a man who liked us,” whose name, she said, was “Mr. Camel,” but “he said he needed to earn money, so he found a better job. . . .” A third one, she said, “had a mental problem” and used offensive language in chastising the children. “Sit your A-S-S-E-S down,” Pineapple quoted her, spelling out the word because she couldn’t bring herself to say it. “And she had yellow teeth that looked like fangs. And so they fired her.”
Instructional discontinuity was not the only major problem at the school. The overcrowding of the building and its archaic infrastructure did their damage to the children too. When I went to lunch one day with Pineapple’s class, the students left their room at twelve-fifteen. But, because the lunchroom was already packed, they had to sit down in a hallway on the floor and wait for thirty minutes before they could file down a dark and narrow stairwell, with metal grating on the side, while another class was coming up the opposite direction. A mob scene developed at the bottom of the stairs. A school official started shouting at the children. Pineapple stuffed her fingers in her ears.
Once they were admitted to the basement cafeteria, they had to sit and wait another twenty minutes before the crowd thinned out enough for them to get something to eat. They were finished eating by around one-thirty, at which point a woman with a megaphone told them to get up and put away their trays. Then they had to go back to their tables and remain there, for no reason that I could discern, until they were at last released to go outside and run around the schoolyard—no grass, cracked cement—before they were herded back into the same filing process as before. At this point, a fire bell rang, so they stayed there frozen in their lines for fifteen minutes more. They were finally permitted to return to class at 2:00 p.m., nearly two hours since they’d filed out.
In the hour remaining before the end of school, I visited another class, then waited outside at dismissal time so I could walk Pineapple to St. Ann’s. When she came out she asked if I would stop with her at an umbrella-covered stand on a corner opposite the school so we could enjoy one of her favorite treats (also mine), which the children called an “icie,” coconut-flavored, creamy, and delicious, and then, in spite of all her discontents with school, she chattered gaily all the way down to the church.
The apartment building where Pineapple lived—part of the dangerous Diego-Beekman complex—was even less attractive than her school. When I visited her home she’d wait out front and lead me up the stairs. The elevator, which she almost never used, was pocked with bullet indentations because of the gang activity that took place in that building and the ones nearby. One night, when Pineapple was eight, helicopters swooped down, spotlights glaring in the windows of apartments. Seven men were led away in handcuffs from Pineapple’s building, charged with selling crack cocaine and heroin.
Pineapple had two sisters. (A brother would be born a few years later.) The oldest was a serious girl named Lara who had a steady sense of sober judgment that Pineapple counted on for guidance. Her younger sister, whom I called Mosquito because she was tiny and seemed forever to be darting here and there in almost constant motion, was eight years old when Pineapple was ten.
As skittery and squirmy as she was when I got to know her, Mosquito soon developed into a quick-witted and perceptive little girl, with incisive verbal skills that often took her teachers by surprise. When she was in third grade, her teacher asked the class to write an essay on Cortez, Magellan, or de Soto. She narrowed it to Cortez and de Soto, then selected Cortez because, she told her teacher, “De Soto stole the Indians’ gold, but Cortez stole my people’s soul.” I wasn’t sure how she’d arrived at this distinction, but I was surprised she knew this much about de Soto or Cortez, because there was almost nothing of this nature in the books about “the great conquistadors” that children of her age were given at their school.
Pineapple’s mother and father were from Guatemala. She and Lara liked to tell me stories about the people in their family who remained there. They also had many members of their family living near them in New York. I knew some of their cousins from the afterschool at St. Ann’s Church and I’d met their mother, who was named Isabella, when I’d walked Pineapple home. But I didn’t get to know their father and his brothers and their other relatives until an evening in December of Pineapple’s fifth-grade year.
It was, to be precise, on December 31, 1999, when her father gave a party, as he did every year, mostly for their relatives, to celebrate the new year. Pineapple knew that I’d be in New York and apparently had told this to her father, who, she said, had told her I’d be “very welcome” at the party. It took arm-twisting on Pineapple’s part to get me to say yes, because I don’t go out to many parties (and Pineapple knew I didn’t socialize a lot), but after she had asked me several times I agreed to come.
I had another obligation earlier that evening, so I didn’t get there until late. It was close to midnight by the time Pineapple, who’d been watching for me from her window, came downstairs to let me in and lead me up to the apartment, which was packed from wall to wall with grown-ups and at least a dozen children, all of whom, she told me, were her cousins. Guatemalan music, which I’d never heard before, was playing in the living room. Guatemalan food was set out on a table. Her father, who was named Virgilio, greeted me enthusiastically, wished me a happy new year, and brought me to the kitchen, where he scooped up from a big glass bowl a rather potent Guatemalan drink made of mango juice and rum, after which he led me back into the other room to introduce me to his brothers and to Isabella’s sister.
He told me he was teaching himself English and now and then would ask me if a word he used for something was the right one and would urge me to correct him when he got it wrong. He was a warm, expansive man, tall and slender, with his hair in dreadlocks. While I was standing with him and his older brother, he spoke to both of us in English as a matter of politeness. He’d reach out for my arm from time to time in order to be sure I felt included in the conversation.
Lara and Mosquito and their older cousin Madeline, whom I’d tutored when she was a nine-year-old, were in a bedroom with their mother in front of a TV set, waiting for the lighted ball to drop upon the stroke of midnight in Times Square. Their mother got up to welcome me. The rest of them were glued to the screen and, except for Lara, who gave me a little wave, paid me no attention until the ball had fallen and they all broke into cheers.
When we went back to the living room, the music had been turned up. Most of the children started dancing, girls with girls (the boys were bashful) or else with their parents. Pineapple asked if I could dance. I told her, “No!”—because I knew I was an awful dancer. But she and Madeline insisted that I try. So they took me by the hand and dragged me out into the middle of the room.
They made me dance with each of them in turn, and with their aunt, and finally with Lara. When the music ended temporarily, Pineapple told me, “You did good! You see? It isn’t hard to learn. . . .” But my shirt by now had soaked through to the skin, so Virgilio gave me one of his long linen shirts, open-necked and comfortable, and insisted that I have another drink, which he said would help to cool me off.
Virgilio’s older brother, whose name was Eliseo, was sitting in the kitchen with Pineapple’s mother. Isabella noticed that I hadn’t eaten yet, so she made a plate of food for me and, while I ate, Eliseo talked with me about his son, who was a teenager now but whom I remembered as a cheerful ten-year-old who’d been friendly to me when I first came to St. Ann’s. He had started getting into trouble while he was in middle school and, by the time he went to high school, he’d begun to get involved with older boys who, his father feared, were using drugs or selling them. So Eliseo recently had sent him back to Guatemala, where he knew he would be physically secure and would be cared for by his relatives.
At the end of the evening, I had a quiet conversation with Pineapple’s mother. She spoke to me, with Pineapple translating or paraphrasing for her—she did not know English yet—about her job as an afternoon and night attendant, taking care of children who had HIV. She also told me of her husband’s job at a Manhattan restaurant—washing dishes in the basement, even though, according to Pineapple, he had been a chef and had run a restaurant in his town in Guatemala. Since her mother worked so late, Pineapple said, it was her father who often got them up and made their breakfast and sent them off to school with their books and backpacks, and made sure they had their homework papers.
Pineapple’s parents recognized the serious deficiencies of P.S. 65. But their visits to the school and the questions they would ask were, her mother told me, repeatedly rebuffed by those in the office to whom they’d be referred when they sought a meeting with the principal. And because, English fluency apart, they were not familiar with the jargon and the acronymic phrases that were often thrown at parents by officials at the school, they came away most often with the sense that nothing that had worried them was likely to be changed.
This, at least, was the impression I received in those final moments in the kitchen with Pineapple’s mother. But more important, when I thought back on that evening in Pineapple’s home, was the recognition I had gained of the energy and joyfulness and collective reinforcement of her sense of affirmation that she was receiving from her parents and their relatives. Amidst the grimness of the building and the neighborhood around them, her mother and father had created in their home an island of emotional security and warm congeniality that any child, rich or poor, would probably have envied. I hoped that this would prove to be a bedrock of stability from which she’d be able to pursue the opportunities that were now about to open up before her.
Pineapple’s years at P.S. 65 were nearly at an end. During the spring, the pastor of St. Ann’s began to probe the possibilities of winning her admission to a private day school in New York to avoid the middle schools that had proven so destructive to the adolescents in that neighborhood.
Martha talked with me at length before she did this. She was somewhat torn in making the decision. Both of us were strong supporters of the public schools—not of demoralizing places such as P.S. 65 and the local middle schools but, on a larger level, of the whole idea of public education as something that was elemental to American democracy. Still, when a child, as in Pineapple’s case, had been shortchanged so badly in her first six years of school, Martha was not willing (nor was I) to let her be denied the opportunities that lay beyond the options the city had prescribed.
In reaching out to build support for programs at St. Ann’s, Martha had developed close affiliations with a number of the affluent and more progressive churches in New York, some of which ran private schools, attended for the most part by children of the privileged. One of these schools, which was situated on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and which had some dedication to the value of diversity in class and racial terms, was willing to admit Pineapple and provide her with a scholarship, even with the recognition that it would be hard for her to catch up with her peers.
“It will be a struggle,” the principal advised me when, at Martha’s urging, I got in contact with the school before Pineapple and her parents came to a decision. “But we like this little girl and we’d like to make this work if the child is willing.” I shared this with Pineapple and her mom and dad and, because of what they knew by now about the local middle schools, they told me they were eager to move forward. Martha, as I recall, helped them to fill out the application.
Pineapple’s acceptance at the school was conditioned on her willingness to repeat a grade because she was far below the academic level of the sixth-grade students at the school—and, as it turned out, below most of the fifth-grade students also. The run of transient teachers at P.S. 65 had done its greatest damage to her literacy skills, a degree of damage that she could not easily reverse even in a school that had the means to offer her the individual attention that had been impossible at P.S. 65.
In this respect, Pineapple’s situation was entirely different from the one that Leonardo had confronted when he went to boarding school. For Leonardo, as we’ve seen, the transition had been easy. For Pineapple, everything from this point on would be an uphill climb.
As early as the winter of her first year at the school, her principal and teachers, in the letters and reports that they were sending on to me, noted that the difficulties Pineapple was facing went beyond her deficient writing skills and reading comprehension. They also recognized that she had never learned the whole array of study-skills that students who had had the benefit of reputable elementary education had mastered long before.
Many students at the school had been there since their kindergarten year, and quite a few, when they entered, had already had as many as three years of preschool education in one or another of those rich developmental programs that were known to upper-class New Yorkers as “the baby ivies.” So, in this respect as well, Pineapple found herself competing on a playing field in which the odds were rigged against a child of her background from the very start.
Her science teacher noted that, while he had given her an honors grade for class participation and for laboratory work, her final grade for fall semester was an Incomplete because she didn’t take a make-up for a test that she had failed and then missed a more decisive test during the marking period. He added, however, that her oral presentations frequently were very good and he said he was convinced that, in the second term, she would progress more rapidly. In math and English, her grades at the first marking period were also in the failing range, but here again her teachers said that they were hopeful she would pass both courses by the end of spring semester.
Her social studies teacher, on the other hand, was more censorious and less optimistic. On the basis of a stern report she wrote about Pineapple in December, she struck me as a person of unusual rigidity who seemed to be unwilling to make any alterations in some hopelessly outdated lesson plans in order to adapt to the social differences among the children in her class. Pineapple, she said in one of her more annoying observations, “was perfectly capable of writing journal entries from the perspective of a Medieval noblewoman,” which was the topic she had been assigned. “She made one or two attempts, then gave it up entirely.” It came into my mind that Pineapple might have shown more zest for this assignment if she’d been allowed to write, not from the perspective of the noblewoman, but from that of somebody who had to wait upon the noblewoman—which I thought, given the subservient positions that her mother and so many other women in the South Bronx had to fill, might have had more meaning for her and perhaps elicited some of that spiky sense of “where it’s at” that might make her entries in a journal actually quite interesting.
The principal noted, nonetheless, that “socially, she is much beloved, especially by younger students. I love her. And most of her teachers do.” As spring arrived, she suggested that tutorials during the summer months with a member of the faculty might be a good idea and asked if I could help to underwrite this.
The teacher who took on this job told me at the start of August that Pineapple had been working hard and had made up most of a year’s work in science by that time and was getting better at note-taking in her other subjects. (“Note-taking is hard for her, because her spelling is so poor. It also seems that she was given almost no instruction about punctuation in her elementary years. We’ve made up for some of this. . . .”)
August 9: “Last week was a good one. We worked on syntax. Also run-on sentences. She’s learning how to break them up and punctuate effectively. One problem: She sometimes doesn’t bother to complete a sentence and answers an assignment only in word fragments. She’s also frequently misreading words of similar configuration (‘confidence’ for ‘conference,’ for example). We need to do more work on that in our next few sessions. . . .”
August 30: “I think she’s made good progress. She’s been cooperative and has frequently surprised herself when she’s come upon a complicated word she says she’s never seen before but has decoded it successfully. All in all, I’m feeling very positive.”
Her progress remained gradual that year and the next. “It’s still tough,” she told me in the winter of her third year at the school, “but my teachers say I’m doing better.” And, although she had to struggle even harder in the year that followed—at times, the gains that she was making would come nearly to a standstill as the subject matter in her eighth-grade classes became increasingly complex—she continued moving, almost imperceptibly, closer to grade level.
She had only one complaint about the students at the school. Some of the wealthier girls, she said “stick together all the time. You know, like they’re better than the rest of us? ” But, she added, there were others “who try to be nice to me.” In the spring of that year, one of her classmates asked her to a weekend birthday party at her family’s country house. Pineapple was astounded when she and two other girls were picked up in Manhattan in a helicopter.
“Wow!” she said. “I’ve never seen a house as big as that before.” But she said that she enjoyed the party, and all the girls were given presents by her schoolmate’s parents.
The school, regrettably, had no upper level. It ended in eighth grade. At that point, the pastor once again began exploring private schools with which she was familiar in order that Pineapple would not lose the gains she’d made and would get the further preparation she would need if she were to realize what was now her stated goal of going on to college—the same goal that her classmates for the past four years regarded as a normal expectation.
Here, once again, Martha’s well-developed gift for reaching out to institutions that professed to have a deep commitment to inclusiveness turned out to be essential. An excellent school, not in New York but, as it happened, in Rhode Island, where a group of charitable people had come to know Pineapple in the course of volunteer work they’d been doing at St. Ann’s, accepted her enthusiastically and provided nearly a full scholarship to pay for her tuition. An Episcopal church, affiliated with the school, raised extra funds to cover costs that weren’t included in the scholarship.
Pineapple knew she’d miss her parents and her sisters—and her little brother, who was three years old by now—but she became excited about going to the school after she had visited and met some of its teachers and seen its lovely campus, which was in a town not far from Providence. Although the school was rigorous in academic terms, it was less internally competitive than what she had been used to in New York. The demographics of the school were also more diverse—“majority white,” Pineapple told me, “many Asian, many black, some Hispanic, and some who are ‘combinations.’ ”
She entered the school in 2004 and felt at home there from the start. The white girls in her class, some of whom were wealthy but not at the stratospheric level of so many of her classmates in New York, did not, she told me, “go around in cliques together. It’s a different kind of school. Everybody here is nice to one another. It’s like—you know?—we all accept each other.”
She did confess she missed her family, as she had expected. “I’ve never been away from home before,” she told me in the winter. “So I’ve had to learn how to adapt to that.” But she said with pride that, even though her grades were “you know? not so good? ” she didn’t flunk any of her courses in the first semester; and she did much better in the one that followed.
One of the special virtues of this school was its quick responsiveness to difficulties students might encounter at the start of a new course or at the introduction of new subject matter in a given course. When she ran into problems, teachers did not wait until she had received a crushing set of grades but intervened before she had to undergo that blow to her self-confidence. “They’d say, ‘I’ll help you. You come in.’ And I’d go in. And right away, they’d sit you down and show you something you were doing wrong. And it was like they knew how to ‘unblock’ you. And they’d kind of hold your hand until they knew you got the point. And then I’d move right on. . . .”
By her second year, her reading comprehension had “skyrocketed”—that was her English teacher’s term—but, with the volume of material her classes were assigned to read, keeping up with those assignments, said the teacher, wasn’t easy for her. By this time, however, she’d developed strong attachments to her teachers. She listed several that she said she “liked really a lot.” All but one were women. One of them, she said, “is very young and she lives on campus and she helps me to correct my papers, but she doesn’t keep reminding me when I have something due. She makes me remind myself. If I don’t, she says she isn’t going to pass me.
“When I talk with her at night? It’s not about my work. It’s completely different. She’s not strict with me at all. She’s like a big sister.”
In academic terms, that second year became the breakthrough year. Still struggling to perfect her writing skills and needing to read more each night than she’d ever had to read before, still missing deadlines on her class assignments more often than she should, she nonetheless appeared to have emerged from any last remaining doubts as to whether she would meet the school’s prerequisites for graduation. “It was that year,” she told me, looking back upon this later, “that I knew for sure that I could do it and that I’d be going on to college.”
Throughout this time, her older sister, Lara, was in the New York City schools, where she’d been enticed into the same middle school, the same pretended “school for medical careers,” that Lisette, Vicky’s daughter, had attended also.
I was relieved when a teacher at the school who was impressed by Lara’s eagerness to learn made contact with me on his own and told me he believed that he could find the time to give her extra help in order to make up for the historic failings of a school he was too honest to romanticize. Lara had escaped the run of short-term teachers and ensuing chaos that Pineapple’s class had undergone at P.S. 65. Her basic skills were well intact; so, with the tutorial assistance provided by her teacher, she managed to get out of middle school with creditable grades.
In high school she again attracted the attention of an empathetic teacher who singled her out as a potential candidate for college. She later told me how important this had been, because the school, as she put it bluntly, was “not a very good one.” It was one of the newest generation of heavily promoted but unsuccessful “niche academies,” targeted at kids of color, that allegedly had found a way, in the unconvincing jargon that continues to be used today, “to break the mold” of failing schools and, again in the vocabulary more or less expected of administrators in the urban schools, “turn it all around.”
If anyone had actually turned this school around, it had not been in a good direction. “We started,” Lara told me, “with sixty students in my ninth-grade class. Only twenty of them graduated,” she recalled—“and only ten of them deserved to.”
Lara had been looking at college options in New York but, by the spring, she told me she’d decided to attend a college in Rhode Island so that she’d be near her younger sister. Pineapple had been on her own for two years by this time. Now, at last, the two would be together.
Lara was awarded a financial package by the college, and the people at the church who had helped to meet Pineapple’s costs provided help to her as well. Still, she had to take on a substantial workload to earn enough to meet her personal expenses. Both Lara and Pineapple had to work during the summers too. Neither girl expected to be given a free ride. They also liked the sense of independence it afforded them to be earning money on their own.
At the end of Lara’s freshman year in college and Pineapple’s junior year at boarding school, I got a startling and excited phone call from Pineapple.
“Guess what? ” she said. “My mother and father are moving to Rhode Island!” Her parents, she explained, after having been there several times to visit her, and now with Lara living there as well, had come to the decision to follow them out of New York and look for a home they could afford close to the town in which Pineapple went to school. “Jonathan! They’re really going to do it!” said Pineapple.
Things moved quickly after that. In a letter Lara sent me only a month later, she told me they had found a house and that the people from the church had “helped my mother find a job.” Her father, she said, had found one on his own.
Isabella’s job was in a local nursing home, caring for the elderly. Virgilio talked his way into a culinary job at one of the best hotels in Providence. His experience in cooking at a restaurant in Guatemala was not discounted this time, as had been the case when he was working in New York. The position he was given, as best I understood, was something on the order of a sous-chef in the hotel’s dining room.
The modest home Pineapple’s parents found was in a waterside community where their backyard faced directly on a walkway, bordered by a biking path, and was just adjacent to a wooden footbridge that crossed a channel leading to the ocean. Mosquito was admitted to the school Pineapple was attending. When he was old enough, their little brother, Miguel, was admitted there as well.
Happily, the distance between Rhode Island and New York was short enough for members of their family to come up and visit them on a routine basis. They’d usually come in Eliseo’s van, since he was the only family member who could afford a car. He shared it sometimes with Pineapple’s father, who had obtained a driver’s license shortly after coming to New York. As a result, the bond between the children and their New York relatives continued to be strong.
Pineapple moved in with her family for her senior year. Academically, things never became easy for her, even at a school that did so much to bring her up to pace with other students in her class. But there was no question in her teachers’ minds that she would complete her studies in good order. And, while her grade-point average in the spring semester of that final year was not as high as she would have liked, she did get honors grades in two of her five subjects and passed the others with two C’s and one B-minus.
Her graduation was a joyful day. A good-sized delegation from the family in New York drove up to the school to watch her walk across the stage and be handed her diploma. Afterwards, her parents had a party in their yard, as they did every time one of their children had achieved a victory they’d hoped for. According to her father, she was just the second person in their family (Lara was the first) to graduate from high school.
Three months later, she would be in college.
— III —
Pineapple had gone on college tours with members of her class. But she had done this dutifully, in order not to be dismissive of all possibilities, because she had already settled on the college Lara had selected two years earlier. She had friends there among Lara’s classmates. More important, she would have her sister there when she felt the need for someone to confide in.
Each of them, however, had made divergent choices when it came to fields of concentration. Lara had begun her first year as an education major, then switched to “English Lit and Writing” and, she said, “I’m glad I did because I’m reading so much stuff I really love that I never would have had the time to read if I’d stayed on in the program for certification.” Pineapple, on the other hand, decided upon social work and she never wavered from this plan throughout the years of college.
Her first semesters were more challenging for her than I think she had expected. She failed two courses, one of them a science class, because she said she didn’t realize, when she chose it, that it was “way, way too advanced for me” and there was a basic course she should have taken first. “Bio-science. . . . I didn’t transfer out in time.”
Still, she was by no means drowning or demoralized. Her letters and phone calls were mostly optimistic, sparked with funny anecdotes and interesting insights into the dynamics of relationships among the different ethnic groups within the student body. In the spring, for instance, when she took a course in urban studies, she told me something that she said surprised her—“and, to tell the truth, it kind of annoys me”—about the way the other students, who were mostly white, tended to defer to her when it came to questions about race.
“Every time something comes up in the class about the inner cities? You know? About the kids who live there? And the problems of their parents? And the schools they go to? And, you know, the bad stuff people think that everyone gets into? It seems like all the white kids in the class turn around and look at me before they give an answer. It’s like they want to check things out with me, to ask for my permission. I tell them, ‘Go ahead, girl! Speak your mind! If I think you’ve got it wrong, I’ll tell you.’ ”
I was glad that her straightforward and ebullient style hadn’t been diminished too much by the struggles she’d been through while she’d been at prep school. I had the impression that her confidence to say what she believed had been eclipsed to a degree during those secondary years. Now, it seemed, her likable impertinence, although with more discretion and maturity, was flourishing once more.
Still, I knew she had her insecurities. In a letter I received in the year that followed from a woman who emerged as one of the most consistently supportive friends and allies to Pineapple and her sisters, she wrote these words: “Brave fronts, soft souls.” She was referring to the fortitude the girls displayed when, in Pineapple’s second year of college, her parents were confronted with a difficult dilemma that would force the girls to summon up a greater sense of self-reliance than had been required of them in the past. (I will return to that dilemma shortly.)
But the “soft soul,” in Pineapple’s case at least—an ever-present recognition of her vulnerable status as a student, a quiet understanding of her family’s ultimate dependence on the loyalty, and continuity of loyalty, of those in Rhode Island who had been there from the start in the role of their defenders—this, along with an inherent tenderness of character, easily wounded sensibilities, emotions that were far more fragile than she would allow the world to see, were always there, as she would confide to me a little later on, just beneath the surface of audacity.