As this semester and blog come to close, and as I have finished reading this work, I am, as I was during the course of the novel, reminded of my privilege.  As a white, middle class, cis-gender woman who is able-bodied, English-speaking, and a United States citizen, I have been afforded vast opportunities, a good education, plenty of food, and shelter above me while I sleep.  My chances of success are almost guaranteed, the choices are entirely mine to make.  But as Kozol points out, and drives home in his conclusion, there are systems and policies in place which inhibit certain groups of people from having access to these same basic necessities.  Many people think it is impossible that the scenarios that Kozol describes are happening in the United States, and this is why his work is so important.  He showed us the truth, light, and despair of these childrens’ lives, and called us to action in the discourse of our community.

I urge you to examine your own life and y our own identities.  How have they worked together to help you through the education system?  How have they not?  And not just the education system, but your entire life?  Everyone here at the University of Michigan-Flint is fortunate to be receiving an education, but not everyone has taken the same path or faced the same challenges to be sitting next to you in your classes.  Please consider this, and know that recognizing and checking your own privilege is your first contribution to a socially just society.

A common theme throuhout the first 13 chapters,  is the poor conditions and lack of resources of the public schools. This article is from earlier this year, and gives good details reguaging  the struggles in the public school system in New York and other states. Who should be held accountable for letting our children fall through the cracks? What role do social workers  play in all of this?  Please take a moment and view the link.

The first half of Fire in the Ashes focuses primarily on the complex family, community, and institutional dynamics within poor areas and their effects on children’s future. Jonathan Kozol’s introduction to a spirited, incisive young girl named Pineapple marks a dramatic thematic transition in the book. Kozol gives an in-depth description of Pineapple’s “uphill battle” to get a meaningful education in an attempt to give the reader a sense of the direct, severe, and long-term impact that poor quality schools can have on student development.

Pineapple spends the first six years of her educational career in P.S. 65, a school in the South Bronx that Kozol describes as being in a constant “state of chaos” because of overcrowding, “inexperienced and underprepared” instructors, and poor infrastructure. It is immediately evident to the reader that all of these factors contribute to an educational environment where even the most gifted student would struggle. Perhaps most egregious failure, “instructional discontinuity” due to high teacher turnover rates meant that Pineapple was years behind her peers in writing, reading, and study skills. Despite the fact that she eventually attends better schools, has a supportive family, and moves away to a more stable community, Pineapple struggles throughout her educational career to make up for poor instruction during a critical developmental stage at P.S. 65. These setbacks meant that- through little fault of her own- Pineapple’s ambitious dreams never truly came to fruition.

Though Pineapple- along with many students around the country like her- should be commended for their efforts to better themselves despite their initial disadvantages, there is something terribly wrong with the U.S. school system if they must fight for access to an education that is their right. Badly performing schools perpetuate a socioeconomic underclass of people with few skills and low expectations for the future. Contributing to intellectual deprivation and malformation, the near apocalyptic scenario in schools like P.S. 65 limits underprivileged students’ opportunities to succeed.

The American public school system is designed to create a well-educated citizenry, essential to protecting the liberty and general welfare of a democratic people. It is impossible to calculate lost or diminished potential, but statistical data and personal stories like Pineapple’s only serve to illustrate that the inequities in the public school system are a scandalous national failure. In the land of opportunity, we should be ashamed.

“Plumbing imagery was being used in speaking of ‘a back-up’ in the homeless population, which had caused ‘the overflow’ to spill into the old hotels around Times Square. ‘They already know the place to put their sewage,’ Alice noted cuttingly. ‘They haven’t decided where to put their homeless people. But I promise you it won’t be anyplace where they will have to see us every morning.'” (p.110)

Many teenagers that end up homeless do so because A) they have no choice. They don’t have parents or loved ones that can take care of them, or they don’t have parents or loved ones that want to take care of them. Or, B) they have seen people get mistreated by “the system” and they don’t want to risk ending up like them. Pride comes into play and they get into an impossible place with no good outcomes-  they don’t want  handouts or charity but they also want to survive.

We would all like to think that we’re invincible. “Yea, the job market may be suffering, but I’ll find a good job.” “Yea, a lot of my friends are living off of food stamps, but I won’t have to.” I have to admit that I definitely feel this way. Even with my background of coming from a single-parent household that did survive off of food stamps and other handouts, I still imagine myself living that “American Dream,” happily married with two kids, living in a nice house (big enough for all of us and a pet or two, but not too big as to be ostentatious and a hassle to clean), with maybe a Ford or two in the drive. Maybe I am naive. But it’s not wrong to dream and to actually expect your dream to become a reality.

When does the feeling of invincibility finally wear off? Or, better yet, does it even have to?

In chapter 4 of Fire in the Ashes, Kozol tells us the account of Ariella, a fearless mother who overcome just ridiculous odds. It almost doesn’t sound like a true story. I mean, shouldn’t this be a Lifetime movie, or something? She started off with little growing up, starting to be able stand on her own and make a life for her boys, only to have one of them taken away from her and another she had to watch go down a very destructive path before he came back. But the thing that creates all those warm, fuzzies is that she refused to let it take over her. Webster defines invincible as “too powerful to be defeated or overcome.” Invincible doesn’t mean that nothing can touch you, and bad stuff won’t ever happen, but that it won’t take you down.

I am invincible. Are you?

As most of readers of this blog are already aware, Jonathan Kozol recently came to UM-Flint to discuss the destructive stratification he sees in the United States education system and its stifling effect on students’ potential. A standing-room only speaking event, Kozol’s message clearly struck a chord with many in the Flint community.

The “system” that Kozol describes is certainly unfair. People from different socioeconomic classes do receive different opportunities. This is something that I have experienced myself. As a student from the Flint area, I have had to work twice as hard to receive a quality education and develop a career. The inequities within our educational system certainly must be addressed. In the meantime, we must make do with the opportunities that we have been given. I have chosen to share some things that I have learned in the hopes of helping someone else. Not all of the following recommendations are applicable to each individual, so please modify them to fit your own situation.

  1. Invest in Yourself

Maximizing your natural attributes is critical to success. Find what you are passionate about and develop this interest. If people are telling you that you are crazy, then you are probably doing the right thing. Success requires innovation and being different is practically a prerequisite.

Value your time as a student and learn everything you can about your chosen field. Take your courses seriously and build relationships with your professors. Always try to be the best at whatever you choose to do and never do the bare minimum. A good work ethic is respectable in itself and people will recognize you for it.

  1. Be Financially Independent

Avoid student loans whenever possible, even if that means working throughout college and/or finishing later. Excessive debt reduces your ability to take risks that could pay off in the long-term. There are far too many people who have felt like they had to choose between realizing their dreams and making their student loan payments. Don’t spend your career as another unfulfilled, indentured servant to the banks and the government. Being debt free (or close to it) gives you the freedom and flexibility to chart your own course.

  1. Network, Don’t Schmooze

Don’t chat someone up just because you know they have ‘connections.’ They will immediately dismiss you as a sycophant. Reach out to people you personally admire and like. Make it clear who you are and what you want to accomplish. Remember that networking is a mutual exchange; always have something to offer the other person.

Do not pretend to be something that you are not. People respect honesty and the humility to express your own limitations.

Most importantly, find people and organizations who appreciate you for who you are. Do not sacrifice your identity just to fit in. You are valuable because you are unique.

  1. Extracurriculars are Just as Important as your Degree

I realize that not everyone has the time or resources to devote themselves to many volunteer opportunities. However, the skills that you can develop as an event organizer, blogger, or advocate are all useful to potential employers. Find something that you find personally fulfilling and invest your time in that. Be selective. If you try to be involved in everything you could appear indecisive and you will likely stretch yourself too thin. People value leadership, dedication, and results- not simply participation.

  1. Think Outside the Box

There are no longer any ‘safe’ paths to success. Do not choose a degree program just because an advisor told you “this is where the money is.” How do you expect to stand out from the pack by listening to the same advice and choosing the same generic degree program as everyone else? That much-dismissed liberal arts program, for example, might give you the skills necessary to be successful in a variety of careers.

Look outside the usual avenues for internships, volunteer programs, and networking. Sometimes the best opportunities are hidden where no one else is looking. Do a little independent research, make a few phone calls, and write some emails. Just the act of contacting people directly shows initiative and makes a good impression.


Long term success requires tenacity, creativity, and relationship-building. While coming from an economically depressed area can be an uphill battle, people will respect that you persevered despite these difficulties. Work hard, make a good impression, and don’t give up.

Last week’s visit by Jonathan Kozol was a chance of a lifetime to meet, in person, someone who I deeply admire. I missed most of the Q&A due to other commitments. The meeting in the Happenings Room was filled over capacity with all of us waiting for his words of wisdom. It is incredible that he continues to present at lectures with such gusto. He reminded me that my work is not complete and that I have far to go even at my age. He is inspiring. It was refreshing, and saddening, to hear him speak of America’s school system equated with the apartheid system that still exists in South Africa. I have spoken of this often in my classes only to be looked upon as though I am speaking a language only spoken on Neptune. He reminded, and made some aware that our schools are more racially segregated today than they were post Brown v Board of Education. Having lived during that era, I can see the stark difference in my education and what is being called education today. Social justice and equity is what we all – teachers, social workers, scientists, musicians, etc. must strive for in our everyday lives, and going forward into our careers. There is no reason that at this time, in this millennium, in this country, one of the richest and most powerful in the world, that we have gone so backwards in thought and deed. Finally, I have said these words over and again, racism is the cancer that will kill all that has been achieved if we do not heal. Healing can occur in our everyday lives by recognition of aggressions large or small and then doing something about it. Jonathan Kozol reminded us that we all have the power to change the trajectory.

In chapter 4, Ariella explains her feelings towards how other parents displine thier children by saying:

“although she said she hated to see other parents striking their own children, “I was scared I might do it too, and would really hurt him because, no matter what I said to him, or how many times I said it, I realized that I couldn’t hold him back.”

Excerpt From: Kozol, Jonathan. “Fire in the Ashes.” Crown Publishers, 2012-08-28. iBooks.
This material may be protected by copyright.

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My question is, could the use of spanking have changed the course of Silvio’s negative behavior? When Ariella thought the knock on the door was Silvio returing from being out all night, she said “I’m going to give him the beating of his life” but of course it was too late.

Two out of the three boys stories that Kozol recounts to us in this section took their own lives.  As Kozol says, “Christopher was the white boy.  He did this in New York.  Eric was the black guy.  He did it in Montana.  one with a needle.  One with a shotgun.  The differences are there” (77).  But so too, are the similarities.  Throughout these two chapters, we see the details of Eric and Christopher’s lives, their involvement with other young men in similar situations, low income economic situations, the temptation of drugs, and the romanticism of life in the streets.  As young men they were given warped perspectives of masculinity, of what it meant to be strong, dominant, and “the man of the house.”  They had mothers and sisters that loved them, but as we found out, and many of us have found out in our lives, when someone is so deep in that place, the love of others may not be enough.  Their deaths changed the lives of their family members forever, and the opportunities that may have presented themselves later in life were never seen.  No one thought this would be the result of their actions, no one intervened in their lives, and the system they were trapped in sure as hell didn’t give them a light at the end of the tunnel.  But when their family members were the only people who believed in them, when society turned their backs, could we expect anything else?

If you or someone you know is considering ending their life, reach out and get educated.  Eric and Christopher did not have the resources that many of us are fortunate to have access to.  Below are links to these different resources.