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April 14, 2016

In the Face of Death

In the Face of Death

THROWBACK THURSDAY – I enjoy being around basketball players and athletes, of course. Yet I wouldn’t be compelled to speak if I’d met Jordan or brushed shoulders with Bird (It happened once and I completely froze. I really have no regrets.) But put me in a room with truly gifted writers, and I am immediately mesmerized, invigorated, and inspired. You start to see their intangibles – how approachable they are, how they put people at ease, and how there is nothing they’d rather be doing than telling complex stories about the human condition.

This week a friend and I were speaking about families, adoption rates, and foster homes. On a walk home from the gym, I thought of what my lifelong friend, Chris Baker, a New York State Trooper, wrote to me in a recent message: “When we were born into this world with our parents, we hit the lotto.”

All of this talk brought me back to meeting one of my favorite non-fiction writer, the Chicago-based Alex Kotlowitz, who wrote the national-bestseller There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America. Kotlowitz spent three years with his subjects, which earned the attention and high praise of Oprah Winfrey. When I read his book about children as young as thirteen enduring hardship I had never imagined possible, it inspired me to do more volunteer work. I also started my commitment to writing about underdogs and social injustice.

I read that Kotlowitz was speaking on campus, and it was one of the few non-athletic event I made time to attend in five years on campus. I think I approached him nervously, and said I was writing a story on gangs or the history of public housing. Would I be able to interview him? He said they were expecting a baby soon, but that I could call him and set up a day and time. A few weeks later when I arrived, feeding his newborn baby. I believe he said the baby had been adopted. I had also heard that he adopted or became the guardian of one of the boys in Children. He was gracious and kind as he made fun of himself and his clumsy hands for not being very good at his new job. He said he was planning another book – On the Other Side of the River – and freelancing long pieces when he found ones that were of great interest to him. (Watch: The Interrupters.)

Years later I was teaching seventh-grade English in Manhattan in March or April. Knowing that I was not coming back to teach the following year, I’d decided to throw the curriculum to the wind for a few weeks so we could get a good look at deep non-fiction. My students had been living like rock stars with all the bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah celebrations each weekend. Given that they were all taking turns supporting each other as emerging young men and women, it was as good a time as any to get real about the uglier side of life.

Before we started reading “In the Face of Death,” I asked how many students in the class believed in the death penalty. About half the hands in the class went up. One boy, Michael, was hell bent that there was no room for negotiation. An eye for an eye, he said. That was the way it had to be. I didn’t judge him or any of them. What I loved about this story was not the issue because it was not new to them. It was the mastery of the best long-form journalism that I wanted them to appreciate. I just looked around and had the students look at each other for a few seconds.

Then we read the story about an 18-year-old boy named Jeremy Gross, and the jury that had to decide his fate.

At the end of the story, I asked how many students still believed in the death penalty.

Not one hand was raised.

The kids all looked around at each other, sad, nervous, unsure as they held their elbows on their desks, chins in their hands. Some looked like they were embarrassed of their mentality going into the story.

Michael, looking frustrated, raised his hand halfway, then slammed it down. He stopped and said, “I still believe in it. But maybe just not in this case.”

“In the Face of Death” By Alex Kotlowitz

http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/06/magazine/in-the-face-of-death.html?pagewanted=all

http://alexkotlowitz.com/