Free Study Guide for There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz

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The Henry Horner Homes are known to the children as the “Hornets” or “the projects” or simply the “jects” (pronounced jets). However, to Pharoah they are known as “the graveyard.” Nothing here is as it should be. There is no enclosed lobby to the building. There is a dark tunnel cutting through the middle. All the first floor mailboxes have been broken into, and there is so little outside lighting that the residents carry flashlights. Even the summer itself turns duplicitous: during Lafeyette’s twelfth birthday, gunfire breaks out. As the eldest, he makes the children hold their heads down until the shooting subsides, and then they crawl back to their homes. In the process, Lafeyette loses all but fifty cents of the eights dollars he had received for his birthday to buy radio headphones.

The one constant in the children’s lives is their mother, LaJoe. She is known for her warmth and generosity, but the neighborhood, which hungrily devours its children, has taken its toll on her as well. So many of the women of the projects must be like LaJoe: grandmothers by their mid-thirties, and great-grandmothers by their mid-forties. They nurture and care for their boyfriends, former boyfriends, sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons. LaJoe had once been so pretty as to try modeling for a while, and she is still attractive enough to receive whistles on the street. However, the confidence of her youth has left her. She has watched the neighborhood slowly decay when businesses moved to the suburbs and the city lost a third of its manufacturing jobs. To her, it has become a “black hole.” She can more easily recite what isn’t there than what is. There are no banks, no public libraries, no movie theaters, no skating rinks, no bowling alleys. There are only two clinics and both will close by 1989. The infant mortality rate exceeds that of Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, and Turkey. There is also no rehabilitation center even though drug use is rampant.

Furthermore, LaJoe feels that her family has mostly let her down. Her three oldest have disappointed her, as all three have been in jail at least once and all have been involved with drugs. The oldest, LaShawn, has worked as a prostitute from time to time. The next child, Paul, named after his father, has served time in an Indiana prison. The third one, Terence, is the greatest disappointment of all, because she is closest to him. He’s only seventeen, but had begun selling drugs at the age of eleven and had been in and out of trouble ever since.

She also has a set of four-year-old triplets, Timothy, Tiffanie, and Tammie. All eight of her children have the same father to whom LaJoe has been married for seventeen years. Unfortunately, they have fallen out of love, and he lives at home only sporadically. In his absence, she turns to Lafeyette as her confidant. She relies on him as much as the younger children do. He had been a carefree child, a bit of a ham, and he loved to draw, but over the past year, he has begun to change. He had been caught shoplifting and has been placed in the Chicago Commons’ Better Days for Youth program. He’s also become bossy around the younger children, because he worries so much about them.

Pharoah is different from all the children. His only friend is Porkchop, and he clutches on to his childhood with the vigor of a tiger gripping its meat. Frequently, he becomes so lost in his daydreams that LaJoe has to shake him back to reality. However, these flights of fancy seem to help him fend off the ugliness around him. He giggles at the slightest jokes and cries at the smallest of tragedies. He has developed a slight stutter, but he delights in the attention of his elders who adore him. He is also the delight of Lafeyette who treats him like a friend as well as a brother.

LaJoe is aware that she is not alone in raising children who grow old quickly, but she is determined that the hopelessness and despair that others have given in to will not affect Lafeyette and Pharoah. However, she is also a realist, and that summer she begins paying $80 a month for burial insurance for her youngest five children.

Lafeyette has always promised his mother that he won’t allow anything to happen to Pharoah, but for one brief moment he loses him. Three days after his birthday, gunfire breaks out again. Lafeyette and his mother hustle the triplets onto the floor of the hallway in the apartment building, a drill they have practiced many times. Two rival drug gangs are firing at each other from one high-rise to another. Lafeyette loses track of Pharoah who he finally sees taking cover behind trees and fences. LaJoe won’t allow him to go after Pharoah. Meanwhile, James, Lafeyette’s friend, meets up with Pharoah, and they sprint for the apartment door. They scream to be allowed in, but no one hears them over the gunfire, and they have to run to a friend’s apartment upstairs. The police have taken cover as well, thinking they are the targets. Passersby lie motionless on the ground. Then, as suddenly as it begins, the gunfire stops, and amazingly, no one is hurt. The police tell a reporter who calls about the gun battle that there is no record of a shoot-out. However, Lafeyette knows and so does Pharoah.


This chapter emphasizes two major ideas: how poverty and gang warfare affect the residents of Henry Horner and how disappointing LaJoe’s children have been to her. The neighborhood around Henry Horner is a war zone, and as a result, business and community resources have been lost. The children grow up in an atmosphere that is no better than children in the Middle East or in Kosovo is. Yet, this is America! The atmosphere and lack of hope in this environment have contributed to the failures of LaJoe’s children. She mourns for what might have been.

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