American reporter James Foley, who was killed in Syria on August 19, was—and is—a brother to me. In the wake of his senseless slaughter, I am publishing “In the Absence of Sparrows,” which I wrote during his 656-day captivity. In so doing, I intend to reclaim his image and memory. And I hope to stamp out the numbing vision of Jim in an orange jumpsuit, kneeling in a desert expanse, his captor clad in black, standing above him.
I first met Jim in 1996 when we signed up for Teach for America. Following a stint as a ski lift operator in the Rocky Mountains, I arrived at our teacher training in Houston. Jim shipped in from Milwaukee after spending the summer working at a bottling factory. “Good to meet you, bro,” Jim remarked when we first met. Broad-shouldered and smiling, he was wearing a Milwaukee Bucks jersey and high tops, like he’d just come from a three-on-three tournament. I noticed, to my surprise, that novels lined Jim’s dormitory shelves. Jim, I’d learn over time, was a man of delightful contradictions.
Jim and I spent three enlivening years teaching together in South Phoenix, a sprawling grid of hardscrabble neighborhoods rimmed by South Mountain, where empty desert lots glistened with broken glass. Jim taught middle school history at Lowell Elementary. I taught fifth- and sixth-grade bilingual students at C. J. Jorgensen Elementary. Day after day, we attempted to win over our rowdy classrooms. By night, we moonlighted, sitting in on community writing workshops. Together, we made a pact to become writers.
After leaving Phoenix, Jim went on to study fiction writing at UMass Amherst, where he wrote “Notes to a Fellow Educator,” a prize-winning short story detailing his teaching days in Arizona. His story, thinly veiled as fiction, takes the form of a painfully hilarious tell-all letter written by a teacher named Mr. Foley, who is departing the classroom. Page one describes several middle school girls forming the “We Hate Mr. Foley Club.” “Mr. Foley You are not the boss of this school so don’t try to boss us,” reads Joanna Chavez’s writing sample left behind for Foley’s successor. I’ve always loved the poignant, clear-eyed tone of this story, which seems to prefigure Jim’s later move to study journalism at Northwestern.
Jim left behind fiction for conflict journalism, I believe, out of an urge to study the world even more closely at hand. Even then, he expressed his own frustrations—as he traveled from Iraq to Afghanistan, from Libya to Syria—with making brutality his subject. “In a war zone, you can just turn on your camera. With bullets flying and bombs exploding, it’s automatic news,” Jim shared with me after returning from Libya, where he’d been freed by Khadafi’s forces after being held for forty-four days.
As courageous as Jim was, however, I don’t think that it was danger or violence that drew him to this harrowing work. Rather, it was peoples’ stories, the stories of mechanics, oil workers, mothers, and fathers, people living in extremis, that drew him to Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and, ultimately, Syria. A similar thread, I believe, had led Jim into that South Phoenix classroom years before. He fell in love with the stories of his students like those of Reuben, Mari, Patti, and Patricia.
It’s impossible to even reach for language to explain the loss that I now feel. Jim stood up in my wedding. He’s the reason I met my wife in a record-setting New York City blizzard—a long story I’d be happy to tell you over drinks some time. He’s godfather to Luka, my son, now a year-and-a-half, whom Jim will never meet. When I sit down to write these days, I look at a picture of Jim with a pen in his hand, a combat helmet cocked back on his head. I will miss him forever.