Remembering Jon

By Christopher Shea — May 01, 1999 18 min read
How much did we really know about Jonathan Levin?

On June 3, 1997, at 2:45 in the morning, Carol Levin was awakened by the ringing of her bedside phone. Another crank call, she thought. She picked up the receiver and placed it right back down. She dragged herself out of bed to disconnect the phone, to prevent further disturbances.

When she woke up--before dawn, to exercise--and turned the phone back on, it rang instantly. It was her ex-husband’s brother, who launched into a story about how someone had been killed, someone named Jon. She listened for a few minutes, then asked, “What ‘Jon’ are you talking about?”

That is how Carol Levin learned of the death of her son. As almost the whole education world knows by now, Jonathan Levin, a 31-year-old English teacher at William Howard Taft High School in the Bronx and son of Gerald Levin, CEO of Time-Warner Inc., was accosted in his Upper West Side apartment, bound to a chair, cut numerous times with a steak knife in an effort to pry from him his ATM code, and then shot in the back of the head-"execution style,” in tabloid speak. His assailants got away with $800, but police soon arrested two suspects, including Corey Arthur, a former student of Levin’s.

The murder shook the city and unnerved educators across the country. The crime was brutal, and the New York and national press were entranced by the Tom Wolfe-esque juxtaposition of a “privileged” victim and his underclass killer. Jon Levin, the scion of a media mogul, could have done anything with his life, yet he ventured into the rough terrain of the Bronx to help kids on the other side of the American economic divide. Levin’s death was “so much more than a homicide,” wrote syndicated columnist Carl Rowan in June 1997. It was “an American social disaster” because it would scare away those who would follow in Levin’s footsteps. Or so the story went.

There was a second story line, too-this one, in effect, blaming Levin for his own death. A much-loved teacher who was close to many of his students-he gave out his phone number to a few, even had some to his apartment-Levin had made himself vulnerable, was possibly naive. “Killed By Kindness” was the headline over two opinion pieces in this magazine that found fault in Levin’s friendships with kids. In one of the bluntest commentaries, a woman who had last taught from 1958 to 1963 wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that Levin had practiced “the jeans and T-shirt approach to teaching, whereby The Great Gatsby is taught with references to rap music and chairs arranged in a circle.” Never mind that no one who knew him remembered Levin ever wearing jeans to school, or that chairs-in-circles is almost universally accepted in schools these days.

Two years later, though legal proceedings in the murder case appear to be over, Levin’s family, friends, and colleagues have found little justice in the courts or the media. In November, Arthur was found guilty of second degree homicide in Levin’s murder, but he was spared the life-without-parole prison term sought by the family and sentenced instead to 25 years to life. Then, in a decision that baffled many onlookers, Arthur’s alleged accomplice, 26-year-old Montoun Hart, was acquitted of all charges in January-a verdict, jurors said later, that resulted from sloppy police work.

If Levin was guilty of anything, it was of bringing relevance to the classroom and of trying to connect personally with students.

Meanwhile, those close to Levin remain bitter about the cottage industry of punditry on student-teacher relationships that sprang up in the weeks after the teacher’s death. People, they say, used the mound of dirt on his grave as a way to elevate their own positions in the debate over pedagogy. Jonathan Levin was neither a son of privilege, nor was he hopelessly naive. He might have done more than many teachers to reach out to students, but he did it in a “regular and respectful” way, says a former colleague. If Levin was guilty of anything, it was of bringing relevance to the classroom and of trying to connect personally with students.

Carol Levin sits in her unprepossessing walk-up apartment in mid-town Manhattan, 16 blocks south of where Jon lived. She is a trim 58-year-old, with shortish gray hair encircling her tan face. She wears jeans and a T-shirt and peace-symbol earrings. She brims with nervous energy. Her son’s murder and the resulting avalanche of media attention-and misinformation-have given her life renewed purpose.

After Corey Arthur was convicted this winter, Levin told reporters that she was planning to become a teacher. In the 1960s, she studied education at the University of Pennsylvania. Today, she has just completed the oral exam that New York City requires of its prospective teachers. She is a volunteer at the Satellite Academy, an alternative public school on the Lower East Side with a team-teaching and collaborative-learning bent. She is looking for employment for the fall.

The announcement of her teaching plans came off too dramatically for her taste. One headline read: “Mom: I’ll Teach to Honor Levin.” That was just one more bit of awkwardness visited upon her by the media. Despite its frequent telling, the story of her son’s life and his entry into teaching was never portrayed accurately in the press, she says. “It is just so easy to get things wrong,” Levin explains. “Just like Jon growing up in a family in which he could do anything he wanted. That’s bogus. It’s wrong, all wrong.”

Carol and Gerald Levin divorced when Jonathan was 4 years old, well before the elder Levin’s corporate ascension. Jonathan was the youngest of the couple’s three children (another son, Lee, just turned 35; a daughter, Laura, is 37). He and his siblings were raised by a single mom. They lived in the upper-middle-class Long Island suburb of Manhasset, but the kids did not hobnob with the Manhattan elite or get chauffeured to tony day schools. Jonathan attended public school, where he was an average student who had lots of friends and liked to have fun. While a student at Manhasset High School, he worked as a dishwasher in a local bar. He was voted wittiest member of the class of 1984.

There is an irony, his sister Laura points out, in Jonathan’s becoming a teacher. “He was really smart,” she says, “but school for him was basically a social place. I don’t think he had enough teachers who motivated him. He remembered just being a wise-ass and getting kicked out of class. The experience made him sensitive about the kind of teacher he didn’t want to be.” His mother concurs: “He appreciated the capriciousness of his students because everything they did, he had done-only at an upper-middle-class school.”

Levin went on to Trinity College in Hart ford, Connecticut, where he majored in English and psychology-and felt slightly out of place. The college, his sister explains, was preppy-they hadn’t known many preppy people while growing up. After graduation, he took a job selling travel insurance in Manhattan, working from his apartment on Columbus Avenue near 69th Street. He loved the freedom of the job, but ultimately it felt unfulfilling. After five years, he began looking for a more spiritually rewarding career. He pursued teaching positions but kept his plans largely to himself. He said he didn’t want to talk about it until he had accomplished something.

He targeted private schools first because they do not require the credentials that public schools do, but he couldn’t get his foot in the door. He started networking and found himself at Taft largely by chance. The school hired him in 1993. He taught full time, but the job was conditioned on his work toward a graduate degree, which he completed at New York University. At Taft, Levin quickly became popular with students and teachers. He loved rap music and sports and used them liberally in class. The Yankees were his team. After games, he would put the score on the blackboard. When they lost, kids who liked other teams would razz him.

Levin did a lot of teaching through current events. His former students remember in particular the discussions Levin led about Eliza Izquierdo, a New York City woman who in 1995 beat her 6-year-old daughter to death. Child-welfare advocates were pitted against the city, and the story commanded headlines in New York’s newspapers. Levin brought in clippings about the case to stir class debate. Sometimes he had students state their views on current events in the form of a letter. “You might think that’s a dumb idea,” says Annie Cabrera, one of Levin’s former students who graduated from Taft in 1997. “But when I took the Regents [exam], what did they have us do but write a letter to someone?”

William Howard Taft High School stands at 172nd Street in the Bronx, an imposing four-story edifice with a neoclassical roof. Surrounded by block after block of nearly identical six- to eight-story buildings, it makes a striking impression. But once you make your way in, pushing through metal detectors at the front door during the morning rush, it loses its charm. The reality is that this is a hardscrabble high school with 3,700 students in one of the toughest neighborhoods in the country.

Taft’s staff is not eager to rehash the Levin story.

Taft’s staff is not eager to rehash the Levin story. They are wary of attempts to read a larger social context into his death. The murder drew unwanted attention to the school. Teachers and administrators felt that reporters who camped out for interviews went off with sensational tidbits-garnered mostly from dropouts hanging outside the school because reporters were not allowed in-but not the truth about the school or Levin.

Alessandro Weiss, director of the school’s honors program, used to ride the subway partway home with Levin. “Jon was a private person his whole life,” Weiss says, “and the media has turned him into a public person. For us as a school, this was a person we loved who was tragically killed. That was the issue for us.”

Of all the misconceptions about Levin perpetrated after his murder and during the trial, what stung his colleagues most were the criticisms of his teaching style. “I think people have misunderstood his caring to be a lack of rigor,” says Karen Grayson, head of the English department.

The murder put one student-teacher relationship under a klieg light, Levin’s colleagues say, but lots of teachers and staff have had relationships with students that go far beyond grading papers. “This is certainly nothing new,” says principal Sharna Schwartz. “It has been going on since we were children. When I was a student at Taft-centuries ago-the senior adviser had students over to her house and always graciously availed herself of us. You always had teachers you had a fairly nice relationship with, who would take you under their wing.”

Until recently, Taft’s honors program held an annual picnic in the backyard of a teacher’s house. That’s changed-but not because anyone fears getting too close to students. It’s just that, New York being what it is, none of the teachers involved has a backyard anymore.

In four years of teaching, Jonathan Levin touched a lot of lives. When word of his death spread through Taft, students collapsed with grief. Seven had to be rushed to the hospital. At his funeral, students held signs that read, “We are his kids.”

Annie Cabrera was a 17-year-old single mother when she had Levin as a teacher in 11th grade. She had transferred to Taft as a sophomore after taking a year off to care for her baby daughter. “My attendance wasn’t all that great,” she says. “I would go three days, take two days off. I would always cut his class, which was the last period of the day. One day when I did go to class, he asked me, ‘Why didn’t I see you yesterday?’ I said I wasn’t in school. He said, ‘You’re lying to me. I saw you earlier in the day.’”

Another day, Levin pulled Cabrera aside for a frank talk. “He said, ‘You have a kid to think about. Why are you being so selfish? You’re not going to be able to do much for yourself, or her, without an education.’ That shook me up a bit.” Levin once wrote her a note that said, “You are one for whom the bounties are endless.” Cabrera says, “I thought, Wow, if someone thinks that way about me, maybe I should start thinking that way, too.” Levin encouraged her to take the New York Regents exam-then optional-which she did. When the school year ended, he gave her his phone number and told her to keep in touch. She credits him with prodding her toward City College of the City University of New York, where she is now a pre-med student. She wants to be an obstetrician.

It was not unusual to find many of Levin’s students hanging around his classroom or the English department offices hoping to catch up with him. In class, if they met a goal that he had set for them, he might take everyone out to dinner. According to a colleague, he was frustrated that many parents didn’t seem to care about their children’s school work, and he tried to engage them. Once, Cabrera called him in the middle of a Yankees game because she needed help with a college-application essay. His apartment was noisy and filled with friends watching the game, but he slipped into another room and spent an hour on the phone, calming her and helping her write.

Alicia McCall also met Levin when she was in 11th grade. A tall, striking African American and Taft’s 1997 valedictorian, she was not typical of the kids who hung around Levin’s classroom. A top student, she often felt at odds in a school whose student body didn’t always value academic achievement. For her, Levin and other faculty members offered an oasis of comfort. She says she saw her relationship with Levin “more like a friendship than a mentorship.” Once, when she was upset by a tennis teammate who had left her stranded at an unfamiliar high school, she went crying to Levin, who calmed her down and allowed her to stay with him while he tutored an after-school class. When she got into New York University, where she is now majoring in accounting, she was certain she couldn’t afford it. “That was another hysterical day,” she says. He calmed her again, telling her how he was still paying off his own student loans. NYU came through with a scholarship.

‘He had this innate respect for people’s lives and experiences. He assumed the best.’

Carol Levin
Jonathan Levin’s mother

“He had a real gift,” says Carol Levin of her son. “He had this innate respect for people’s lives and experiences. He assumed the best. As a teacher, he brought that respect into the classroom. The kids heard it, saw it, felt it. There was nothing contrived or phony about him.”

In many ways, Levin’s relationship with Corey Arthur was no different than those he had forged with other students. In Arthur, Levin saw a troubled kid. According to newspaper accounts, the teenager was raised by a single mother; his father, once a basketball star with dreams of a college scholarship, had succumbed to drug addiction. About a year after the teacher and student grew close, Arthur attempted suicide. One month before the murder, his father died, homeless.

But Levin also saw potential in Arthur, who was an aspiring poet and rap artist, and the teenager was receptive to Levin’s brand of help. He had been to Levin’s apartment to borrow rap records and to chat about his lyrics and street poetry. In an essay for this magazine, Matthew Dwyer, a friend and former colleague of Levin’s, wrote that he had spent an evening with Levin and Arthur at Dwyer’s apartment “watching sports and mulling over life’s possibilities. Jon wanted to show Corey that life in New York City in your 20s does not have to feature the drugs, violence, and loosely guarded angst to which so many like Corey are resigned.”

At the trial, last September, Arthur’s attorneys tried to show that the defendant had a bond with Levin similar to what Cabrera and McCall had shared with their teacher. In a letter, Arthur had told Levin he was his “true and only friend in the world.” The defense introduced as evidence a 1993 graduate school paper Levin wrote about the letter saying it had moved him to tears.

But that was then-a full four years before Corey Arthur killed Levin. Despite Levin’s efforts, Arthur failed his class and dropped out of school, returning to the drug dealing and petty crime that he had dabbled in even while at Taft. When Corey Arthur murdered Jonathan Le vin in the afternoon of May 30, 1997, he was an adult who had been convicted of selling cocaine, who was probably high and in need of cash, and who was exploiting an old relationship. According to Carol Levin, Arthur had called Jon’s apartment and reached his answering machine, saying, “Yo, Mister Levin, pick up, this is important.” Levin was getting ready to go to the gym. “Jon,” says his mother, “never turned his back on anyone.”

Given the horrendous nature of Levin’s murder, it is perhaps understandable that people-particularly other teachers-want to blame him for the crime. Finding fault in his friendships with students somehow offers reassurance that such brutality is not random: “This would never happen to me because...” is the unspoken message. If only Levin had been more conventional in his teaching methods. If only he hadn’t tried to change the course of his students’ lives. If only he hadn’t “crossed the line.”

It is much scarier to think that this crime-like many violent crimes-was a tragic fluke, a convergence of needs and opportunity and motive and relationships and, scariest of all, simply chance. That makes us all vulnerable, and that’s hard to accept.

When Teach for America founder and president Wendy Kopp heard of Levin’s murder, she feared the worst for her teaching corps-not because she thought anyone was in danger, but because she assumed that “people were going to draw generalizations from this, which we thought would be a total tragedy.” The New York City-based organization sends idealistic, freshly minted college graduates to teach in low-income school districts, often in rugged inner-city neighborhoods. She reassured her young teachers’ parents that the circumstances of Levin’s murder were an anomaly. Nothing remotely similar has happened to the more than 5,000 Teach for America teachers since its founding a decade ago, she says.

“I think the real danger with all the commentary,” adds Gordon Pradl, a professor of English education at NYU who had Levin as a student, “is our tendency to dichotomize. Something bad happened, so we can frame it as a situation of being ‘too close’ to a student versus not being close to students. Schools are intimately embedded in a community context. Frequently those students who are having problems are not having problems because they aren’t smart enough, or the standards aren’t high enough, but because of deficits whose origins are outside the school. Sometimes you can’t get to square one with the teaching unless you address those other things.”

Carol Levin argues that there are no lessons about student-teacher relationships to be drawn from Levin’s murder, and she’s angered by those who try to find them. “Corey Arthur,” she says, “was a case unto himself. I’m not saying that there aren’t other sociopaths who attend schools, but I don’t think what happened to Jon should be a criterion in how teachers relate to their students.”

In Levin’s apartment, photographs of her slain son fill several bookshelves and a mantel. In almost all, he wears the same irrepressible grin and is surrounded by friends and family. She proudly shows off programs from awards ceremonies in his honor. She reads from letters from his students.

Levin keeps in close contact with many of her son’s former students and frequently hosts them in her own apartment-something her son’s critics might find ironic. One former student wrote her that he plans to teach to pay homage to Jon and that he hopes to return to Taft and ask for Jon’s old classroom on the second floor.

Jon’s sister, Laura, now has a daughter who was born six months after his death. While she was pregnant, Jon joked that she should name the baby “Jake,” his nickname, regardless of its gender. She followed through on the punch line. The year before her brother died, Laura had moved from a desk job at a research institute run by Cornell University to work as a pre-school teacher. She says Jon was the inspiration for her career shift.

Many institutions have benefitted from an outpouring of charity in the wake of Levin’s death. A fund established in his name benefits Taft. His father, Gerald Levin, made a large donation to the Burr and Burton School in Manchester, Vermont, where he vacations. Trinity College and NYU, the schools from which Levin graduated, offer scholarships in his name. Quincy Jones and Henry Louis Gates Jr. helped establish a $1,500 prize at Harvard University for students who want to be public school teachers.

At Taft, life has gone on as well. Once plagued with a reputation for violence, the school is now relatively peaceable. A probationary sanction levied by the state because of its declining scores in reading and writing has been lifted. The school’s administration claims that 80 percent of its graduates go on to some form of higher education. And a plan to break Taft into more personable chunks is taking hold, with the school subdividing into academies for arts, honors, media, law, business, computers, and health professions. Levin had been deeply committed to the creation of the media academy; he wrote a grant proposal to equip a media center, the heart of the academy. Today, the center has 15 cutting-edge Macintoshes, as well as video-editing equipment that would be the envy of a small-market TV station.

Down the hall from the media center, a door looks out onto a drizzly day in the Bronx. Just outside, however, is a startling patch of green-Taft’s new ballpark, the Jonathan Levin Field. An electronic scoreboard is in center-right field, done up in blue and gold, the school’s colors. On the right field wall, students from the art academy have painted a mural. Its main elements are a likeness of Jon, a baseball cap-a nod to his passion for the game-and these words: “Sky’s the Limit.”

Given the difficulties that many Taft students face, that sentiment might suffer from a touch of hyperbole. But Jonathan Levin made the idea seem a little more plausible, offering at least a few of his charges a hand up.