Jennings Michael Burch

Sometimes, the students are the ones who teach the teachers.

High school students all across New York City spent last week taking their all-important Regents exams is subjects like algebra, global history and English language arts.

As readers of this column may know, I’m a high school teacher in Brooklyn.  And  so my job last week was to grade literally hundreds of those English language  arts Regents exams.

One part of the exam asks students to read a quotation by a famous person and write an essay about two works of literature related to that quote. And so, not surprisingly, I read essay after essay in which students discussed The Catcher in the Rye, The Scarlet Letter, The Crucible and many other staples of American literature.

But, this year, one title came up on numerous student essays that I’d never heard of.  The book was called They Cage the Animals at Night and, as the students were describing it, the book was about a boy with a series of family problems who ended up in numerous foster homes, some of which were run by the Catholic Church. 

Some of the nuns the boy came across were nice.  Others were not.

A little bit of research introduced me Jennings Michael Burch, the author of They Cage the Animals at Night.  Burch’s childhood, in many ways, was very typical for Irish Americans at the time. 

He was born in New York City in the late 1940s.  His father was named Francis and his mother was named Rita (nee Hogan).  The family moved around, from Queens to Manhattan to the Bronx. 

Burch himself would go on to become a police officer and raise four daughters of his own. But there were things about his youth that were far from typical.  Overall there were five Burch children, and at some point Rita simply became overwhelmed. Jennings entered the foster care system, eventually staying in over 30 different foster homes. 

Thus began an odyssey that very few children could endure.  Burch faced mental and physical abuse. He was temporarily placed with families that were, at best, uncaring and, at worst, criminal. 

Burch’s book manages to vividly convey not only the ordinary traumas of childhood, but the extraordinary challenges he had to overcome to survive. 

They Cage the Animals at Night has drawn comparisons to the trilogy of books (which students devour) about abuse by Dave Pelzer, as well as Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes.

It was satisfying to learn about Burch, his life and his book. There is something to be said here that is possibly corny, but still noble about the power of reading. 

Jennings Michael Burch created a harrowing story about a time and place that many high school students in the year 2013 might not otherwise care about.  And for all of the difficulties he faced, it was another Irish American family, the Dailys, who were finally able to show Jennings the love and guidance he needed.

Then I learned -- you can’t make this stuff up -- Michael Jackson, of all people, had been planning to make a movie based on They Cage the Animals at Night when the famed singer died in 2009. Jackson said he related to Burch’s story. "Michael told me often he felt like he grew up as an orphan, like a foster kid, because he never was in one home," producer, writer and director Bryan Michael Stoller told Reuters a few years back.

"To him every hotel was like a different foster home. He said he used to sit in the window and see kids playing outside and cry because he couldn't be part of that."

Not many 70-somethings can say they managed to emotionally move Brooklyn 17 year-olds as well as the King of Pop. Then I learned one more important thing.

Jennings Michael Burch died earlier this month at the age of 71. He had been battling cancer for some time. 

There was no obituary in The New York Times.  Just a notice in the Putnam County Courier, published in upstate New York, where Burch called home for the final 20 years of his life.

They Cage the Animals at Night may never come out as a movie.  Burch had been working on a sequel, but it’s not clear if he ever finished it.

One thing is clear.  Many of us worry if we leave a legacy on this planet.  Jennings Michael Burch had no such worries. 

(Contact “Sidewalks” at or [email protected].)