School is Meaningless. How Do I End This Shit? – Ask John #2
(From a 15 year old young man)
Dear Mr. Gatto,
When I was 6th grade I remember the hot summer day of my church group and I was hiking towards the goal of reaching the place where I was told there were lakes where the water was cool to dip in and relieve yourself from the heat of the sun and the dirt of the earth.
I was fascinated and intrigued by all of what was surrounding me, with insects that I’d never seen before that were flying everywhere and made a distinct buzz noise and had this little colorful shell laying everywhere. And as I could hear the flowing sound of the river as I was hiking, I remember humming, whistling, and singing along with whatever hymn I knew the lyrics to.
I bring this memory up, because this is a powerful learning experience for me, because not only did I gain an understanding of biology, but I gained emotional and spiritual gaining with my friends and people who I largely neglected to talk to––we were all brought in together, someway, somehow.
Now I stand here today at the age of 15, with the same cycle consistently for the past years of my life, waking up at the crack of dawn to give up 9 hours of my daily life to be confused with all this meaningless paperwork that is supposedly more important than my passions and my desire to live in freedom. And when I am finally free from school, I am burdened by the fact that I must go through this process again and again and again until summer vacation hits for me, but all those free days are destroyed by the fact that you must go again.
Eventually my young toddler brother who is curious and messy in his way of understanding the world is gonna go through the whole entire process that I have gone thorough in elementary and my mother only at home with me during the late night. I only feel boredom, apathy, and lost of connection every week of my life. How do I end this shit?
It was a privilege to read your exceedingly complicated letter and look into your question which must rank among the universal dilemmas in all human history: how do I end this shit?
Fortunately for you, thousands of human beings have left records of their personally successful answers to the same question phrased in more decorous language, so you must be prepared, at age 15, to do some hard work because the key word in your query is not excrement (shit), but the pronoun “I”–you must accept in your heart and soul that nobody else can solve the problem but yourself, you have to do it–others can help by giving you ideas, by suggesting models to follow.
The good news is that you have already done most of the hard work by achieving enough self-awareness to know that LIBERTY AND AUTONOMY are the things you most highly prize in setting out to construct your future life, not money, fame, or social prestige. With that awareness in hand you can begin to build PURPOSE for your life, something school, at its best, cannot do. Go to the library today and pick up a few books—ask the librarian to help you.
The first is an American classic written in 1854, so be prepared to read longer sentences than you may be used to and a few strange words and references: WALDEN, or Life in the Woods, the story of a man sick at heart with the phoniness of civilized life who went on his own to live self-sufficiently in the woods in a 10 x15 cabin for 26 months to learn what nature had to teach because, looking ahead, he was terrified that he might die discovering that:
“I had never lived. I wished to live deliberately, to confront only the essential facts of life. I wished to live deep and suck all the marrow out of life, so as to put to rout all that was not life, to reduce existence to its lowest terms. I learned this by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. Rather than money, than fame, give me truth. I found it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even the best, I found wearisome, never was there a companion so companionable as solitude.”
“We need the tonic of wildness. We can never have enough of nature. We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, games, or entertainment, but by an infinite expectation of each new day’s dawn. The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. Money is not required to buy one thing necessary for the soul. I went to the woods to confront only the essential facts of life. It is a little stardust, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.”
Stephen, I see the author Henry David Thoreau all over your letter—bored, apathetic, and disconnected from the nature you love at age l5, burdened by the meaningless of schooling and the life you see it leading you into, a round of meaningless cycles without any real human significance–wasting your precious hours, truly a prison of the spirit; Thoreau tried an experiment to change that nightmare of spirit, it worked for him and has inspired millions around the world for the past 150 odd years.
Try his mind, see what details resonate with your own experience. Your own escape may be different from his–it probably will be. It will be difficult but there are, even in 20l5, ways out of this jail of computer games, politics, meaningless parties, ambition, alcohol and other drugs and 9-5 jobs– once you are clear about your goals and can name your PURPOSE, you can concentrate on achieving it.
Read also Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life, and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. Read Leopold first, by a man as in love with nature as you seem to be–there are jobs and even careers, where you protect, preserve, and study lifelong the natural environment—read also any of John Muir’s books. Perhaps the publishing world is ready to listen to a teenager’s (you) first awakening to flowers, insects, and the other living things that share planet earth with us. I, personally, would love to read your book so WRITE IT.
I know that what I found most charming about your question was that it invited me and other readers to visit the exact instant that your growing consciousness became aware of the suffocating, meaningless character of much of adult society, especially when compared to the limitless, absolutely NEW perceptions of a 15 year old. Read those books, map and catalogue the natural environments within independent reach of you, become INVOLVED, volunteer to help the nature-loving associations in your community; they are there, FIND THEM, share your concerns with grown-ups willing to talk with you; they are YOU. You’re so lucky to be able to plan your escape at 15, instead of later.
Get to work on it right away. Use the resources around you first, locate them– books, people, organizations. Pitch in, trade your labor for wide counsel and sympathy––quid pro quo, as Roman philosophers used to say.
Good luck to you!
-John Taylor Gatto, State Teacher of the Year (New York, 1991)
*If you have questions for John, please send to:
Due to his energy limitations, every question will not be answered, but all questions are welcome.
John’s Book Release in Summer, 2015:
“The Underground History of American Education”
Foreword by Ron Paul, M.D., Former U.S. Congressman & Candidate for President of the United States.