Before I went to first grade I could add, subtract, and multiply in my head. I knew my times tables not as work but as games Dad played on drives around Pittsburgh. Learning anything was easy when you felt like it. My father taught me that, not any school.
When I went to first grade I could read fluently. I loved to read grown-up books I selected from the three-level glass-enclosed bookcase behind the front door in Swissvale. It held hundreds. I knew if I kept reading, things would eventually come. Mother taught me that and she was right. I remember taking down The Decameron time after time, only to find its deceptively simple language concealing meanings I couldn’t fathom. Each time I put the book back I made a mental note to try again next month. And sure enough, one month it happened. I was ten.
My father was a cookie salesman. Mother called him that anyway when she was angry, which was often. He had gone to work as a teenager to help support my widowed grandmother and to help brother Frank, the smart one, through the University of Pittsburgh. Dad never got to college, but he was a genius just the same. Mother went for one year, she was a genius, too. They were the kind of people who expose the malice of bell curves and rankings for what it is. I miss them both and think of them often with love and gratitude.
Mother I called “Bootie” most of the time because that’s what I heard her own mother say. Bootie read fairy tales to me in the cradle, she recited poems, she filled my ears and eyes with language even though she had little else in the way of things to give. One day she bought a set of encyclopedias from a door-to-door salesman that cost more than we could afford. I know because she and dad fought when he got home. From then on mother read from the encyclopedia every day. We read all the newspapers, too. In those days they only cost a couple of cents. I liked the Hearst Sun-Telegraph best because it used violent layouts, and on the upper corner of the Sunday edition, a little boy called Puck, dressed like a fop, said in a speech balloon, “What fools these mortals be.” I didn’t know what that meant, but I said the words out loud often to punctuate adult conversation and always got a smile when I did.
As far as I can figure, any success I had as a schoolteacher came from what my mother, my father, my sister, my family, friends, and town taught, not from a single thing I remember about Cornell and Columbia, my two colleges, not from any findings of institutes of child study or directives from departments of education. If I’m correct, then this insight is more significant than it may appear. The immense edifice of teacher instruction and schooling in general rests on the shaky hypothesis that expert intervention in childhood produces better people than might otherwise occur. I’ve come to doubt that.
A gigantic social investment rides on this hypothesis, one that might otherwise be spent on reducing stress on family life which interferes with happiness and the growth of intelligence. Had the small fortune spent on my own schooling been invested instead in my people and my place directly, I have a hunch I would have turned out better. Whatever the truth of this complex proposition, as long as you’ve spent your money and time to hear what I have to say, you have a right to know something about the fountainhead of my school-teaching practice, my growing up time on the green river Monongahela.
I feel grateful for the luck to have been born in a tiny city with the character of a village on the river Monongahela in western Pennsylvania. People cared for each other there. Even the town wastrels had a history. But we minded our own business in Mon City, too. Both are important. Everyone seemed to understand that within broad limits there is no one best way to grow up. Rich or poor doesn’t matter much if you know what’s important. Poverty can’t make you miserable; only a bad character and a weak spirit can do that.
In Monongahela, people seemed to know that children have a remarkable power to survive unfavorable environments as long as they have a part in a vital community. In the years I grew up, in the place I grew up, tales of social workers breaking up families “in the best interests of the child” weren’t common, although on several occasions I heard Uncle Bud threaten to punch out this man’s lights or that one’s if the person didn’t start treating his wife better. Or his kids. Bud was always punching someone in the interest of justice.
Over the years any number of students found a way to tell me that what they appreciated most about my classes was that I didn’t waste their time. I think I learned how not to do that through a bit of good luck—being born in Monongahela during the Depression when money was tight and people were forced to continue older traditions of making their own meanings instead of buying them. And they learned how many very different ways there were to grow strong. What the vast industry of professional child-rearing has told you about the right way to grow up matters less than you’ve been led to believe. Until you know that, you remain caught like a fly in the web of the great therapeutic community of modern life. That will make you sick quicker than anything.
Taken from Chapter 10 in The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto
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