Chapter 10 of The Underground History of American Public Education
Each person in a village has a face and a name, even a nickname. Anonymity is impossible, for the villagers are not a mass…a village has its own language, its customs, its rhythms…its life is interior…. a village cannot be global.
~ Robert Vachon
The Character Of A Village
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.
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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.
Singing And Fishing Were Free
I went Christmas caroling long before I knew how to read or even what Christmas was about. I was three. The carolers stood on a corner diagonally across from my grandfather’s printing office where their voices filled an informal amphitheater made by the slope of Second Street just before it met Main, the principal intersection of the town. If I had to guess where I learned to love rhythmical language it would be on that corner at the foot of Second Street hill.
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In Monongahela I fished for carp and catfish made inedible by river acids leaching out of the mines and waste put there by the mills. I fished them out with homemade dough balls whipped together in Grandmother Mossie’s kitchen. In Monongahela I waited weekly for the changing of Binks McGregor’s haberdashery window or Bill Pulaski’s hardware display as eagerly as a theater-goer might wait to be refreshed by a new scenery change.
Mother’s family, the Zimmers, and the branch of Gattos my father represented, were poor by modern big city standards, but not really poor for that time and place. It was only in late middle age I suddenly realized that sleeping three to a bed — as Mother, Sister and I did — is almost an operational definition of poverty, or its close cousin. But it never occurred to me to think of myself as poor. Not once. Not ever. Even later on at Uniontown High School when we moved to a town with sharp social class gradations and a formal social calendar, I had little awareness of any unbridgeable gulf between myself and those people who invited me to country club parties and to homes grander than my own. Nor, do I believe, did they. A year at Cornell, however, made certain my innocence would come to an end.
Mother was not so lucky. Although she never spoke openly of it, I know now she was ashamed of having less than those she grew up with. Once she had had much more before Pappy, my granddad, was wiped out in the 1929 crash. She wasn’t envious, mind you, she was ashamed, and this shame constrained her open nature. It made her sad and wistful when she was alone. It caused her to hide away from former friends and the world. She yearned for dignity, for the days when her clothes were made in Paris. So in the calculus of human misery, she exercised her frustration on Dad. Their many separations and his long absences from home on business even when they lived together are likely to have originated in this immaculate tension.
The great irony is that Mother did beautifully without money. She was resourceful, imaginative, generally optimistic, a woman with greater power to create something from nothing — totem poles from thread spools, an award-winning Halloween costume from scrap paper and cloth, a high-quality adventure from a simple walk through the hills — than anyone. She had no extravagant appetites, didn’t drink, didn’t crave exotic food, glamorous places, or the latest gadgets. She set her own hair and it was always lovely. And she kept the cleanest house imaginable, full of pretty objects which she gathered watchfully and with superb taste on her journey through life. As if to compound the irony of her discontent, Mon City was hardly a place to be rich. There wasn’t much to buy there.
The Greatest Fun Was Watching People Work
I shouldn’t say nobody had money in Monongahela, but it’s accurate to say nothing was expensive. Beer was the town passion, more a religion with the men, and a big glass cost only a nickel, the same price as twelve ounces of buttermilk or a candy bar three times heavier than the modern sort. Bones to make soup were free. Beyond movies — twelve cents for kids — commercial entertainment hardly existed. There were a few bowling alleys at a nickel a frame, Redd’s Beach (a pool at least ten miles away where swimming was a dime), and a roller-skating rink I never went to.
Where society thrived was in hundreds of ethnic social clubs and fraternal organizations up and down the Valley: the Moose, the Elks, the Oddfellows, Mystic Knights, Sons of Slovenia, the Polish-American Society, the Russian-American Club. These were places for men to drink and talk cheaply except on Saturday night when ladies could drink and talk, too, alongside their men and have a dance. Sometimes with even a live band to give snap to the joint.
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No kid in Mon City reached for the "Events and Activities" page of the papers because there wasn’t one, nor were there any special kid places that people of all ages didn’t frequent. When the men weren’t playing bocce at the Italian Club, kids were allowed, passing first through a barroom reeking of unpasteurized stale beer. No special life was arranged for kids. Yet there was always a full menu. Just spying on the adult world, watching people work, and setting out on expeditions to explore filled whatever time you wanted to spare. Until I got to Cornell, I can’t recall anyone I ever knew saying "I’m bored." And yet in New York City, when I moved there, hardly a day passed without someone crying loud and long about ennui. Perhaps this indicates some important marker we’ve missed in our modern search to make private worlds for children — the constituents of meaning have been stripped away from these overspecialized places. Why a child would want to associate exclusively with children in a narrow age or social class range defies understanding, that adults would impose such a fate on kids strikes me as an act of madness.
The greatest fun was watching work at construction sites, watching freight trains unload or coal up, studying lumberyards at work, seeing gas pumped, hoods lifted, metal welded, tires vulcanized, watching Johnny Nami cut hair, watching Vito fill chocolates. Best of all was trailing Charlie Bigerton, the cop, on his rounds without his catching on. When kids around town pooled data about Charlie, we could recreate the police patrol schedule accurately enough that violating wartime curfew was like taking candy from a baby.
Sitting In The Dark
At 213 Second Street we lived over the printing office Granddad owned, the Zimmer Printing Company. "Since 1898," his swinging sign read. It was located only a block and a half from the green river west of the streetcar tracks on Main. In between river and streetcars was the Pennsylvania Railroad right of way and tracks which followed the river down to Pittsburgh. Our second floor bay window hung over the town’s main intersection where trolleys from Charleroi and Donora passed constantly, clanging and hissing, all lit up in the dark night.
An incredible vision, these things, orange metal animals with people in their stomachs, throwing illuminated reflections in color onto the ceiling of our living room by an optical process I often thought to have explained to me, but never did. Bright sparks flew from their wheels and fell from the air around the overhead power lines, burning sharp holes in dark places. From our perch, we could also see long freight trains roaring along the river, sending an orchestra of clanks and whistle shrieks into the sky. We could watch great paddle-wheel steamers plying the river in both directions, filling the air with columns of white steam.
From early till late, Grandmother Mossie sat rocking. She sat at the window facing the river, quietly observing this mechanical show of riverboat, train, and streetcar — four tiers of movement if you count the stream of auto traffic, five if you include the pedestrians, our neighbors, flowing north and south on Main far into the night hours. She seldom ventured to the street from our apartment after her great disgrace of fifteen years earlier, when lack of money forced her to move abruptly one day from a large home with marble fireplaces. (She never spoke to my grandfather, not a word, after that, though they ate two meals a day at the same small table.) The telephone supplied sufficient new data about neighbors, enough so she could chart the transit of the civilization she had once known face to face.
Sitting with Moss in the darkness was always magic. Keeping track of the mechanisms out there, each with its own personality, rolling and gliding this way or that on mysterious errands, watching grandmother smoke Chesterfield after Chesterfield with which she would write glowing words in the air for me to read, beginning with my name, "Jackie." Seen that way, words became exciting. I couldn’t get enough of them. Imagine the two of us sitting there year after year, never holding a recognizable conversation yet never tiring of each other’s company. Sometimes Moss would ask me to find numbers in the inspired graphics of an eccentric comic strip, "Toonerville Trolley," so she could gamble two cents with the barber across the street who ran numbers in the intervals between clipping his customers’ hair.
Although we really didn’t hold conversation in any customary fashion, Moss would comment out loud on a wide range of matters, often making allusions beyond my ken. Was she speaking to herself? I would react or not. Sometimes I asked a question. After a smoke-filled interval, she might answer. Sometimes she would teach me nonsense riddles like "A titimus, a tatimus, it took two t’s to tie two t’s to two small trees, How many t’s are in all that?" Or tongue twisters like "rubber baby buggy bumpers" or "she sells sea shells by the sea shore," which I was supposed to say ten times in a row as fast as I could.
Sometimes these were verses that would sound ugly to modern ears, as in "God made a nigger, He made him in the night; God made a nigger but forgot to make him white." Yet I have good reason to believe Moss never actually met or spoke with a black person in her entire life or harbored any ill-will toward one. It was just a word game, its only significance word play. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
On the subject of race, we all learned to sing about black people, officially, in third grade: "Darktown Strutters Ball," "Old Black Joe," and others. No discussion of race preceded or followed; they were just songs. Before you conclude my memories are daft and that Mon City must be a bigoted place, you need to know its tiny population contained the broadest diversity of ethnic groups living together in harmony. Ninety years earlier it had been a regular stop on the Underground Railroad. The barn of the Anawalt house was used for that purpose all through the 1850s.
If Vico’s notion in The New Science is correct, we encounter the world in ways first implicit in ourselves. There can be no filling of blank slates in education, no pouring of wisdom into empty children. If Vico is correct, the Monongahela I bring dripping to you from the bottom of my river memory is a private city, revealing the interior of my own mind. Whether you believe that the Fall is real or only a metaphor for the feeling we get when by losing our way home we find ourselves cut off from the creative source, who I am and why I taught the way I did is long ago and far away in that town, those people, that green river, not in any course of scientific pedagogy.
I Hung Around A Lot In Monongahela
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The great destructive myth of the twentieth century was the aggressive contention that a child couldn’t grow up correctly in the unique circumstances of his own family. In order to avoid having you finish this essay with the feeling it might have been all right for my family to influence my growth so intensely, but for many children with worse families that just wouldn’t do, fix your attention a minute on the less savory aspects of my people, as they might be seen through social service eyes. Both sets of grandparents and my mother and father were seriously alienated from one another, the men from the women and vice versa.
On the Zimmer side, heavy drinking and German/Irish tempers led to one violent conflict after another, conflicts to which my sister and I were fully exposed. We grew like weeds as children, with full run of the town, including its most dangerous places, had no effective curfew, and tended to excess in everything. Did I forget to mention the constant profanity? By up-to-the-minute big city standards my family skirted the boundary of court-ordered family dissolution more than once.
Since a substantial number of the families I worked with productively as a schoolteacher had rap sheets similar to my own by social hygiene standards, I want to offer you my Monongahela years as a case study of how a less than ideal family by social work standards can still teach courage, love, duty, self-reliance; can awaken curiosity and wonder; can be a laboratory for independent thought, well-rooted identity, and communitarian feelings; and can grow in memory as a beloved companion even when it is composed of ghosts.
The city of Monongahela itself is offered as a case study of a different sort, showing the power of common places to return loyalty by animating the tiniest details of existence. The town is a main character in my personal story, a genius loci interacting with my development as a schoolteacher. I invested an extreme amount of effort in the physical presence of my classrooms, I think, because the physical presence of my town never left me even after I was far removed from it. I wanted that same sort of ally for my kids.
Gary Snyder once said, "Of all memberships we identify ourselves by, the one most forgotten that has greatest potential for healing is place." The quiet rage I felt at bearing the last name of a then socially devalued minority, the multiple grievances I felt off and on against my parents for being a house divided, at my sister for making herself a stranger to me, at my dad for staying away so I grew up with only a distant acquaintanceship between us, the bewilderment I felt from having to sit nightly at dinner with grandparents who hadn’t spoken to one another for fifteen years and for whom I was required to act as go-between, the compounding of this bewilderment when I discovered my Italian grandfather had been buried in an unmarked grave, perhaps for taking a mistress, the utter divide geographically and culturally between Mother’s family and Father’s — the fantastic gulf between the expressive idiom of the Germans who treated rage and violence as if they were normal, and Dad’s people, the quintessence of decorous rationality, the absolute inability of Mother to face the full demands of her maturity, yet her inspiring courage when her principles were challenged — all these made for an exciting, troubled, and even dangerous childhood. Would I have been better off in foster care, do you think? Are others? Are you insane?
What allowed me to make sense of things against the kaleidoscope of these personal dynamics was that town and its river, two constants I depended upon. They were enough. I survived, even came to thrive because of my membership in Monongahela, the irreducible, unclassifiable, asystematic village of my boyhood. So different from the neo-villages of social work.
All the town’s denizens played a part: the iridescent river dragonflies, the burbling streetcars, the prehistoric freight trains, the grandeur of the paddle-wheel boats, the unpackaged cookies and uncut-in-advance-of-purchase cheese and meat, women in faded cotton housedresses who carried themselves with bearing and dignity in spite of everything, men who swore constantly and spit huge green and yellow globs of phlegm on the sidewalks, steelworkers who took every insult as mortal and mussed a little boy’s hair because he was "Zim’s nephew."
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I hung around a lot in Monongahela looking at things and people, trying them on for size. Much is learned by being lazy. I learned to fish that way, to defend myself, to take risks by going down in the abandoned coalmine across the river full of strange machinery and black water — a primitive world with nobody around to tell me to be careful. I learned to take knocks without running away, to watch hard men and women reveal themselves through their choices. I cleaned Pappy’s printing office daily, after closing, for a silver St. Gaudens walking-goddess-Liberty fifty-cent piece, the most beautiful American coin ever made. I sold Sun-Telegraphs and Post-Gazettes on the corner of Second and Main for a profit of a penny a paper. I had a Kool-Aid stand on Main and Fourth on hot summer days.
Shouldn’t you ask why your boy or girl needs to know anything about Iraq or about computer language before they can tell you the name of every tree, plant, and bird outside your window? What will happen to them with their high standardized test scores when they discover they can’t fry an egg, sew a button, join things, build a house, sail a boat, ride a horse, gut a fish, pound a nail, or bring forth life and nurture it? Do you believe having those things done for you is the same? You fool, then. Why do you cooperate in the game of compulsion schooling when it makes children useless to themselves as adults, hardly able to tie their own shoes?
I learned to enjoy my own company in Monongahela, to feel at ease with anyone, to put my trust in personal qualities rather than statistical gradations. Anything else? Well, I learned to love there.
Just across the river bridge and over the river hill was open farm country, and anyone could walk there in thirty minutes. Everyone was welcome, kids included. The farmers never complained. Mother would walk Joanie and me there in the early morning as mist was rising from the river. When she was seventy-two, I wrote to her trying to explain what I’m trying to explain now, how her town had given me underpinnings to erect a life upon:
I think what finally straightened me out was memory of those early morning walks you used to take with me up River Hill, with mist rising from the green river and trees, the open pits of abandoned coalmines producing their own kind of strange beauty in the soft silence of the new day. Coming out of the grit and rust of Monongahela, crossing the clean architecture of the old bridge with its dizzy view to the river below through the wide-set slats underfoot, that was a worthy introduction to the hills on the far shore. Going up those hills with you we startled many a rabbit to flight. I know you remember that, too. I was amazed that wild things lived so close to town. Then at the top we could see Monongahela in the valley the way birds must but when we turned away, everything was barns and cornland. You gave me our town. It was the best gift.
My best teachers in Monongahela were Frank Pizzica, the high-rolling car dealer; old Mr. Marcus, the druggist wiser than a doctor; Binks McGregor, psychological haberdasher; and Bill Pulaski, the fun-loving mayor. All would understand my belief that we need to be hiring different kinds of people to teach us, people who’ve proven themselves in life by bearing its pain like free spirits. Nobody should be allowed to teach until they get to be forty years old. No one should be allowed anywhere near kids without having known grief, challenge, success, failure, and sadness.
We ought to be asking men and women who’ve raised families to teach, older men and women who know the way things are and why. Millions of retired people would make fine teachers. College degrees aren’t a good way to hire anybody to do anything. Getting to teach should be a reward for proving over a long stretch of time that you understand and have command of your mind and heart.
And you should have to live near the school where you teach. I had some eccentric teachers in Monongahela, but there was not a single one didn’t live close to me as a neighbor. All existed as characters with a history profiled in a hundred informal mental libraries, like the library of her neighbors my grandmother kept.
On the way up Third Street hill to Waverly school each morning to discover what song Miss Wible was going to have kids memorize that day, I would pass a shack made of age-blackened hemlock, the kind you see on old barns long gone in disrepair. This shack perched at the edge of an otherwise empty double lot grown wild in burdock, wild hollyhock, and briar. I knew the old woman who lived there as Moll Miner because boys tormented her by shouting that name as they passed in the daily processional headed for school. I never actually saw her until one Saturday morning when, for want of anything better to do, I went to shoot birds.
I had a Red Ryder BB rifle, Moll Miner’s lot had birds, and so lying on my belly as if birds were wild Indians, I shot one. As it flopped around dying, the old woman ran shrieking from her shack to the fallen bird, raised it to bosom and then fled shouting, "I know who you are. You’re the printer’s boy. Why did you kill it? What harm did it do to you?" Then overcome with sobs she disappeared into her shack.
Her wild white hair and old cotton housedress, light grey with faded pink roses, lingered in my vision after I went home. Who could answer such a question at eight or at twenty-eight? But being asked made me ask it of myself. I killed because I wanted to. I killed for fun. Who cared about birds? There were plenty of birds. But then, what did it mean, this crazy old lady taking the downed bird into her home? She said she knew me; how was that possible? It was all very puzzling. I found myself hoping the BB hadn’t really killed the bird but only shocked it. I felt stupid and tried to put the incident out of my mind. A week or so later I got rid of my BB gun, trading it for an entrenching tool and some marbles. I told myself I was tired of it; it wasn’t a real gun anyway. Around Halloween some kids were planning a prank on the old lady. I protested, saying we should pick on someone who could fight back and chase us. "We shouldn’t pick on weak people," I said. "Anyway, that lady’s not crazy, she’s very kind."
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That winter, without asking, I shoveled the snow around her house. It was a business I usually did for pocket money, and I was good at it, but I didn’t even ask permission. I just shoveled the sidewalk without asking for money. She watched me from her window without saying a word. Whether she recognized I was the boy who shot the bird, I wish I could tell you, but that’s all there is. Not a sparrow falls, they say. That was the way I learned to care about moral values in Monongahela — by rubbing shoulders with men and women who cared about things other than what money bought, although they cared about money, too. I watched them. They talked to me. Have you noticed nobody talks to children in schools? I mean, nobody. All verbal exchanges in school are instrumental. Person-to-person stuff is contrary to policy. That’s why popular teachers are disliked and fired. They talk to kids. It’s unacceptable.
There was a time when hamburger pretty much described Alpha and Omega in my limited food sensibility. My grandparents didn’t much care, and in the realm of monitored eating, Bootie was a pushover, but not the new girl on Second Street, Bud’s wife, brought home from Cincinnati after WWII. Well, I remember the evening Helen prepared Chinese food, hardly a daring thing anywhere now, but in those long gone days around Pittsburgh, radical cuisine. I shut my nine-year-old mouth and flatly refused to eat it.
"You will eat it," said Helen, "if you have to sit there all night." She was right. At midnight I did eat it. By then it tasted awful. But soon after the indignity, I discovered that miraculously I had developed a universal palate. I could eat and enjoy anything.
When I was ten and eleven years old, I still made occasional assaults on my sister’s sexual dignity. She was older, bigger, and stronger than me so there was little chance my vague tropisms could have caused any harm, but even that slight chance ended one afternoon, when on hearing one of these overtures, Pappy grabbed me abruptly behind the neck and back of a shoulder and proceeded to kick me like a football, painful step by painful step, up the staircase to our apartment.
On theft: having discovered where the printing office stock of petty cash was kept, I acquired a dollar without asking. How Pap knew it was me I never found out, but when he burst through the apartment calling my name in an angry bellow, I knew I had been nailed and fled to the bathroom, the only door inside the apartment with a lock. Ignoring his demands to come out, with the greatest relief I heard his footsteps grow faint and the front door slam. But no sooner had I relaxed than he was back, this time with a house-wrecking bar. He pried the bathroom door off, hinge by hinge. I still remember the ripping sound it made. But nothing else.
Almost every classroom in my junior high school and my high school had a wooden paddle hung prominently over the classroom door, nor were these merely decorative. I was personally struck about a dozen times in my school career; it always hurt. But it’s also fair to say that unlike the assaults on my spirit I endured from time to time for bearing an Italian name at Cornell, none of these physical assaults caused any resentment to linger — in each instance, I deserved some sort of retribution for one malicious barbarism or another. I forgot the blows soon after they were administered. On the other hand, I harbor a significant amount of ill feeling for those teachers who humiliated me verbally; those I have no difficulty recalling.
It might seem from examples I’ve given that I believe some simple relation between pain and self-improvement exists. But it isn’t simple — with the single exception of a teenage boy whose pleasure came from terrifying girls, I never struck a single kid in three decades in the classroom. What I’m really trying to call your attention to is that simplistic codebook of rules passed down to us from academic psychology and enshrined as sacred text. Punishment played an important and positive role in shaping me. It has in the shaping of everyone I’ve known as a friend. Punishment has also ruined its share of victims, I know. The difference may reside in whether it arises from legitimate human grievances or from the bloodless discipline of a bureaucracy. It’s a question nobody should regard as closed.
For the first three years of my life I lived in Monongahela. Then we moved to a tiny brick house in Swissvale, an urban village despite its bucolic name, a gritty part of industrial Pittsburgh. We lived near Union Switch and Signal Corporation, a favorite goal of exploratory probes among the street urchins on Calumet to which I quickly pledged my loyalty.
On rainy days I would stand on the porch watching raindrops. It was a next best to my lost river, I suppose. Sometimes on the porch of the next house, two enchanting little girls, Marilyn and Beverly, played. Because our porch was somewhat higher than theirs I could watch them unobserved (at least they pretended not to see me). Thus it was that I fell in love.
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Marilyn was a year older than me, already in first grade. Even in 1939 that placed her impossibly beyond me in every regard. Still, as my next door neighbor, she spoke to me from time to time in that friendly but distant fashion grand ladies adopt with gardeners and chauffeurs. You would have to see how humble both our homes were to realize the peculiarity of my analogy.
Beverly, her sister, was a year younger. By the invisible code of the young in well-schooled areas she might well not have existed. Her presence on the social periphery merited the same attention you might give a barking puppy, but at the age of four I found myself helplessly in love with her older sister in the pure fashion the spiritual side of nature reserves as a sign, I think, that materiality isn’t the whole or even the most important part.
The next year, when I matriculated at McKelvy elementary, first graders and second were kept rigidly separated from each other even on the playground. The first heartbreak of my life, and the most profound, was the blinding epiphany I experienced as I hung on the heavy wire fence separating the first grade compound from the combined second-/third-grade play area. From the metal mesh that I peered through astigmatically, I could see Marilyn laughing and playing with strange older boys, oblivious to my yearning. Each sound she made tore at my insides. The sobs I choked back were as deep at age five as ever again I felt in grief, their traces etched in my mind six decades later.
So this was what being a year younger had to mean? My sister was two years older and she hardly ever spoke to me. Why should Marilyn? I slunk around to avoid being near her ever again after that horrible sight seared my little soul. I mention this epiphany of age-grading because of the striking contradiction to it Monongahela posed in presenting a universe where all ages co-mingled, cross-fertilizing each other in a dynamic fashion that I suddenly recognized one day was very like the colonial world described by Benjamin Franklin in his Autobiography.
Swissvale taught me also that Mother and Father were at war with each other — a sorry lesson to learn at five. That the battles were over differences of culture which have no rational solution, I couldn’t know. Each couple who tries to merge strong traditions, as my parents did, must accept the challenge as vast, one not to be undertaken lightly or quit on easily. The voices of timeless generations are permanently merged in offspring. Marriage is a legal fiction, but marriage in one’s children is not. There is no way to divorce inside the kid’s cells. When parents war on each other, they set the child to warring against himself, a contest which can never be won. It places an implacable enemy deep inside which can’t be killed or exorcised, and from whose revenge there is no escape.
I thank God my parents chose the middle road, the endless dialectic. Dad, the liberal thinker (even though his party affiliation was Republican and his attitude conservative) always willing to concede the opposition some points; Mom, the arch conservative even though her voice was always liberal Democrat, full of prickly principles she was prepared to fight for, like Beau Geste, to the bitter end.
For all the hardly bearable stresses this endless combat generated, their choice to fight it out for fifty years saved me from even harsher grief. I love them both for struggling so hard without quitting. I know it was better for sister and me that way; it gave us a chance to understand both sides of our own nature, to make some accurate guesses about the gifts we possessed. It prepared us to be comfortable with ourselves. I think they were better for the fifty-year war, too. Better than each would have been alone.
[Interlude while the lump in my throat subsides]
I remember FDR on the radio in our postage-stamp living room announcing Pearl Harbor, eight days before my sixth birthday. I remember the uneasy feeling I harbored for a long time over war reports from the Far East that played out of the old Philco. I thought the Japanese would cut off my hands because the war news said that’s what Japs did to prisoners.
The high point of the Swissvale years for me wasn’t the war or the phenomenal array of wax lips, sugar dot licorice, Fleers Dubble Bubble, and other penny candies which seemed to vanish all at once just a short time after the war ended, like dinosaurs. It wasn’t leaping from a high wall with a Green Hornet cape streaming behind as I fell like a stone, scarring my knees for eternity. It wasn’t even Marilyn herself. The hinge in all my years, separating what went before from all that followed, was the night sister and I awakened to the shrieking contralto of Mother’s voice and the quieter second tenor of Father’s, intermingling in the downstairs entrance hall.
I remember crawling to the upstairs landing bathed in shadows to find Sister already there. The next five minutes were the closest we ever came to each other emotionally, the most important experience we ever shared. Bootie was threatening to leave Andy if something important wasn’t done. She was so upset that efforts to calm her down (so the neighbors wouldn’t hear) only fanned the flames. With the hindsight of better than a half century, I’m able to conclude now that they were arguing over an abortion for what would have been her third child, my never-to-be brother or sister.
Mother was tired of being poor and didn’t want to be any poorer. She was tired of constant work when she had grown up with servants. She was overwhelmed by the unfairness of being confined with children, day in, day out, when her husband drove off to the outside world in a suit and tie, often to be gone for days at a time, living in hotels, seeing exciting things. She would have implied (because I was to hear the insinuation many times in their marriage) that he was living the life of Riley while she slaved.
Bootie wanted an abortion, and the angry words that went back and forth discussing what was then a crime wafted up the stairwell to where two little children sat huddled in uncomprehending disbelief. It was the end of our childhood. I was seven, Joan was nine. Finally Mother shouted, "I’m leaving!" and ran out the front door, slamming it so hard it made my ears hurt and the glass ring. "If that’s the way you want it, I’m locking the door," my father said with a trace of humor in his voice, trying to defuse mother’s anger, I think.
A few seconds of silence, and then we heard a pounding and pounding upon the locked door. "Open the door! Open the door! Open the door or I’ll break it down!" An instant later her fist and entire arm smashed through the glass panes in the front door. I saw bright arterial blood flying everywhere and bathing that disembodied hand and arm. I would rather be dead than see such a sight again. But as I write, I see Mother’s bleeding arm in front of my eyes.
Do such things happen to nice people? Of course, and much more often than we acknowledge in our sanitized, wildly unrealistic human relations courses. It was the end of the world. Without waiting to see the next development, I ran back to bed and pulled the pillow tightly over my ears. If I had known what was coming next, I would have hid in the cellar and prayed.
A week later, Swissvale was gone for good. Just like that, without any warning, like the blinking light of fireflies in our long, narrow, weed-overgrown backyard, it stopped abruptly on a secret firefly signal, on a secret tragic signal — Marilyn and Tinker, penny candy, McKelvy school and contact with my Italian relatives stopped for the next six years. With those familiar things gone, my parents went too. I never allowed myself to have parents again. Without any good-byes they shipped us off to Catholic boarding school in the mountains near Latrobe, placed us in the hands of Ursuline nuns who accepted the old road to wisdom and maturity, a road reached through pain long and strong.
There was no explanation for this catastrophe, none at least that I could understand. In my fiftieth year Mother told me offhandedly in an unguarded moment about the abortion. She wasn’t apologetic, only in a rare mood of candor, glad to be unburdened of this weight on her spirit at last. "I couldn’t take another child," she said. We stopped for a hamburger and the subject changed, but I knew a part of the mystery of my own spirit had been unlocked.
Boarding school was a harsh and stark contrast with my former life. I had never made a bed in my life. Now I was forced to make one every morning, and the made bed was inspected! Used to the privacy of my own room, now I slept in a dormitory with fifteen other boys, some of whom would cry far into the night, every night. Sometimes I cried with them. Shortly after arrival, I was assigned a part in an assembly about roasting in Hell, complete with stage sets where we dressed up like flames. As the sinner unrepentant was tormented by devils, I jumped up and down to make it hot for the reprobate. I can hear my own reedy falsetto squeezing out these parentless verses:
Know ye not the burning anguish, Of thee-eese souls, they-er heart’s dee-zire?
I don’t want to beat up on the sisters as if I were Fellini in Juliet of the Spirits. This was all kosher according to their lights, and it made a certain amount of sense to me, too. By that point in time, although nominally Roman Catholic, I probably hadn’t been to church more than ten times, counting Baptism and First Communion. Just walking around, though, is enough to make a kid conscious of good and evil, conscious, too, of the arbitrary nature of human justice. Even a little boy sees rottenness rewarded and good people smacked down. Unctuous rationalizations of this by otherwise sensible adults disgust little children. The sisters had a story that gave satisfying human sense to these matters. For all the things I hated about Xavier, I actually liked being a flame and many other aspects of the religious narrative. They felt right somehow in a way the dead universe of Newton, Darwin, or Marx never did.
I carried the status of exile around morning, noon, and night, the question never out of mind — what had I done to be sent here? Only a small part of me actually showed up in class or playground or dining hall each day, the rest of my being taking up residence in the lost Oz of Monongahela, even though Swissvale should have logically been the more proximate yearning, since that was where we lived when I was sent away. I missed the green river, I think.
Joan was there, too, but we were in separate dormitories. In the year we spent at Xavier I can’t remember holding a single conversation with my sister. Like soldiers broken apart in dangerous terrain, we struggled alone looking for some private way out of homelessness. It couldn’t have helped that Sister was two years older than I. By that time she had been carefully indoctrinated, I think, as I had been, that every age hangs separately. Sticks to its own class. You see how the trick is done?
At Xavier Academy, scarcely a week passed without a beating. I was publicly whipped for wetting the bed, whipped for mispronouncing French verbs, whipped for hiding beets inside my apple pie (I hated beets, but the house rule was that vegetables had to be eaten, dessert did not). Some telltale beet corner where a brown apple should have been must have given me away to a sharp-eyed stoolie — the kapo who bussed away dessert. I was nabbed at exactly the moment dining hall loudspeakers blared the wartime hit, "Coming in on a wing and a prayer. With one motor gone we can still carry on, coming in on a wing and a prayer." Most dramatic of all the beatings I endured, however, was the one following my apprehension by the Latrobe police.
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The spirit that came over Mother when she shattered the glass must have revived in me to set the stage for that whipping. One night after bed check, I set out to get home to my river. I felt sure my grandparents wouldn’t turn me away. I planned the break for weeks, and took no one into my confidence. I had a dozen bags of salted peanuts from the commissary, a thin wool blanket and a pillow, and the leather football Uncle Bud gave me when he went away to war.
Most of the first night I walked, hiding in the tall grass away from the road all the next day, eating peanuts. I had gotten away full of determination. I would make it home, I knew, if I could only figure out what direction Monongahela was in! But by midafternoon the following day, I made a fatal mistake. Tired of walking and hiding, I decided to hitch a ride as I had once seen Clark Gable do in a famous movie with Claudette Colbert. I was picked up by two matronly ladies whom I regaled deceitfully with a story of my falling out of the back of Granddad’s pickup truck where dog Nappy and I had been riding on the way back to Mon City. "He didn’t notice I was gone and he probably thinks I jumped out when we got home and went to play."
I had not calculated the fatal football that would give me away. As a precaution against theft (so they said) the Ursulines stamped "St. Xavier" many times on every possession. My football hadn’t escaped the accusatory stencil. As we chatted like old comrades about how wonderful it was to be going to Monongahela, a town out of legend we all agreed, the nice ladies took me directly to the Latrobe police, who took me directly — heedless of my hot tears and promises to even let them have my football — back to the ladies in black.
The whole school assembled to witness my disgrace. Boys and girls arranged in a long gauntlet through which I was forced on hands and knees to crawl the length of the administration building to where Mother Superior stood exhorting the throng to avoid my sorry example. When I arrived in front of her, she slapped my face. I suppose my sister must have been there watching, too. Sister and I never discussed Xavier, not once, then or afterwards.
The intellectual program at Xavier, influenced heavily by a Jesuit college nearby, constituted a massive refutation of the watery brain diet of government schooling. I learned so much in a single year I was nearly in high school before I had to think very hard about any particular idea or procedure presented in public school. I learned how to separate pertinent stuff from dross; I learned what the difference between primary and secondary data was, and the significance of each; I learned how to evaluate separate witnesses to an event; I learned how to reach conclusions a half-dozen ways and the potential for distortion inherent in the dynamics of each method of reasoning. I don’t mean to imply at all that I became a professional thinker. I remained very much a seven- and eight-year-old boy. But I moved far enough in that year to become comfortable with matters of mind and intellect.
Unlike the harsh treatment of our bodies at Xavier, even the worst boy there was assumed to have dignity, free will, and a power to choose right over wrong. Materialistic schooling, which is all public schooling even at its best can ever hope to be, operates as if personality changes are ultimately caused externally, by applications of theory and by a skillful balancing of rewards and punishments. The idea that individuals have free will which supersedes any social programming is anathema to the very concept of forced schooling.1 Was the Xavier year valuable or damaging? If the Ursulines and Jesuits hadn’t forced me to see the gulf between intelligence and intellect, between thinking and disciplined thinking, who would have taken that responsibility?
The greatest intellectual event of my life occurred early in third grade before I was yanked out of Xavier and deposited back in Monongahela. From time to time a Jesuit brother from St. Vincent’s College would cross the road to give a class at Xavier. The coming of a Jesuit to Xavier was always considered a big-time event even though there was constant tension between the Ursuline ladies and the Jesuit men. One lesson I received at the visiting brother’s hands2 altered my consciousness forever. By contemporary standards, the class might seem impossibly advanced in concept for third grade, but if you keep in mind the global war that claimed major attention at that moment, then the fact that Brother Michael came to discuss causes of WWI as a prelude to its continuation in WWII is not so far-fetched.3 After a brief lecture on each combatant and its cultural and historical characteristics, an outline of incitements to conflict was chalked on the board.
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"Who will volunteer to face the back of the room and tell us the causes of World War One?"
"I will, Brother Michael," I said. And I did.
"Why did you say what you did?"
"Because that’s what you wrote."
"Do you accept my explanation as correct?"
"Yes, sir." I expected a compliment would soon follow, as it did with our regular teacher.
"Then you must be a fool, Mr. Gatto. I lied to you. Those are not the causes at all." It was like being flattened by a steamroller. I had the sensation of being struck and losing the power of speech. Nothing remotely similar had ever happened to me.
"Listen carefully, Mr. Gatto, and I shall show you the true causes of the war which men of bad character try to hide," and so saying he rapidly erased the board and in swift fashion another list of reasons appeared. As each was written, a short, clear explanation followed in a scholarly tone of voice.
"Now do you see, Mr. Gatto, why you must be careful when you accept the explanation of another? Don’t these new reasons make much more sense?"
"And could you now face the back of the room and repeat what you just learned?"
"I could, sir." And I knew I could because I had a strong memory, but he never gave me that chance.
"Why are you so gullible? Why do you believe my lies? Is it because I wear clothing you associate with men of God? I despair you are so easy to fool. What will happen to you if you let others do your thinking for you?"
You see, like a great magician he had shifted that commonplace school lesson we would have forgotten by the next morning into a formidable challenge to the entire contents of our private minds, raising the important question, Who can we believe? At the age of eight, while public school children were reading stories about talking animals, we had been escorted to the eggshell-thin foundation upon which authoritarian vanity rests and asked to inspect it.
There are many reasons to lie to children, the Jesuit said, and these seem to be good reasons to older men. Some truth you will know by divine intuition, he told us, but for the rest you must learn what tests to apply. Even then be cautious. It is not hard to fool human intelligence.
Later I told the nun in charge of my dorm what had happened because my head was swimming and I needed a second opinion from someone older. "Jesuits!" she snapped, shaking her head, but would say no more.
Now that Xavier is reduced to a historical marker on Route 30 near Latrobe, I go back to it in imagination trying to determine how much of the panic I felt there was caused by the school itself, how much by the chemical fallout from my parents’ troubled marriage, how much from the aftershock of exile. In wrestling with this, one thing comes clear: those nuns were the only people who ever tried to make me think seriously about questions of religion. Had it not been for Xavier, I might have passed my years as a kind of freethinker by default, vaguely aware that an overwhelming percentage of the entire human race did and said things about a God I couldn’t fathom. How can I reconcile that the worst year of my life left behind a dimension I should certainly have been poorer to have missed?
One day it was over. The night before it happened, Mother Superior told me to pack; that I would be leaving the next morning. Strong, silent, unsentimental Pappy showed up the next day, threw my bag into the car, and drove me back to Monongahela. It was over, just like that.
Back home I went as if I’d never left, though now it was to a home without a father. Mother was waiting, friendly and smiling as I had last seen her. We were installed, the three of us, in a double bed in a back room over the printing office. Our room was reached through the kitchen and had another door opening onto an angled tarpaper roof from which on clear nights the stars could be seen, the green river scented. It was the happiest day of my life.
Where father was, nobody ever told me, and I never asked. This indifference wasn’t entirely generated by anger, but from a distinct sense that time was rapidly passing while I was still ignorant of important lessons I had to learn.
Five days a week the town turned its children out in the morning to march up the hill to Waverly or down to the end of town to high school. There was no school bus. Waverly was frozen midway between the one-room schoolhouse tradition of transferring responsibility to children — we fought to fill the inkwells, clean the pen nibs, sweep the floor, serve in the lunchroom, clean the erasers, help our slower classmates in arithmetic and reading — and the specialized procedures and curriculum of the slowly dawning corporate age of schooling. While this latter style had been sold as more "socially efficient" ever since 1905, the realities of town life were such that nothing passed muster at Waverly which didn’t first pass muster with parents and the elders of the town.
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School was something you took like medicine. You did it because your mother had done it and your grandmother. It was supposed to be good for you. Nobody believed it was decisively so. Looking back, I might agree this daily exercise with neighbors suddenly transformed into grammarians, historians, and mathematicians might well have been, as Mother said, "good for me." One thing is certain, these part-time specialists cared a great deal about Mother’s opinion of what they were doing, just as she cared about theirs in regard to her parenting.
The schoolteachers I remember are few but bear noting: Peg Hill who spoke to me exactly the way she did to the principal and won my heart for treating me as a peer; Miss Wible who taught me to sing and memorize song lyrics so ferociously, that my vocabulary and dramatic repertoire increased geometrically (even if we did whisper to each other that she was reading "love books" at her desk as we copied the day’s words); old Miss McCullough, who played "American Patrol" every single day for an entire school year on a hand-cranked phonograph: "You must be vigilant, you must be diligent, American Patrol!" Her expressionless face and brutally stark manner stifled any inclination to satire. If we have to have schoolteachers, let some of them be this kind of teacher.
At Waverly I learned about principle when Miss Hill read from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. She read of the courageous death of Blandina the slave, a teenage convert to Christianity who was offered her life to repudiate her faith and a cruel death if she refused. She refused. I learned that all the management savvy of the most powerful empire in history couldn’t overwhelm the principles of a teenage slave.
Principles were a daily part of every study at Waverly. In latter days, schools replaced principles with an advanced form of pragmatism called "situational ethics," where principles were shown to be variable according to the demands of the moment. During the 1970s, forcing this study on children became an important part of the school religion. People with flexible principles reserve the right to betray their covenants. It’s that simple. The misery of modern life can be graphed in the rising incidence of people who exercise the right to betray each other, whether business associates, friends, or even family. Pragmatists like to keep their options open. When you live by principles, whatever semantic ambiguity they involve you in, there are clear boundaries to what you will allow, even when nobody is watching.
Frances "Bootie" Zimmer
Frances "Bootie" Zimmer was born on Halloween in 1911 at Monongahela General Hospital, three years before the country had an income tax or a Federal Reserve Bank, in the first flush moments of scientific pedagogy practically realized. She was five years younger than dad, two inches taller, born in a country on the gold standard where common citizens carried precious metal in their pockets as money.
She was three when WWI began, six when the Gary Plan riots struck New York City schools. In the postwar years, her father, son of a German immigrant from the Palatinate, became prosperous by working around the clock as a print shop proprietor and sometimes investor in movies, carnivals, newspapers, and real estate. His grandchildren, Moss and Taylor, my brilliant cousins, are still in the printing business in Bethel Park, near Pittsburgh, one hundred years later.
Bootie graduated from Monongahela High, where she was a cheerleader, in 1929, a few months before the market crash. Besides losing money, some other great catastrophe must have happened to the Zimmers then, but I’ve only been able to unearth a few shards of its nature. Whatever its full dimension, it included the sudden eviction of Grandmother Moss from her home, the incarceration of great-grandfather Frederick in an old-age institution far away, the flight of great-grandmother Isabelle to Detroit at the age of seventy-nine, at a time when Detroit and the moon were equally distant, and the severing of ties between Granddad and his brothers to the extent that though they lived cheek to jowl with us in the tiny city, I was neither aware of their existence nor did they once say hello. Ach!
In the great breakup, Bud ran to Chicago without a penny and without graduating from high school; Mother, too, ran off in dramatic fashion, telling her best friend as she boarded a train for Pittsburgh that she would wave a handkerchief at the window if she intended to return. She didn’t wave. And though she did return, she hid ever after, never speaking to any of her childhood friends again. I discovered all this when I advertised in the local paper after Bootie’s death, asking to speak to anyone who had known her as a girl.
Mother was bone-thin with large blue eyes and hair gone white at thirty, just as my own did. She lived on a razor’s edge between a need to avoid shame and an almost equally desperate need to find a way to express her considerable talents, a goal conventional assessment would say eluded her forever. Yet everything she turned her hand to was marked by electrifying energy. Our Christmas trees were an art form. Our home was cleaner and neater than a hospital operating room. Beauty and good taste flowed from her fingertips. But the shame, which she would rather have died than acknowledge, always defeated her in the end and made her melancholy when she thought no one was looking.
I think Mother tried to force her fierce spirit into Dad and live through him. When that failed, she pinned her hopes on me. This, I think, caused the original breach in the marriage. Compared to the driven Germans she knew best, Dad must have presented a lifelong frustration. And though we never went hungry or lacked a roof, the absence of extra money represented decisive evidence to her of damnation, permanent exile from the fairyland of her youth.
And yet the exquisite irony bedevils me like a fury — never have I met anyone able to make such magic out of nothing. When, to her great surprise, she came into a considerable amount of money after father’s death, like Midas’ wish, it offered her nothing she really needed. Nor was she able to spend any of it to buy her heart’s desire, an avenue for her talent and some dignity.
In 1932 Frances Zimmer went off alone on her frightening adventure, marrying into a magnificent Italian family which had pulled itself out of the immigrant stew while the patriarch was alive, only to plummet back into the soup after his death. She married all alone, without a father or mother there to give her away.
Giovanni Gatto, my grandfather, had been an enlightened publicista in Italy, an unheard of Presbyterian Italian who swept a contessa off her feet in Calabria in the elopement which resulted in her disinheritance. Together, Giovanni and Lucrezia came to America with their young children and set up house in Pittsburgh.
Giovanni is another family ghost I worked to discover. After a short time in this country, he was hired (personally) by Andrew Mellon to be manager of the Foreign Exchange Department of Mellon Bank. He was a man for whom restaurants kept a personalized champagne bucket, a man who commissioned stone sculptures for his garden. Grandfather Gatto was also leader of the Freemasons of Pittsburgh, the Grand Venerable. An old news clipping reported his death in thirty-five column inches with three headlines and a dignified photograph. The obituary called him "leader of the Italian colony of Pittsburgh," continuing, "fifty-eight cars, each carrying eight persons, were required to convey friends of the deceased to the cemetery and back home again."
His death produced a shock for the living. No assets survived Giovanni. Only a hasty sale of the home for much less than its value kept the family out of immediate poverty. The children scrambled to find a toehold in the working world and by a stoical acceptance of reduced circumstances managed to keep the family together and to support Lucrezia, who spoke little English. It was a pulling together the Zimmers had not been able to manage.
Ten years later, mother was drawn into this family orbit, she holding tight to her secrets, Dad doing the same with his own. What the merger should have conferred on Sister and me was a striking band of distinctive individuals: big-hearted Laura, elegant Josephine, witty and caustic Virginia, crotchety Achilles (renamed Kelly.) There was also Nick, the humanist; Frank, the intellectual; and Lucrezia, the contessa. But instead, our private hurts kept us apart as surely as the same force divided my sister and me.
Mother found subtle ways to discourage fraternization with the sociable Gattos, Dad eventually taking the hint. Until I was fully grown and well into midlife, the Gattos were a palimpsest for me; what cousins that family held, I was strictly partitioned from. When occasionally I was taken to visit Frank or Laura or Josephine, or all together, we were formal with each other, in Old World style. Each extended courtesy to me, complete with those little flourishes of etiquette which give significance to the best encounters of children with grown-ups — a quality once common and now rare which transferred naturally into my schoolteaching.
Walking Around Monongahela
We’re back in Monongahela now, a town of strong principles even if some are wacky or plain wrong. Pragmatism is a secondary theme here, scorned by most unless it keeps to its place, a bittersweet oddity because practicality is the town’s lingua franca. The phenomenon of open scorn for the lower orders isn’t seen in my Valley, never to the degree I experienced it later in Ithaca, Cambridge, and Manhattan. The oppressed are insufficiently docile in Monongahela for anyone to revile openly. So the Pinkerton detectives found out when they went to do Andrew Carnegie’s dirty work at Homestead during the steel strike of 1893. There is only one restaurant in the town proper, "Peters." It’s a place where the country club set drinks coffee alongside rubber jockeys from the tire vulcanizing shop across the street.
Several nights a week, long after dark when house lights were blazing, Mother would gather Sister and me for long quiet walks up Second Street hill to the very top, then along the streets on the ridge line parallel to the river. From these excursions and the morning walks on River Hill I learned to listen to my senses and see that town as a creature in itself instead of a background for my activity. We would walk this way for hours, whispering to each other, looking in windows, and as we walked, Bootie would deliver an only partially intelligible stream of biographical lore about the families within. I realize now that she must have been talking to herself. It was like having a private Boswell to the Dr. Johnson of town society. When she had some money, which was now and then, we would buy candy at the little grocery at the top of the hill and share it together, sometimes two candy bars for the three of us or in flush times a whole bar each — and in the weeks following Christmas when there was holiday money, two each. On two-candy nights the atmosphere seemed so filled with chocolate perfume that I could hardly sleep.
When my granddad was a boy in Monongahela he watched John Blythe, a planing mill operator, rebuild large sections of the town in the Italianate style. Blythe had no degree, and the religion of professional licensing was still in infancy, so he just did it without asking anyone’s permission. Whole sections of the town are now handsome beyond any reasonable right to be because nobody stopped him. If you see a keystone over a window molding, it’s likely to be one of John’s.
When my granddad was a boy in Monongahela he used to sit in Mounds Park, site of two ancient burial mounds left there by the Adena people three thousand years ago. In 1886, the Smithsonian robbed those graves and took the contents to Washington where they still sit in crates. To compensate the town, the government built a baseball field where the mounds had been. When my granddad was a boy, school was voluntary. Some went, but most not for long. It was a free will choice based on what you valued, not a government hustle to stabilize social classes.
The College Of Zimmer And Hegel
The most important studies I ever engaged in weren’t at Cornell or Columbia, but in the windowless basement of the Zimmer Printing Company, a block and a half from the railroad tracks that ran alongside the Monongahela. Some of my greatest lessons unfolded near the mysterious dark green river, with its thick ice sheet near the banks in winter, its iridescent dragonflies in summer, and its always breathtaking sternwheelers pounding the water up and down, BAM! BAM! BAM! on the way to ports unknown. To me, the river was without beginning or end.
Before he went to Germany to beat up the Nazis, my warrior Uncle Bud worked on a riverboat that went down the Mississippi to New Orleans, on what mission I can’t say, then on other boats that went up and down smaller local rivers. When I was five, he once threw an orange to me from a riverboat galley while it passed through a lock. A right fielder’s strong throwing arm sent that orange two hundred feet out of the watery trench into my hands. I didn’t even have to move.
In the basement of the printing office, Bud’s father ("the General," as Moss called him behind his back) moved strong hands on and off of a printing press. Those presses are gone, but my grandfather’s hands will never be gone. They remain on my shoulder as I write this. I would sit on the steps into his subterranean world, watching closely hour after hour as those rough hands fed sheets of paper into the steam-driven clamshell press. It went BAM! (feed) BAM! (feed) BAM! (feed) like the riverboats and bit by bit the job piled up on the table next to the press.
It was a classroom without bells or tests. I never got bored, never got out of line. In school I was thrown out of class frequently for troublemaking, but Pappy wouldn’t stand for nonsense. Not a scrap of it. He was all purpose. I never saw a man concentrate as he did, as long as it took, whatever was called for. I transferred that model unconsciously to my teaching. While my colleagues were ruled by start-up times, bell schedules, lunch hour, loudspeaker announcements, and dismissal, I was oblivious to these interruptions. I was ruled by the job to be done, kid by kid, until it was over, whatever that meant, kid by kid.
No baseball or football, no fishing, no shopping, no romantic adventure could have possibly matched the fascination I felt watching that tough old man in his tough old town work his hand-fed press in a naked-light-bulb—lit cellar without any supervisor to tell him what to do or how to feel about it. He knew how to design and do layout, set type, buy paper, ink presses and repair them, clean up, negotiate with customers, price jobs, and keep the whole ensemble running. How did he learn this without school? Harry Taylor Zimmer, Senior. I loved him. Still do.
He worked as naturally as he breathed, a perfect hero to me — I wonder if he understood that. On some secret level it was Pappy who held our family together, regardless of his position as pariah to his wife and his estranged brothers, regardless of an ambivalent relationship of few words with his daughter and son, granddaughter and grandson, and with his remaining brother, Will, the one who still spoke to him and worked alongside him at the presses. I say "spoke" when the best I can personally attest to is only association. They worked side by side but I never actually heard a single conversation between them. Will never entered our apartment above the shop. He slept on the press table in the basement. Yet Pappy kept the family faith. He knew his duty. When Bud brought his elegant wife home from the war, she would sit in Pappy’s room talking to him hour after hour, the two snorting and laughing thick as thieves. He had lost the key of conversation only with his own bloodline.
I realize today that if Pappy couldn’t count on himself, he was out of business and the rest of us in the poorhouse. If he hadn’t liked himself, he would have gone crazy, alone with those heavy metal rhythms in the eternal gloom of the printing office basement. As I watched him he never said a word, didn’t throw a glance in my direction. I had to supply my own incentive, welcome to stay or go, yet I sensed he appreciated my presence. Perhaps he did understand how I loved him. Sometimes when the job was finished he would lecture me a little about politics I didn’t understand.
In the craft tradition, printers are independent, even dangerous men. Ben Franklin was a printer like my German grandfather, himself preoccupied with things German at times. Movable type itself is German. Pappy was a serious student of the Prussian philosopher Hegel. I would hear Hegel’s name in his conversations with Bud’s wife, Helen. Late in his own life he began to speak to my father again. And sometimes even to me in my middle teens. I remember references to Hegel from those times, too.
Hegel was philosopher in residence at the University of Berlin during the years when Prussia was committing itself to forced schooling. It’s not farfetched to regard Hegel as the most influential thinker in modern history. Virtually everyone who made political footprints in the past two centuries, school people included, was Hegelian, or anti-Hegelian. Even today many knowledgeable people have no idea how important Hegel is to the deliberations of important men as they debate our common future.
Hegel was important wherever strict social control was an issue. Ambitious states couldn’t let a single child escape, said Hegel. Hegel believed nothing happened by accident; he thought history was headed somewhere and that its direction could be controlled. "Men as gods" was Hegel’s theme before it was H.G. Wells’. Hegel believed when battle cannon roared, it was God talking to himself, working out his own nature dialectically. It’s a formidable concept. No wonder it appealed to men who didn’t labor, like Mr. Morgan or Mr. Rockefeller or Mr. Carnegie yet who still disdained easeful luxury. It engaged a printer’s attention, and a little boy’s, too.
When I began to teach, I took the lessons of Monongahela and my two families to heart. The harder I struggled to understand myself, the better luck I had with other people’s kids. A person has to know where his dead are buried and what his duty is before you can trust him. Whatever I had to teach children is locked up in the words you just read, as is the genesis of my critique of forced schooling.
- In her best seller of the 1990s, It Takes a Village, Hillary Clinton expressed puzzlement over the fact that Western conservative thought emphasizes innate qualities of individual children in contrast to Oriental concepts which stress the efficacy of correct procedure. There are a number of paths which led to this vital difference between West and East, but Western spiritual tradition, which insists that salvation is an individual matter and that individual responsibility must be accepted is the most important influence by far. See Chapter 14, "Absolute Absolution."
- Traditions of intellectual refinement have long been associated with Jesuit orders. Jesuits were school-masters to the elites of Europe well before "school" was a common notion. Not long ago it was discovered that the rules of conduct George Washington carried with him were actually an English translation of a Jesuit manual, Decency Among the Conversations of Men, compiled by French Jesuits in 1595.
- It’s almost impossible these days to chart the enormous gulf between schooling of the past and that of the present, in intellectual terms, but a good way to get a quick measure of what might be missing is to read two autobiographies: the first that of John Stuart Mill, covering a nineteenth-century home education of a philosopher, the second by Norbert Wiener, father of, cybernetics, dealing with the home education of a scientist. When you read what an eight-year-old’s mind is capable of you will find my account pretty weak tea.
Chapters of The Underground History of American Public Education:
- Chapter 1: The Way It Used To Be
- Chapter 2: An Angry Look At Modern Schooling
- Chapter 3: Eyeless In Gaza
- Chapter 4: I Quit, I Think
- Chapter 5: True Believers and the UnspeakableChautauqua
- Chapter 6: The Lure of Utopia
- Chapter 7: The Prussian Connection
- Chapter 8: A Coal-Fired Dream World
- Chapter 9: The Cult of Scientific Management
- Chapter 10: My Green River
- Chapter 11: The Crunch
- Chapter 12: Daughters of the Barons of Runnemede
- Chapter 13: The Empty Child
- Chapter 14: Absolute Absolution
- Chapter 15: The Psychopathology of EverydaySchooling
- Chapter 16: A Conspiracy Against Ourselves
- Chapter 17: The Politics of Schooling
- Chapter 18: Breaking Out of the Trap
John Taylor Gatto is available for speaking engagements and consulting. Write him at P.O. Box 562, Oxford, NY 13830 or call him at 607-843-8418 or 212-874-3631.