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An American Affidavit

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

54. Wadleigh, The Death School: Ch. 4 The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org


I Quit, I Think 

The master's face goes white, then red. His mouth tightens and opens 

and spit flies everywhere. . . . 

What will I do, boys? 

Flog the boy, sir. 


Till the blood spurts, sir. 

— Frank McCourt, Angela's Ashes. 
Writing of Ireland's schools as 
they were in the 1940s. 

Wadleigh, The Death School 

One day after spending nearly my entire life inside a school building as student and 
teacher, I quit. But not before I saw some things you ought to know. McCourt is right, 
spit flies everywhere in the classroom and school, children mock us because of it. The 
smell of saliva. I had forgotten until I returned as a teacher. Put the cosmic aspect aside 
and come back again into school with me. See it from the inside with grownup eyes. 

On my first day back to school I was hired to substitute in a horrible place, Wadleigh 
Junior High School, nicknamed "the death school" by regulars at the West End Tavern 
near Columbia. Jean Stapleton (Archie Bunker's wife, Edith) had gone there as a young 
girl; so had Anais Nin, celebrated diarist and writer of erotica. Some palace revolution 
long before I got there had altered the nature of this school from an earnest, respectable 
Victorian lock-up to something indescribable. During my teaching debut at Wadleigh, I 
was attacked by a student determined to bash my brains out with a chair. 

Wadleigh was located three blocks from that notorious 1 10th Street corner in Harlem 
made famous by a bestseller of the day, New York Confidential, which called it "the most 
dangerous intersection in America." I mention danger as the backdrop of my teaching 
debut because two kinds of peril were in the air that season: one, phony as my teaching 
license, was the "Cuban Missile Crisis"; the other, only too genuine, was a predicament 
without any possible solution, a deadly brew compounded from twelve hundred black 
teenagers penned inside a gloomy brick pile for six hours a day, with a white guard staff 
misnamed "faculty" manning the light towers and machine-gun posts. This faculty was 
charged with dribbling out something called "curriculum" to inmates, a gruel so thin 
Wadleigh might rather have been a home for the feeble-minded than a place of education. 

My own motive in being there was a personal quest. I was playing hooky from my real 
job as a Madison Avenue ad writer flogging cigarettes and shaving cream, a fraternity 
boy's dream job. Not a single day without Beefeater Martinis, then the preferred ad 

man's tipple, not a morning without headache, not a single professional achievement 
worth the bother. I was hardly a moralist in those days, but I wasn't a moron either. 
Thoughts of a future composed of writing fifty words or so a week, drunk every day, 
hunting sensation every night, had begun to make me nervous. Sitting around the West 
End one weekend I decided to see what schoolteaching was like. 

Harlem then was an ineffable place where the hip white in-crowd played in those last few 
moments before the fires and riots of the 1960s broke out. Black and white still pretended 
it was the same high-style Harlem of WWII years, but a new awareness was dawning 
among teenagers. Perhaps Mama had been sold a bill of goods about the brighter 
tomorrow progressive America was arranging for black folks, but the kids knew better. 

"The natives are restless." That expression I heard a half-dozen times in the single day I 
spent at Wadleigh, the Death School. Candor was the style of the moment among white 
teachers (who comprised 1 00 percent of the faculty) and with administrators in particular. 
On some level, black kids had caught on to the fact that their school was a liar's world, a 
jobs project for seedy white folk. 

The only blacks visible outside Harlem and its outrigger ghettos were maids, laborers, 
and a token handful stuffed into make -work government occupations, in theater, the arts, 
or civil service. 

The notable exception consisted of a small West Indian business and professional elite 
which behaved itself remarkably like upper-class whites, exhibiting a healthy dose of 
racial prejudice, itself built on skin color and gradations, lighter being better. British 
manners made a difference in Harlem just as they did elsewhere. The great ad campaigns 
of the day were overwhelmingly British. Men in black eye patches wearing Hathaway 
shirts whose grandfathers fought at Mafeking, "curiously delicious" Schweppes 
"Commander Whitehead" ads, ads for Rolls cars where the loudest noise you heard was 
the ticking of the electric clock. The British hand in American mid-twentieth-century life 
was noticeably heavy. Twelve hundred Wadleigh black kids had no trouble figuring out 
what recolonization by the English meant for them. 

I had no clue of this, of course, the day I walked into a school building for the first time 
in nine years, a building so dark, sour, and shabby it was impossible to accept that anyone 
seriously thought kids were better held there than running the streets. 

Consider the orders issued me and under which I traveled to meet eighth graders on the 
second floor: 

Good morning, Mr. Gatto. You have typing. Here is your program. Remember, THEY 
MUST NOT TYPE! Under no circumstances are they allowed to type. I will come 
around unannounced to see that you comply. DO NOT BELIEVE ANYTHING THEY 
TELL YOU about an exception. THERE ARE NO EXCEPTIONS. 

Picture the scene: an assistant principal, a man already a living legend throughout the 
school district, a man with a voice of command like Ozymandias, dispatching young 
Gatto (who only yesterday wrote the immortal line "Legs are in the limelight this year" 
for a hosiery ad) into the dark tunnels of the Death School with these words: 

Not a letter, not a numeral, not a punctuation mark from those keys or you will never be 
hired here again. Go now. 

When I asked what I should do instead with the class of seventy- five, he replied, "Fall 
back on your resources. Remember, you have no typing license!" 

Off I went up the dark stairs, down the dark corridor. Opening the door I discovered my 
dark class in place, an insane din coming from seventy-five old black Underwoods, 
DING! SLAM! CLACK! Seven hundred and fifty black fingers dancing around under 
the typewriter covers. One-hundred and fifty hammering hands clacking louder by far 
than I could bellow: STOP.... TYPING! NO TYPING ALLOWED! DON'T TYPE! 

The last words were intended for the most flagrant of the young stenographers who had 
abandoned any pretense of compliance. By unmasking their instruments they were 
declaring war. In self-defense, I escalated my shouting into threats and insults, the 
standard tactical remedy of teachers in the face of impending chaos, kicked a few chairs, 
banged an aluminum water pitcher out of shape, and was having some success curtailing 
rogue typers when an ominous chant of OOOOOHHHHHH! 
OOOOOOOOOOHHHHHH! warned me some other game was now afoot. 

Sure enough, a skinny little fellow had arisen in the back of the room and was bearing 
down on me, chair held high over his head. He had heard enough of my deranged screed, 
just as Middlesex farmers had enough of British lip and raised their chairs at Concord 
and Lexington. I too raised a chair and was backing my smaller opponent down when all 
of a sudden I caught a vision of both of us as a movie camera might. It caused me to grin 
and when I did the whole class laughed and tensions subsided. 

"Isn't this a typing period?" I said, "WHY DON'T YOU START TYPING?" Day One of 
my thirty-year teaching career concluded quietly with a few more classes to which I said 
at once, "No goofing off! Let's TYPE!" And they did. All the machines survived 

I had never thought much about kids up to that moment, even fancied I didn't like them, 
but these bouts of substitute teaching raised the possibility I was reacting adversely not to 
youth but to invisible societal directives ordering young people to act childish whether 
they want to or not. Such behavior provides the best excuse for mature oversight. Was it 
possible I did like kids, just not the script written for them? 

There were other mysteries. What kind of science justified such sharp distinctions among 
classes when even by the house logic of schooling it was obvious that large numbers of 
students were misplaced? Why didn't this bother teachers? Why the apparent indifference 
to important matters like these? And why was the mental ration doled out so sparingly? 
Whenever I stepped up my own pace and began cracking the mental whip, all manner of 
kids responded better than when I followed the prescribed dopey curriculum. Yet if that 
were so, why this skimpy diet instead? 

The biggest mystery lurked in the difference between the lusty goodwill of first, second, 
and to some extent third graders — even in Harlem — the bright, quick intelligence and 
goodwill always so abundant in those grades, and the wild change fourth grade brought in 
terms of sullenness, dishonesty, and downright mean spirit. 

I knew something in the school experience was affecting these kids, but what? It had to 
be hidden in those first-, second- and third-grade years which appear so idyllic even in 
Harlem. What surfaced by fourth grade was the effect of a lingering disease running 
rampant in the very Utopian interlude when they were laughing, singing, playing, and 
running round in the earlier grades. And kids who had been to kindergarten seemed 
worse than the others. 

But schoolwork came as a great relief to me in spite of everything, after studying 
Marlboro cigarette campaigns and Colgate commercials. In those days I was chomping at 
the bit to have work that involved real responsibility; this imperative made me decide to 
throw ambition to the winds at least for the moment and teach. Plenty of time to get rich 
later on, I thought. 

In New York City in the 1960s, becoming a teacher was easier than you could imagine or 
believe (it still is). It was a time of rich cash harvests for local colleges giving two-week 
teacher courses for provisional certification; nearly everyone passed and permanent 
license requirements could be met on the job. At the end of summer I had a license to go 
to school and get paid for it. Whether I could actually teach was never an issue with 
anyone. Kids assigned to me had no choice in the matter. That following autumn I found 
regular work at William J. O'Shea Junior High whose broken concrete playground sat in 
plain view of the world-famous Museum of Natural History, diagonally across Columbus 
Avenue to the northeast. It was a playground my kids and I were later to use to make the 
school rich by designing and arranging for a weekend flea market to be held on this site. 
But that came long afterwards. 

Dr. Caleb Gattegno, Expert 

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