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An American Affidavit

Thursday, May 28, 2015

56. Intimidation 57. Hector Of The Feeble-Mind: The Underground History of American Educatiion by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org


New teachers and even beleaguered veterans are hardly in any position to stand back far 
enough to see clearly the bad effect the dramatic setting of the building — its rules, 
personalities, and hidden dynamics — has on their own outlook and on children's lives. 
About one kid in five in my experience is in acute torment from the intimidation of peers, 
maybe more are driven to despair by the indifference of official machinery. What the 
hounded souls can't possibly see is that from a system standpoint, they are the problem 
with their infernal whining, not their persecutors. 

And for every one broken by intimidation, another breaks himself just to get through the 
days, months, and years ahead. This huge silent mass levels a moral accusation lowly 
teachers become conscious of only at their peril because there is neither law nor 
institutional custom to stop the transgressions. Young, idealistic teachers burn out in the 
first three years because they can't solve administrative and collegial indifference, often 
concluding mistakenly that consciously willed policies of actual human beings — a 
principal here, a department head or union leader there — are causing the harm, when 
indifference is a system imperative; it would collapse from its contradictions if too much 
sensitivity entered the operating formula. 

I would have been odds-on to become one of these martyrs to inadequate understanding 
of the teaching situation but for a fortunate accident. By the late 1960s I had exhausted 
my imagination inside the conventional classroom when all of a sudden a period of 
phenomenal turbulence descended upon urban schoolteaching everywhere. I'll tell you 
more about this in a while, but for the moment, suffice it to say that supervisory 
personnel were torn loose from their moorings, superintendents, principals and all the rest 
flung to the wolves by those who actually direct American schooling. In this dark time, 
local management cowered. During one three-year stretch I can remember, we had four 
principals and three superintendents. The net effect of this ideological bombardment, 
which lasted about five years in its most visible manifestation, was to utterly destroy the 
utility of urban schools. From my own perspective all this was a godsend. Surveillance of 
teachers and administrative routines lost their bite as school administrators scurried like 
rats to escape the wrath of their unseen masters, while I suddenly found myself in 
possession of a blank check to run my classes as I pleased as long as I could secure the 
support of key parents. 

Hector Of The Feeble-Mind 

See thirteen-year-old Hector Rodriguez 1 as I first saw him: slightly built, olive-skinned, 
short, with huge black eyes, his body twisting acrobatically as he tried to slip under the 
gated defenses of the skating rink on the northern end of Central Park one cold November 
day. Up to that time I had known Hector for several months but had never really seen 

him, nor would I have seen him then but for the startling puzzle he presented by 
gatecrashing with a fully paid admission ticket in his pocket. Was he nuts? 

This particular skating rink sits in a valley requiring patrons to descend several flights of 
concrete steps to reach the ice. When I counted bodies at the foot of the stairs, Hector was 
missing. I went back up the stairs to find Hector wedged in the bars of the revolving 
security gate. "You little imbecile," I screamed. "Why are you sneaking in? You have a 
ticket!" No answer, but his expression told me his answer. It said, "Why shout? I know 
what I'm doing, I have principles to uphold." He actually looked offended by my lack of 

Hector was solving a problem. Could the interlocking bars of the automatic turnstile be 
defeated? What safer way to probe than with a paid ticket in hand in case he got caught. 
Later as I searched school records for clues to understand this boy, I discovered in his 
short transit on earth he had already left a long outlaw trail behind him. And yet, although 
none of his crimes would have earned more than a good spanking a hundred years earlier, 
now they helped support a social service empire. By substituting an excessive response 
for an appropriate (minimal) reaction, behavior we sought to discourage has doubled and 
redoubled. It is implicit in the structure of institutional logic that this happens. What's 
bad for real people is the very guarantee of institutional amorality. 

At the time of this incident, Hector attended one of the fifty- five public schools with the 
lowest academic ratings in New York State, part of a select group threatened with 
takeover by state custodians. Seven of the nine rapists of the Central Park jogger — a case 
that made national headlines some years back — were graduates of the school. Of the 
thirteen classes in Hector's grade, a full nine were of higher rank than the one he was in. 
Hector might be seen at twelve as an exhausted salmon swimming upstream in a raging 
current trying to sweep away his dignity. We had deliberately unleashed such a flood by 
assigning about eleven hundred kids in all, to five strictly graduated categories: 

First Class was called "Gifted and Talented Honors." 

Second Class was called "Gifted and Talented." 

Third Class was called "Special Progress." 

Fourth Class was called "Mainstream." 

Fifth Class was called "Special Ed." These last kids had a cash value to the school three 

times higher than the others, a genuine incentive to find fatal defects where none existed. 

Hector was a specimen from the doomed category called Mainstream, itself further 
divided into alphabetized subcategories — A, B, C, or D. Worst of the worst above Special 
Ed would be Mainstream D where he reported. Since Special Ed was a life sentence of 
ostracism and humiliation at the hands of the balance of the student body, we might even 
call Hector "lucky" to be Mainstream, though as Mainstream D, he was suspended in that 
thin layer of mercy just above the truly doomed. Hector's standardized test scores placed 
him about three years behind the middle of the rat-pack. This, and his status as an 
absolute cipher (where school activities, sports, volunteer work, and good behavior were 

concerned) would have made it difficult enough for anyone prone to be his advocate, but 
in Hector's case, he wasn't just behind an eight-ball, he was six feet under one. 

Shortly after I found him breaking and entering (the skating rink), Hector was arrested in 
a nearby elementary school with a gun. It was a fake gun but it looked pretty real to the 
school secretaries and principal. I found out about this at my school faculty Christmas 
party when the principal came bug-eyed over to the potato salad where I camped, crying, 
GATTO, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME? His exact words. Hector had been 
dismissed for holiday only that morning; he then hightailed it immediately to his old 
elementary school, still in session, to turn the younger children loose, to free the pint- 
sized slaves like a modern Spartacus. Come forward now one year in time: Hector in high 
school, second report card. He failed every subject, and was absent enough to be cited for 
truancy. But you could have guessed that before I told you because you read the same 
sociology books I do. 

Can you see the Hector trapped inside these implacable school records? Poor, small for 
his age, part of a minority, not accounted much by people who matter, dumb, in a super- 
dumb class, a bizarre gatecrasher, a gunslinger, a total failure in high school? Can you see 
Hector? Certainly you think you do. How could you not? The system makes it so easy to 
classify him and predict his future. 

What is society to do with its Hectors? This is the boy, multiplied by millions, that school 
people have been agonizing about in every decade of the twentieth century. This is the 
boy who destroyed the academic mission of American public schooling, turning it into a 
warehouse operation, a clinic for behavioral training and attitude adjustment. Hector's 
principal said to the Christian Science Monitor when it made a documentary film about 
my class and Hector's, "Sure the system stinks, but John [Gatto] has nothing to replace it. 
And as bad as the system is, it's better than chaos." 

But is the only alternative to a stifling system really chaos? 

'Not his real name 

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