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An American Affidavit

Sunday, May 31, 2015

58. Hector Isn't The Problem 59.One Lawyer Equals 3,000 Reams Of Paper : The Underground HIstory of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

Hector Isn't The Problem 

The country has been sold a bill of goods that the problem of modern schooling is Hector. 
That's a demon we face, that misperception. Under its many faces and shape-shifting 
rhetoric, forced schooling itself was conceived as the frontline in a war against chaos. 
Horace Mann wrote once to Reverend Samuel May, "Schools will be found to be the way 
God has chosen for the reformation of the world." School is the beginning of the process 
to keep Hector and his kind in protective custody. Important people believe with the 
fervor of religious energy that civilization can only survive if the irrational, unpredictable 
impulses of human nature are continually beaten back, confined until their demonic 
vitality is sapped. 

Read Merle Curti's Social Ideas of the Great Educators, a classic which will never be 
allowed to go out of print as long as we have college courses as gatekeeper for teacher 
certification. Curti shows that every single one of the greats used this Impending Chaos 
argument in front of financial tycoons to marshal support for the enlargement of forced 

I don't want to upset you, but I'm not sure. I have evidence Hector isn't what school and 
society make him out to be, data that will give a startlingly different picture. During the 
period when the skating incident and school stickup occurred, Senator Bob Kerrey of 
Nebraska was putting together an education plank in order to run for his party's 
presidential nomination. To that end, his office called me to inquire whether I could meet 
with the Senator to discuss an article I wrote which had been printed in the Congressional 
Record. It was agreed we would meet for breakfast at Manhattan's famous Algonquin 
Hotel, site of the famous literary Roundtable. Hector and his close friend Kareem would 
join us. 

Our conference lasted three hours without any bell breaks. It was cordial but businesslike 
with the senator asking hard questions and his assistant, a vivacious attractive woman, 
taking notes. Hector dominated the discussion. Concise, thoughtful, inventive, balanced 
in his analysis, graceful in his presentation with the full range of sallies, demurs, 
illustrations, head-cockings, and gestures you might expect from a trained 
conversationalist. Where had he learned to handle himself that way? Why didn't he act 
this way in school? 

As time passed, Hector gravitated bit by bit to the chair where the woman I thought to be 
Kerrey's assistant was sitting. Hector perched in a natural posture on its arm, still 
apparently intent on the verbal give and take, but I noticed he cast a smoldering glance 
directly down at the lady. By a lucky accident I got a snapshot of him doing it. It turned 
out she was the movie star Debra Winger! Hector was taking both Washington and 
Hollywood in stride while eating a trencherman's breakfast at a class hotel! He proved to 
be a valuable colleague in our discussion too, I think the Senator would agree. 

In April of the following year, Hector borrowed fifteen dollars from me to buy pizza for a 
young woman attending Columbia University's School of International Affairs. As far as 
Hector was concerned, being a graduate student was only her cover — in his world of 
expertise as a knowledgeable student of the comic book industry (and a talented self- 
taught graphic artist), she was, in reality, a famous writer for Marvel Comics. The full 
details of their liaison are unknown to me, but a brilliant piece of documentary film 
footage exists of this young woman giving a private seminar to Hector and Kareem under 
an old oak tree on the Columbia campus. What emerged from the meetings between 
writer and diminutive hold-up man was a one-day-a-week private workshop at her studio 
just north of Wall Street. 

In November of that same year, utterly unknown to his school (where he was considered 
a dangerous moron), all gleaming in white tie, tails and top hat, Hector acted as master of 
ceremonies for a program on school reform at Carnegie Hall, complete with a classical 

pianist and a lineup of distinguished speakers, including the cantankerous genius Mary 
Leue, founder of the Albany Free School, and several of my former students. 

The following spring, just after he produced his unblemished record of failure as a high 
school freshman, Hector came to me with a job application. An award-winning cable 
television show was packaging kids into four-person production teams to make segments 
for a television magazine format hour like 60 Minutes. Hector wanted to work there. 

I sprang the bad news to him right away: "Your goose is cooked," I said. "You'll sit down 
in that interview and they'll ask you how you're doing in school. You'll say, 'Listen, I'm 
failing all my subjects and oh, another thing, the only experience I have with TV is 
watching it until my eyeballs bug out — unless you count the time they filmed me at the 
police station to scare me. Why would they want to scare me? I think it was because I 
held up an elementary school and they didn't want me to do it again.' 

"So you're dead the minute they run your interview on any conventional lines. But you 
might have a slim chance if you don't follow the form sheet. Don't do what other kids 
will. Don't send in an application form. Guidance counselors will pass these out by the 
thousands. Use a typed resume and a cover letter the way a real person would. And don't 
send it to some flunky, call up the station, find out who the producer of the show is, say 
in a letter that you're not the greatest sit-down student in the world because you have 
your own ideas, but that you've come to understand film through an intense study of 
comic art and how it produces its effects. All that's true, by the way. Mention casually 
you have a private apprenticeship with one of the big names in the comic business and 
that you've done consultation work for the famous Nuyorican Poet's Cafe...." 

"I have?" asked Hector. 

"Sure. Don't you remember all those times you sat around with Roland chewing the fat 
when he was trying to shoot his film last year? Roland's one of the founders of the 
Nuyorican. And toss in your emceeing at Carnegie Hall; that ought to set you apart from 
the chumps. Now let's get on with that resume and cover letter. As sure as I'm sitting 
here, they'll only get one cover letter and resume. That should buy you an interview. 

"The only way you can squeak through that interview though is to convince someone by 
your behavior you can do the job better than anyone else. They'll be staring the spots off 
your every move, your clothing, your gestures, trying to see into your soul. Your goose is 
cooked if you get caught in a grilling." 

"You mean I'll shift around," Hector asked, "and get an attitude in my voice, don't you?" 

"Right, just before the shifty look comes into your eyes!" I said. 

We both laughed. 

"So, what do I do?" Hector asked. 

"The only thing you can do is quietly take over the interview. By quietly, I mean in a way 
they won't understand what's happening. You and I will just sit here until we figure out 
every single question they might ask, and every single need they might have which they 
won't tell you about, and every single fear they have that some aspect of your nature will 
screw up their project. Remember they're not hiring a kid to be nice people, they're 
hiring a kid because that's the gimmick of their show. So what you must do is to show by 
your commanding presence, impeccable manners, vast range of contacts, and dazzling 
intelligence that their fears are groundless. 

"You're going to show them you love work for its own sake, that you don't watch the 
time clock, that you can take orders when orders make sense, that you are a goldmine of 
ideas, that you're fun to be around. You'll have to master all this quickly because I have a 
hunch you'll be called in right after your letter arrives. Can you do it?" 

Six weeks later Hector started his new job. 

One Lawyer Equals 3,000 Reams Of Paper 

Once, a long time ago, I spoke before the District 3 School Board in Manhattan to plead 
that it not retain a private lawyer when all the legal work a school district is legitimately 
entitled to is provided free by the city's corporation counsel. In spite of this, the district 
had allocated $10,000 to retain a Brooklyn law firm. This is standard technique with 
boards everywhere which seek legal advice to get rid of their "enemies." They either 
prefer to conceal this from the corporation counsel or fear such work might be rejected as 
illegitimate. One school board member had already consulted with these same attorneys 
on five separate occasions pursuing some private vendetta, then submitting bills for 
payment against the school funds of the district. Sometimes this is simply a way to toss a 
tip to friends. 

My argument went as follows: 

In order to emphasize the magnitude of the loss this waste of money would entail — 
emblematic of dozens of similar wastes every year — I want to suggest some alternate 
uses for this money which will become impossible once it's spent on a lawyer none of the 
kids needs. It would buy: 

Three thousand reams of paper, 1,500,000 sheets. In September six of the schools in 
District 3 opened a school year without any paper at all. Letters from the principals of 
these schools to the school board, of which my wife has photocopies, will attest to this. It 
would buy enough chemicals and lab specimens to run the entire science program at I.S 
44 and Joan of Arc, nearly 2,000 copies of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare 
as discounted by Barnes and Noble in hardcover, enough sewing machines and 
fabrication supplies to offer six modern dressmaking classes. In light of the fact New 
York City's fashion industry is a major employer, it would seem a saner use of the funds. 
How many musical instruments, how much sports equipment, wood, ceramic materials, 
art supplies does $10,000 buy? The Urban League's "Children Teach Children" reading 

project could be put in the district, displacing armies of low-utility, $23-an-hour 
consultants. With $10,000 we could pay our own students $l-an-hour — receive better 
value — and see our money in the pockets of kids, not lawyers. Invested in stock or even 
30-year treasury notes as a scholarship fund, this money would return in perpetuity 
enough interest yearly to pay a kid's way through City University. The money in question 
would buy 50,000 pens. Eight computer installations. Two hundred winter coats for kids 
who are cold. 

I concluded with two suggestions: first, a referendum among parents to find out whether 
they would prefer one of the options above or a lawyer; second, to buy 10,000 lottery 
tickets so we all could have a thrill out of this potlatch instead of the solitary thrill a 
Brooklyn lawyer would have banking our check. 

Four years later, I appeared before the same school board, with the following somewhat 
darker statement: 

On September 3, 1986, my teaching license, which I had held for 26 years, was 
terminated secretly while I was on medical leave of absence for degenerative arthritis. 
The arthritis was contracted by climbing 80 steps a day to the third floor for more than a 
year — at the express request of the co-directors — with a badly broken hip held together 
by three large screws. 

Although papers for a medical leave of absence were signed and filed, these documents 
were destroyed at the district level, removed from central board medical offices. The 
current management apparently was instructed to deny papers had ever been filed, 
allowing the strange conclusion I had simply walked away from a quarter century of 
work and vanished. 

The notice terminating my teaching license was sent to an address where I hadn 't lived 
for twenty-two years. It was returned marked "not known at this address. " This satisfied 
the board's contractual obligation to notify me of my imminent dismissal, however 

When I returned to work from what I had no reason to assume wasn 't an approved leave, 
I was informed by personnel that I no longer worked for District 3, and that I could not 
work anywhere because I no longer had a teaching license. This could only be reinstated 
if my building principal would testify he knew I had properly filed for leave. Since this 
would involve the individual in serious legal jeopardy, it isn 't surprising my request for 
such a notice was ignored. 

From September 1987 to April of 1988 my family was plunged into misery as I sought to 
clear my name. Although I had personal copies of my leave forms at the first hearing on 
this matter, my building principal and the district personnel officer both claimed their 
signatures on the photocopies were forgeries. My appeal was denied. 

Just before the second hearing in March, a courageous payroll secretary swore before a 
public official that my leave extensions had always been on file at Lincoln, signed by 
school authorities. She testified that attempts had been made to have her surrender these 
copies, requests she refused. Production of her affidavit to this at my third hearing 
caused an eventual return of my license and all lost pay. At the moment of disclosure of 
that affidavit during a third grievance hearing, the female co-director shouted in an 
agitated voice, "The District doesn 't want him back!" 

I am asking for an investigation of this matter because my case is far from the only time 
this has happened in District 3. Indeed, all over New York this business is conducted so 
cynically that administrators violate basic canons of decency and actual law with 
impunity because they know the system will cover for them no matter how culpable their 

No comment was ever forthcoming from that Board of Education. Two years after my 
restoration, I was named New York City Teacher of the Year. Two years after that, New 
York State Teacher of the Year. A year later, after addressing the Engineer's Colloquium 
at NASA Space Center, invitations poured in to speak from every state in the union and 
from all over the world. But the damage my family had sustained carried lasting effects. 

Yet I proved something important, I think. On looking back at the whole sorry tapestry of 
the system as it revealed itself layer by layer in my agony, what was most impressive 
wasn't its horrifying power to treat me and my family without conscience or compassion, 
but its incredible weakness in the face of opposition. Battling without allies for thirty 
years, far from home and family, without financial resources, with no place to look for 
help except my native wit, nor for courage except to principles learned as a boy in a 
working-class town on the Monongahela River, I was able to back the school creature 
into such a corner it was eventually driven to commit crimes to get free of me. 

What that suggests is cause for great hope. A relative handful of people could change the 
course of schooling significantly by resisting the suffocating advance of centralization 
and standardization of children, by being imaginative and determined in their resistance, 
by exploiting manifold weaknesses in the institution's internal coherence: the disloyalty 
its own employees feel toward it. It took 150 years to build this apparatus; it won't quit 
breathing overnight. The formula is to take a deep breath, then select five smooth stones 
and let fly. The homeschoolers have already begun. 

The Great Transformation 

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