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An American Affidavit

Friday, September 30, 2016

58. Hector Isn't The Problem: 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. 

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