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AnAmerAffidavit

Monday, December 12, 2016

127. Shooting Birds: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

Shooting Birds 

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." 

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. 



On Punishment 

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