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An American Affidavit

Sunday, July 29, 2018

129 Separations: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org


For the first three years of my life I lived in Monongahela. Then we moved to a tiny brick 
house in Swissvale, an urban village despite its bucolic name, a gritty part of industrial 
Pittsburgh. We lived near Union Switch and Signal Corporation, a favorite goal of 
exploratory probes among the street urchins on Calumet to which I quickly pledged my 

On rainy days I would stand on the porch watching raindrops. It was a next best to my 
lost river, I suppose. Sometimes on the porch of the next house, two enchanting little 
girls, Marilyn and Beverly, played. Because our porch was somewhat higher than theirs I 
could watch them unobserved (at least they pretended not to see me). Thus it was that I 
fell in love. 

Marilyn was a year older than me, already in first grade. Even in 1939 that placed her 
impossibly beyond me in every regard. Still, as my next door neighbor, she spoke to me 
from time to time in that friendly but distant fashion grand ladies adopt with gardeners 
and chauffeurs. You would have to see how humble both our homes were to realize the 
peculiarity of my analogy. 

Beverly, her sister, was a year younger. By the invisible code of the young in well- 
schooled areas she might well not have existed. Her presence on the social periphery 
merited the same attention you might give a barking puppy, but at the age of four I found 
myself helplessly in love with her older sister in the pure fashion the spiritual side of 
nature reserves as a sign, I think, that materiality isn't the whole or even the most 
important part. 

The next year, when I matriculated at McKelvy elementary, first graders and second were 
kept rigidly separated from each other even on the playground. The first heartbreak of my 
life, and the most profound, was the blinding epiphany I experienced as I hung on the 
heavy wire fence separating the first grade compound from the combined second-/third- 
grade play area. From the metal mesh that I peered through astigmatically, I could see 
Marilyn laughing and playing with strange older boys, oblivious to my yearning. Each 
sound she made tore at my insides. The sobs I choked back were as deep at age five as 
ever again I felt in grief, their traces etched in my mind six decades later. 

So this was what being a year younger had to mean? My sister was two years older and 
she hardly ever spoke to me. Why should Marilyn? I slunk around to avoid being near her 
ever again after that horrible sight seared my little soul. I mention this epiphany of age- 
grading because of the striking contradiction to it Monongahela posed in presenting a 
universe where all ages co-mingled, cross-fertilizing each other in a dynamic fashion that 

I suddenly recognized one day was very like the colonial world described by Benjamin 
Franklin in his Autobiography. 

Swissvale taught me also that Mother and Father were at war with each other — a sorry 
lesson to learn at five. That the battles were over differences of culture which have no 
rational solution, I couldn't know. Each couple who tries to merge strong traditions, as 
my parents did, must accept the challenge as vast, one not to be undertaken lightly or quit 
on easily. The voices of timeless generations are permanently merged in offspring. 
Marriage is a legal fiction, but marriage in one's children is not. There is no way to 
divorce inside the kid's cells. When parents war on each other, they set the child to 
warring against himself, a contest which can never be won. It places an implacable 
enemy deep inside which can't be killed or exorcised, and from whose revenge there is 
no escape. 

I thank God my parents chose the middle road, the endless dialectic. Dad, the liberal 
thinker (even though his party affiliation was Republican and his attitude conservative) 
always willing to concede the opposition some points; Mom, the arch conservative even 
though her voice was always liberal Democrat, full of prickly principles she was prepared 
to fight for, like Beau Geste, to the bitter end. 

For all the hardly bearable stresses this endless combat generated, their choice to fight it 
out for fifty years saved me from even harsher grief. I love them both for struggling so 
hard without quitting. I know it was better for sister and me that way; it gave us a chance 
to understand both sides of our own nature, to make some accurate guesses about the gifts 
we possessed. It prepared us to be comfortable with ourselves. I think they were better for 
the fifty-year war, too. Better than each would have been alone. 

[Interlude while the lump in my throat subsides] 

I remember FDR on the radio in our postage-stamp living room announcing Pearl Harbor, 
eight days before my sixth birthday. I remember the uneasy feeling I harbored for a long 
time over war reports from the Far East that played out of the old Philco. I thought the 
Japanese would cut off my hands because the war news said that's what Japs did to 

The high point of the Swissvale years for me wasn't the war or the phenomenal array of 
wax lips, sugar dot licorice, Fleers Dubble Bubble, and other penny candies which 
seemed to vanish all at once just a short time after the war ended, like dinosaurs. It wasn't 
leaping from a high wall with a Green Hornet cape streaming behind as I fell like a stone, 
scarring my knees for eternity. It wasn't even Marilyn herself. The hinge in all my years, 
separating what went before from all that followed, was the night sister and I awakened 
to the shrieking contralto of Mother's voice and the quieter second tenor of Father's, 
intermingling in the downstairs entrance hall. 

I remember crawling to the upstairs landing bathed in shadows to find Sister already 
there. The next five minutes were the closest we ever came to each other emotionally, the 

most important experience we ever shared. Bootie was threatening to leave Andy if 
something important wasn't done. She was so upset that efforts to calm her down (so the 
neighbors wouldn't hear) only fanned the flames. With the hindsight of better than a half 
century, I'm able to conclude now that they were arguing over an abortion for what 
would have been her third child, my never-to-be brother or sister. 

Mother was tired of being poor and didn't want to be any poorer. She was tired of 
constant work when she had grown up with servants. She was overwhelmed by the 
unfairness of being confined with children, day in, day out, when her husband drove off 
to the outside world in a suit and tie, often to be gone for days at a time, living in hotels, 
seeing exciting things. She would have implied (because I was to hear the insinuation 
many times in their marriage) that he was living the life of Riley while she slaved. 

Bootie wanted an abortion, and the angry words that went back and forth discussing what 
was then a crime wafted up the stairwell to where two little children sat huddled in 
uncomprehending disbelief. It was the end of our childhood. I was seven, Joan was nine. 
Finally Mother shouted, "I'm leaving!" and ran out the front door, slamming it so hard it 
made my ears hurt and the glass ring. "If that's the way you want it, I'm locking the 
door," my father said with a trace of humor in his voice, trying to defuse mother's anger, 
I think. 

A few seconds of silence, and then we heard a pounding and pounding upon the locked 
door. "Open the door! Open the door! Open the door or I'll break it down!" An instant 
later her fist and entire arm smashed through the glass panes in the front door. I saw 
bright arterial blood flying everywhere and bathing that disembodied hand and arm. I 
would rather be dead than see such a sight again. But as I write, I see Mother's bleeding 
arm in front of my eyes. 

Do such things happen to nice people? Of course, and much more often than we 
acknowledge in our sanitized, wildly unrealistic human relations courses. It was the end 
of the world. Without waiting to see the next development, I ran back to bed and pulled 
the pillow tightly over my ears. If I had known what was coming next, I would have hid 
in the cellar and prayed. 

A week later, Swissvale was gone for good. Just like that, without any warning, like the 
blinking light of fireflies in our long, narrow, weed-overgrown backyard, it stopped 
abruptly on a secret firefly signal, on a secret tragic signal — Marilyn and Tinker, penny 
candy, McKelvy school and contact with my Italian relatives stopped for the next six 
years. With those familiar things gone, my parents went too. I never allowed myself to 
have parents again. Without any good-byes they shipped us off to Catholic boarding 
school in the mountains near Latrobe, placed us in the hands of Ursuline nuns who 
accepted the old road to wisdom and maturity, a road reached through pain long and 

There was no explanation for this catastrophe, none at least that I could understand. In 
my fiftieth year Mother told me offhandedly in an unguarded moment about the abortion. 

She wasn't apologetic, only in a rare mood of candor, glad to be unburdened of this 
weight on her spirit at last. "I couldn't take another child," she said. We stopped for a 
hamburger and the subject changed, but I knew a part of the mystery of my own spirit 
had been unlocked. 

Boarding school was a harsh and stark contrast with my former life. I had never made a 
bed in my life. Now I was forced to make one every morning, and the made bed was 
inspected! Used to the privacy of my own room, now I slept in a dormitory with fifteen 
other boys, some of whom would cry far into the night, every night. Sometimes I cried 
with them. Shortly after arrival, I was assigned a part in an assembly about roasting in 
Hell, complete with stage sets where we dressed up like flames. As the sinner unrepentant 
was tormented by devils, I jumped up and down to make it hot for the reprobate. I can 
hear my own reedy falsetto squeezing out these parentless verses: 

Know ye not the burning anguish, 

Of thee-eese souls, they-er heart's dee-zire? 

I don't want to beat up on the sisters as if I were Fellini in Juliet of the Spirits. This was 
all kosher according to their lights, and it made a certain amount of sense to me, too. By 
that point in time, although nominally Roman Catholic, I probably hadn't been to church 
more than ten times, counting Baptism and First Communion. Just walking around, 
though, is enough to make a kid conscious of good and evil, conscious, too, of the 
arbitrary nature of human justice. Even a little boy sees rottenness rewarded and good 
people smacked down. Unctuous rationalizations of this by otherwise sensible adults 
disgust little children. The sisters had a story that gave satisfying human sense to these 
matters. For all the things I hated about Xavier, I actually liked being a flame and many 
other aspects of the religious narrative. They felt right somehow in a way the dead 
universe of Newton, Darwin, or Marx never did. 

I carried the status of exile around morning, noon, and night, the question never out of 
mind — what had I done to be sent here? Only a small part of me actually showed up in 
class or playground or dining hall each day, the rest of my being taking up residence in 
the lost Oz of Monongahela, even though Swissvale should have logically been the more 
proximate yearning, since that was where we lived when I was sent away. I missed the 
green river, I think. 

Joan was there, too, but we were in separate dormitories. In the year we spent at Xavier I 
can't remember holding a single conversation with my sister. Like soldiers broken apart 
in dangerous terrain, we struggled alone looking for some private way out of 
homelessness. It couldn't have helped that Sister was two years older than I. By that time 
she had been carefully indoctrinated, I think, as I had been, that every age hangs 
separately. Sticks to its own class. You see how the trick is done? 

At Xavier Academy, scarcely a week passed without a beating. I was publicly whipped 
for wetting the bed, whipped for mispronouncing French verbs, whipped for hiding beets 
inside my apple pie (I hated beets, but the house rule was that vegetables had to be eaten, 

dessert did not). Some telltale beet corner where a brown apple should have been must 
have given me away to a sharp-eyed stoolie — the kapo who bussed away dessert. I was 
nabbed at exactly the moment dining hall loudspeakers blared the wartime hit, "Coming 
in on a wing and a prayer. With one motor gone we can still carry on, coming in on a 
wing and a prayer." Most dramatic of all the beatings I endured, however, was the one 
following my apprehension by the Latrobe police. 

The spirit that came over Mother when she shattered the glass must have revived in me to 
set the stage for that whipping. One night after bed check, I set out to get home to my 
river. I felt sure my grandparents wouldn't turn me away. I planned the break for weeks, 
and took no one into my confidence. I had a dozen bags of salted peanuts from the 
commissary, a thin wool blanket and a pillow, and the leather football Uncle Bud gave 
me when he went away to war. 

Most of the first night I walked, hiding in the tall grass away from the road all the next 
day, eating peanuts. I had gotten away full of determination. I would make it home, I 
knew, if I could only figure out what direction Monongahela was in! But by 
midafternoon the following day, I made a fatal mistake. Tired of walking and hiding, I 
decided to hitch a ride as I had once seen Clark Gable do in a famous movie with 
Claudette Colbert. I was picked up by two matronly ladies whom I regaled deceitfully 
with a story of my falling out of the back of Granddad's pickup truck where dog Nappy 
and I had been riding on the way back to Mon City. "He didn't notice I was gone and he 
probably thinks I jumped out when we got home and went to play." 

I had not calculated the fatal football that would give me away. As a precaution against 
theft (so they said) the Ursulines stamped "St. Xavier" many times on every possession. 
My football hadn't escaped the accusatory stencil. As we chatted like old comrades about 
how wonderful it was to be going to Monongahela, a town out of legend we all agreed, 
the nice ladies took me directly to the Latrobe police, who took me directly — heedless of 
my hot tears and promises to even let them have my football — back to the ladies in black. 

The whole school assembled to witness my disgrace. Boys and girls arranged in a long 
gauntlet through which I was forced on hands and knees to crawl the length of the 
administration building to where Mother Superior stood exhorting the throng to avoid my 
sorry example. When I arrived in front of her, she slapped my face. I suppose my sister 
must have been there watching, too. Sister and I never discussed Xavier, not once, then or 

The intellectual program at Xavier, influenced heavily by a Jesuit college nearby, 
constituted a massive refutation of the watery brain diet of government schooling. I 
learned so much in a single year I was nearly in high school before I had to think very 
hard about any particular idea or procedure presented in public school. I learned how to 
separate pertinent stuff from dross; I learned what the difference between primary and 
secondary data was, and the significance of each; I learned how to evaluate separate 
witnesses to an event; I learned how to reach conclusions a half-dozen ways and the 
potential for distortion inherent in the dynamics of each method of reasoning. I don't 

mean to imply at all that I became a professional thinker. I remained very much a seven- 
and eight-year-old boy. But I moved far enough in that year to become comfortable with 
matters of mind and intellect. 

Unlike the harsh treatment of our bodies at Xavier, even the worst boy there was assumed 
to have dignity, free will, and a power to choose right over wrong. Materialistic 
schooling, which is all public schooling even at its best can ever hope to be, operates as if 
personality changes are ultimately caused externally, by applications of theory and by a 
skillful balancing of rewards and punishments. The idea that individuals have free will 
which supersedes any social programming is anathema to the very concept of forced 
schooling. 1 Was the Xavier year valuable or damaging? If the Ursulines and Jesuits 
hadn't forced me to see the gulf between intelligence and intellect, between thinking and 
disciplined thinking, who would have taken that responsibility? 

The greatest intellectual event of my life occurred early in third grade before I was 
yanked out of Xavier and deposited back in Monongahela. From time to time a Jesuit 
brother from St. Vincent's College would cross the road to give a class at Xavier. The 
coming of a Jesuit to Xavier was always considered a big-time event even though there 
was constant tension between the Ursuline ladies and the Jesuit men. One lesson I 
received at the visiting brother's hands 2 altered my consciousness forever. By 
contemporary standards, the class might seem impossibly advanced in concept for third 
grade, but if you keep in mind the global war that claimed major attention at that 
moment, then the fact that Brother Michael came to discuss causes of WWI as a prelude 
to its continuation in WWII is not so far-fetched. 3 After a brief lecture on each combatant 
and its cultural and historical characteristics, an outline of incitements to conflict was 
chalked on the board. 

"Who will volunteer to face the back of the room and tell us the causes of World War 

"I will, Brother Michael," I said. And I did. 

"Why did you say what you did?" 

"Because that's what you wrote." 

"Do you accept my explanation as correct?" 

"Yes, sir." I expected a compliment would soon follow, as it did with our regular teacher. 

"Then you must be a fool, Mr. Gatto. I lied to you. Those are not the causes at all." It was 
like being flattened by a steamroller. I had the sensation of being struck and losing the 
power of speech. Nothing remotely similar had ever happened to me. 

"Listen carefully, Mr. Gatto, and I shall show you the true causes of the war which men 
of bad character try to hide," and so saying he rapidly erased the board and in swift 

fashion another list of reasons appeared. As each was written, a short, clear explanation 
followed in a scholarly tone of voice. 

"Now do you see, Mr. Gatto, why you must be careful when you accept the explanation 
of another? Don't these new reasons make much more sense?" 

"Yes, sir." 

"And could you now face the back of the room and repeat what you just learned?" 

"I could, sir." And I knew I could because I had a strong memory, but he never gave me 
that chance. 

"Why are you so gullible? Why do you believe my lies? Is it because I wear clothing you 
associate with men of God? I despair you are so easy to fool. What will happen to you if 
you let others do your thinking for you?" 

You see, like a great magician he had shifted that commonplace school lesson we would 
have forgotten by the next morning into a formidable challenge to the entire contents of 
our private minds, raising the important question, Who can we believe? At the age of 
eight, while public school children were reading stories about talking animals, we had 
been escorted to the eggshell-thin foundation upon which authoritarian vanity rests and 
asked to inspect it. 

There are many reasons to lie to children, the Jesuit said, and these seem to be good 
reasons to older men. Some truth you will know by divine intuition, he told us, but for the 
rest you must learn what tests to apply. Even then be cautious. It is not hard to fool 
human intelligence. 

Later I told the nun in charge of my dorm what had happened because my head was 
swimming and I needed a second opinion from someone older. "Jesuits!" she snapped, 
shaking her head, but would say no more. 

Now that Xavier is reduced to a historical marker on Route 30 near Latrobe, I go back to 
it in imagination trying to determine how much of the panic I felt there was caused by the 
school itself, how much by the chemical fallout from my parents' troubled marriage, how 
much from the aftershock of exile. In wrestling with this, one thing comes clear: those 
nuns were the only people who ever tried to make me think seriously about questions of 
religion. Had it not been for Xavier, I might have passed my years as a kind of 
freethinker by default, vaguely aware that an overwhelming percentage of the entire 
human race did and said things about a God I couldn't fathom. How can I reconcile that 
the worst year of my life left behind a dimension I should certainly have been poorer to 
have missed? 

One day it was over. The night before it happened, Mother Superior told me to pack; that 
I would be leaving the next morning. Strong, silent, unsentimental Pappy showed up the 

next day, threw my bag into the car, and drove me back to Monongahela. It was over, just 
like that. 

Back home I went as if I'd never left, though now it was to a home without a father. 
Mother was waiting, friendly and smiling as I had last seen her. We were installed, the 
three of us, in a double bed in a back room over the printing office. Our room was 
reached through the kitchen and had another door opening onto an angled tarpaper roof 
from which on clear nights the stars could be seen, the green river scented. It was the 
happiest day of my life. 

Where father was, nobody ever told me, and I never asked. This indifference wasn't 
entirely generated by anger, but from a distinct sense that time was rapidly passing while 
I was still ignorant of important lessons I had to learn. 

In her best seller of the 1990s, It Takes a Village, Hillary Clinton expressed puzzlement over the fact thatWestern conservative thought 
emphasizes innate qualities of individual children in contrast to Oriental concepts which stress the efficacy of correct procedure. There are a 
number of paths which led to this vital difference between West and East, but Western spiritual tradition, which insists that salvation is a 
individual matter and that individual responsibility must be accepted is the most important influence by far. See Chapter 14, "Absolute 

Traditions of intellectual refinement have long been associated with Jesuit orders. Jesuits were school-masters to the elites of Europe well 
before "school" was a common notion. Not long ago it was discovered that the rules of conduct George Washington carried with him were 
actually an English translation of a Jesuit manual, Decency Among the Conversations of Men, compiled by French Jesuits in 1595. 

It's almost impossible these days to chart the enormous gulf between schooling of the past and that of the present, in intellectual terms, but a 
good way to get a quick measure of what might be missing is to read two autobiographies: the first that of John Stuart Mill, covering a 
nineteenth-century home education of a philosopher, the second by Norbert Wiener, father of, cybernetics, dealing with the home education of 
a scientist. When you read what an eight-year-old's mind is capable of you will find my account pretty weak tea. 


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