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An American Affidavit

Thursday, February 21, 2019

54. Wadleigh, The Death School: The Underground HIstory of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

54. Wadleigh, The Death School: The Underground HIstory of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

CHAPTER FOUR   I Quit, I Think   The master's face goes white, then red. His mouth tightens and opens   and spit flies everywhere. . . .   What will I do, boys?   Flog the boy, sir.   Till?   Till the blood spurts, sir.   — Frank McCourt, Angela's Ashes.  Writing of Ireland's schools as  they were in the 1940s.

  Wadleigh, The Death School

   One day after spending nearly my entire life inside a school building as student and  teacher, I quit. But not before I saw some things you ought to know. McCourt is right,  spit flies everywhere in the classroom and school, children mock us because of it. The  smell of saliva. I had forgotten until I returned as a teacher. Put the cosmic aspect aside  and come back again into school with me. See it from the inside with grownup eyes. 

     On my first day back to school I was hired to substitute in a horrible place, Wadleigh  Junior High School, nicknamed "the death school" by regulars at the West End Tavern  near Columbia. Jean Stapleton (Archie Bunker's wife, Edith) had gone there as a young  girl; so had Anais Nin, celebrated diarist and writer of erotica. Some palace revolution  long before I got there had altered the nature of this school from an earnest, respectable  Victorian lock-up to something indescribable. During my teaching debut at Wadleigh, I  was attacked by a student determined to bash my brains out with a chair.  

     Wadleigh was located three blocks from that notorious 1 10th Street corner in Harlem  made famous by a bestseller of the day, New York Confidential, which called it "the most  dangerous intersection in America." I mention danger as the backdrop of my teaching  debut because two kinds of peril were in the air that season: one, phony as my teaching  license, was the "Cuban Missile Crisis"; the other, only too genuine, was a predicament  without any possible solution, a deadly brew compounded from twelve hundred black  teenagers penned inside a gloomy brick pile for six hours a day, with a white guard staff  misnamed "faculty" manning the light towers and machine-gun posts. This faculty was  charged with dribbling out something called "curriculum" to inmates, a gruel so thin  Wadleigh might rather have been a home for the feeble-minded than a place of education. 

      My own motive in being there was a personal quest. I was playing hooky from my real  job as a Madison Avenue ad writer flogging cigarettes and shaving cream, a fraternity  boy's dream job. Not a single day without Beefeater Martinis, then the preferred ad     man's tipple, not a morning without headache, not a single professional achievement  worth the bother. I was hardly a moralist in those days, but I wasn't a moron either.  Thoughts of a future composed of writing fifty words or so a week, drunk every day,  hunting sensation every night, had begun to make me nervous. Sitting around the West  End one weekend I decided to see what schoolteaching was like. 

      Harlem then was an ineffable place where the hip white in-crowd played in those last few  moments before the fires and riots of the 1960s broke out. Black and white still pretended  it was the same high-style Harlem of WWII years, but a new awareness was dawning  among teenagers. Perhaps Mama had been sold a bill of goods about the brighter  tomorrow progressive America was arranging for black folks, but the kids knew better.  

     "The natives are restless." That expression I heard a half-dozen times in the single day I  spent at Wadleigh, the Death School. Candor was the style of the moment among white  teachers (who comprised 1 00 percent of the faculty) and with administrators in particular.  On some level, black kids had caught on to the fact that their school was a liar's world, a  jobs project for seedy white folk.   The only blacks visible outside Harlem and its outrigger ghettos were maids, laborers,  and a token handful stuffed into make -work government occupations, in theater, the arts,  or civil service.  

     The notable exception consisted of a small West Indian business and professional elite  which behaved itself remarkably like upper-class whites, exhibiting a healthy dose of  racial prejudice, itself built on skin color and gradations, lighter being better. British  manners made a difference in Harlem just as they did elsewhere. The great ad campaigns  of the day were overwhelmingly British. Men in black eye patches wearing Hathaway  shirts whose grandfathers fought at Mafeking, "curiously delicious" Schweppes  "Commander Whitehead" ads, ads for Rolls cars where the loudest noise you heard was  the ticking of the electric clock. The British hand in American mid-twentieth-century life  was noticeably heavy. Twelve hundred Wadleigh black kids had no trouble figuring out  what recolonization by the English meant for them.  

     I had no clue of this, of course, the day I walked into a school building for the first time  in nine years, a building so dark, sour, and shabby it was impossible to accept that anyone  seriously thought kids were better held there than running the streets.  

     Consider the orders issued me and under which I traveled to meet eighth graders on the  second floor: 

      Good morning, Mr. Gatto. You have typing. Here is your program. Remember, THEY  MUST NOT TYPE! Under no circumstances are they allowed to type. I will come  around unannounced to see that you comply. DO NOT BELIEVE ANYTHING THEY  TELL YOU about an exception. THERE ARE NO EXCEPTIONS.     

     Picture the scene: an assistant principal, a man already a living legend throughout the  school district, a man with a voice of command like Ozymandias, dispatching young  Gatto (who only yesterday wrote the immortal line "Legs are in the limelight this year"  for a hosiery ad) into the dark tunnels of the Death School with these words:  

     Not a letter, not a numeral, not a punctuation mark from those keys or you will never be  hired here again. Go now.  

     When I asked what I should do instead with the class of seventy- five, he replied, "Fall  back on your resources. Remember, you have no typing license!"  

     Off I went up the dark stairs, down the dark corridor. Opening the door I discovered my  dark class in place, an insane din coming from seventy-five old black Underwoods,  Royals, Smith Coronas: CLACKA! CLACKA! CLACKA! CLICK! CLICK! CLACK!  DING! SLAM! CLACK! Seven hundred and fifty black fingers dancing around under  the typewriter covers. One-hundred and fifty hammering hands clacking louder by far  than I could bellow: STOP.... TYPING! NO TYPING ALLOWED! DON'T TYPE!  STOP! STOP! STOP I SAY! PUT THOSE COVERS ON THE MACHINES!  

     The last words were intended for the most flagrant of the young stenographers who had  abandoned any pretense of compliance. By unmasking their instruments they were  declaring war. In self-defense, I escalated my shouting into threats and insults, the  standard tactical remedy of teachers in the face of impending chaos, kicked a few chairs,  banged an aluminum water pitcher out of shape, and was having some success curtailing  rogue typers when an ominous chant of OOOOOHHHHHH!  OOOOOOOOOOHHHHHH! warned me some other game was now afoot.  

     Sure enough, a skinny little fellow had arisen in the back of the room and was bearing  down on me, chair held high over his head. He had heard enough of my deranged screed,  just as Middlesex farmers had enough of British lip and raised their chairs at Concord  and Lexington. I too raised a chair and was backing my smaller opponent down when all  of a sudden I caught a vision of both of us as a movie camera might. It caused me to grin  and when I did the whole class laughed and tensions subsided.  

     "Isn't this a typing period?" I said, "WHY DON'T YOU START TYPING?" Day One of  my thirty-year teaching career concluded quietly with a few more classes to which I said  at once, "No goofing off! Let's TYPE!" And they did. All the machines survived  unscathed. 

      I had never thought much about kids up to that moment, even fancied I didn't like them,  but these bouts of substitute teaching raised the possibility I was reacting adversely not to  youth but to invisible societal directives ordering young people to act childish whether  they want to or not. Such behavior provides the best excuse for mature oversight. Was it  possible I did like kids, just not the script written for them?    

     There were other mysteries. What kind of science justified such sharp distinctions among  classes when even by the house logic of schooling it was obvious that large numbers of  students were misplaced? Why didn't this bother teachers? Why the apparent indifference  to important matters like these? And why was the mental ration doled out so sparingly?  Whenever I stepped up my own pace and began cracking the mental whip, all manner of  kids responded better than when I followed the prescribed dopey curriculum. Yet if that  were so, why this skimpy diet instead?  

     The biggest mystery lurked in the difference between the lusty goodwill of first, second,  and to some extent third graders — even in Harlem — the bright, quick intelligence and  goodwill always so abundant in those grades, and the wild change fourth grade brought in  terms of sullenness, dishonesty, and downright mean spirit.  

     I knew something in the school experience was affecting these kids, but what? It had to  be hidden in those first-, second- and third-grade years which appear so idyllic even in  Harlem. What surfaced by fourth grade was the effect of a lingering disease running  rampant in the very Utopian interlude when they were laughing, singing, playing, and  running round in the earlier grades. And kids who had been to kindergarten seemed  worse than the others.  

     But schoolwork came as a great relief to me in spite of everything, after studying  Marlboro cigarette campaigns and Colgate commercials. In those days I was chomping at  the bit to have work that involved real responsibility; this imperative made me decide to  throw ambition to the winds at least for the moment and teach. Plenty of time to get rich  later on, I thought. 

      In New York City in the 1960s, becoming a teacher was easier than you could imagine or  believe (it still is). It was a time of rich cash harvests for local colleges giving two-week  teacher courses for provisional certification; nearly everyone passed and permanent  license requirements could be met on the job. At the end of summer I had a license to go  to school and get paid for it. Whether I could actually teach was never an issue with  anyone. Kids assigned to me had no choice in the matter. That following autumn I found  regular work at William J. O'Shea Junior High whose broken concrete playground sat in  plain view of the world-famous Museum of Natural History, diagonally across Columbus  Avenue to the northeast. It was a playground my kids and I were later to use to make the  school rich by designing and arranging for a weekend flea market to be held on this site.  But that came long afterwards.  

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