123 Singing And Fishing Were Free: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org
Singing And Fishing Were Free
I went Christmas caroling long before I knew how to read or even what Christmas was
about. I was three. The carolers stood on a corner diagonally across from my
grandfather's printing office where their voices filled an informal amphitheater made by
If I had to guess where I learned to love rhythmical language it would be on that corner at
the foot of Second Street hill.
In Monongahela I fished for carp and catfish made inedible by river acids leaching out of
the mines and waste put there by the mills. I fished them out with homemade dough balls
whipped together in Grandmother Mossie's kitchen. In Monongahela I waited weekly for
the changing of Binks McGregor's haberdashery window or Bill Pulaski's hardware
display as eagerly as a theater-goer might wait to be refreshed by a new scenery change.
Mother's family, the Zimmers, and the branch of Gattos my father represented, were poor
by modern big city standards, but not really poor for that time and place. It was only in
late middle age I suddenly realized that sleeping three to a bed — as Mother, Sister and I
did — is almost an operational definition of poverty, or its close cousin. But it never
occurred to me to think of myself as poor. Not once. Not ever. Even later on at
Uniontown High School when we moved to a town with sharp social class gradations and
a formal social calendar, I had little awareness of any unbridgeable gulf between myself
and those people who invited me to country club parties and to homes grander than my
own. Nor, do I believe, did they. A year at Cornell, however, made certain my innocence
would come to an end.
Mother was not so lucky. Although she never spoke openly of it, I know now she was
ashamed of having less than those she grew up with. Once she had had much more before
Pappy, my granddad, was wiped out in the 1929 crash. She wasn't envious, mind you,
she was ashamed, and this shame constrained her open nature. It made her sad and
wistful when she was alone. It caused her to hide away from former friends and the
world. She yearned for dignity, for the days when her clothes were made in Paris. So in
the calculus of human misery, she exercised her frustration on Dad. Their many
separations and his long absences from home on business even when they lived together
are likely to have originated in this immaculate tension.
The great irony is that Mother did beautifully without money. She was resourceful,
imaginative, generally optimistic, a woman with greater power to create something from
nothing — totem poles from thread spools, an award-winning Halloween costume from
scrap paper and cloth, a high-quality adventure from a simple walk through the hills —
than anyone. She had no extravagant appetites, didn't drink, didn't crave exotic food,
glamorous places, or the latest gadgets. She set her own hair and it was always lovely.
And she kept the cleanest house imaginable, full of pretty objects which she gathered
watchfully and with superb taste on her journey through life. As if to compound the irony
of her discontent, Mon City was hardly a place to be rich. There wasn't much to buy
The Greatest Fun Was Watching People Work