125 Sitting In The Dark: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org
Sitting In The Dark
At 213 Second Street we lived over the printing office Granddad owned, the Zimmer
Printing Company. "Since 1898," his swinging sign read. It was located only a block and
streetcars was the Pennsylvania Railroad right of way and tracks which followed the river
down to Pittsburgh. Our second floor bay window hung over the town's main intersection
where trolleys from Charleroi and Donora passed constantly, clanging and hissing, all lit
up in the dark night.
An incredible vision, these things, orange metal animals with people in their stomachs,
throwing illuminated reflections in color onto the ceiling of our living room by an optical
process I often thought to have explained to me, but never did. Bright sparks flew from
their wheels and fell from the air around the overhead power lines, burning sharp holes in
dark places. From our perch, we could also see long freight trains roaring along the river,
sending an orchestra of clanks and whistle shrieks into the sky. We could watch great
paddle-wheel steamers plying the river in both directions, filling the air with columns of
From early till late, Grandmother Mossie sat rocking. She sat at the window facing the
river, quietly observing this mechanical show of riverboat, train, and streetcar — four tiers
of movement if you count the stream of auto traffic, five if you include the pedestrians,
our neighbors, flowing north and south on Main far into the night hours. She seldom
ventured to the street from our apartment after her great disgrace of fifteen years earlier,
when lack of money forced her to move abruptly one day from a large home with marble
fireplaces. (She never spoke to my grandfather, not a word, after that, though they ate two
meals a day at the same small table.) The telephone supplied sufficient new data about
neighbors, enough so she could chart the transit of the civilization she had once known
face to face.
Sitting with Moss in the darkness was always magic. Keeping track of the mechanisms
out there, each with its own personality, rolling and gliding this way or that on
mysterious errands, watching grandmother smoke Chesterfield after Chesterfield with
which she would write glowing words in the air for me to read, beginning with my name,
"Jackie." Seen that way, words became exciting. I couldn't get enough of them. Imagine
the two of us sitting there year after year, never holding a recognizable conversation yet
never tiring of each other's company. Sometimes Moss would ask me to find numbers in
the inspired graphics of an eccentric comic strip, "Toonerville Trolley," so she could
gamble two cents with the barber across the street who ran numbers in the intervals
between clipping his customers' hair.
Although we really didn't hold conversation in any customary fashion, Moss would
comment out loud on a wide range of matters, often making allusions beyond my ken.
Was she speaking to herself? I would react or not. Sometimes I asked a question. After a
smoke-filled interval, she might answer. Sometimes she would teach me nonsense riddles
like "A titimus, a tatimus, it took two 't's to tie two 't's to two small trees, How many 't's
are in all that?" Or tongue twisters like "rubber baby buggy bumpers" or "she sells sea
shells by the sea shore," which I was supposed to say ten times in a row as fast as I could.
Sometimes these were verses that would sound ugly to modern ears, as in "God made a
nigger, He made him in the night; God made a nigger but forgot to make him white." Yet
I have good reason to believe Moss never actually met or spoke with a black person in
her entire life or harbored any ill-will toward one. It was just a word game, its only
significance word play. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
On the subject of race, we all learned to sing about black people, officially, in third grade:
"Darktown Strutters Ball," "Old Black Joe," and others. No discussion of race preceded
or followed; they were just songs. Before you conclude my memories are daft and that
Mon City must be a bigoted place, you need to know its tiny population contained the
broadest diversity of ethnic groups living together in harmony. Ninety years earlier it had
been a regular stop on the Underground Railroad. The barn of the Anawalt house was
used for that purpose all through the 1850s.
If Vico's notion in The New Science is correct, we encounter the world in ways first
implicit in ourselves. There can be no filling of blank slates in education, no pouring of
wisdom into empty children. If Vico is correct, the Monongahela I bring dripping to you
from the bottom of my river memory is a private city, revealing the interior of my own
mind. Whether you believe that the Fall is real or only a metaphor for the feeling we get
when by losing our way home we find ourselves cut off from the creative source, who I
am and why I taught the way I did is long ago and far away in that town, those people,
that green river, not in any course of scientific pedagogy.
I Hung Around A Lot In Monongahela