126 I Hung Around A Lot In Monongahela: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org
I Hung Around A Lot In Monongahela
The great destructive myth of the twentieth century was the aggressive contention that a
child couldn't grow up correctly in the unique circumstances of his own family. In order
to avoid having you finish this essay with thefeeling it might have been all right for my
that just wouldn't do, fix your attention a minute on the less savory aspects of my people,
as they might be seen through social service eyes. Both sets of grandparents and my
mother and father were seriously alienated from one another, the men from the women
and vice versa.
On the Zimmer side, heavy drinking and German/Irish tempers led to one violent conflict
after another, conflicts to which my sister and I were fully exposed. We grew like weeds
as children, with full run of the town, including its most dangerous places, had no
effective curfew, and tended to excess in everything. Did I forget to mention the constant
profanity? By up-to-the-minute big city standards my family skirted the boundary of
court-ordered family dissolution more than once.
Since a substantial number of the families I worked with productively as a schoolteacher
had rap sheets similar to my own by social hygiene standards, I want to offer you my
Monongahela years as a case study of how a less than ideal family by social work
standards can still teach courage, love, duty, self-reliance; can awaken curiosity and
wonder; can be a laboratory for independent thought, well-rooted identity, and
communitarian feelings; and can grow in memory as a beloved companion even when it
is composed of ghosts.
The city of Monongahela itself is offered as a case study of a different sort, showing the
power of common places to return loyalty by animating the tiniest details of existence.
The town is a main character in my personal story, a genius loci interacting with my
development as a schoolteacher. I invested an extreme amount of effort in the physical
presence of my classrooms, I think, because the physical presence of my town never left
me even after I was far removed from it. I wanted that same sort of ally for my kids.
Gary Snyder once said, "Of all memberships we identify ourselves by, the one most
forgotten that has greatest potential for healing is place." The quiet rage I felt at bearing
the last name of a then socially devalued minority, the multiple grievances I felt off and
on against my parents for being a house divided, at my sister for making herself a
stranger to me, at my dad for staying away so I grew up with only a distant
acquaintanceship between us, the bewilderment I felt from having to sit nightly at dinner
with grandparents who hadn't spoken to one another for fifteen years and for whom I was
required to act as go-between, the compounding of this bewilderment when I discovered
my Italian grandfather had been buried in an unmarked grave, perhaps for taking a
mistress, the utter divide geographically and culturally between Mother's family and
Father's — the fantastic gulf between the expressive idiom of the Germans who treated
rage and violence as if they were normal, and Dad's people, the quintessence of decorous
rationality, the absolute inability of Mother to face the full demands of her maturity, yet
her inspiring courage when her principles were challenged — all these made for an
exciting, troubled, and even dangerous childhood. Would I have been better off in foster
care, do you think? Are others? Are you insane?
What allowed me to make sense of things against the kaleidoscope of these personal
dynamics was that town and its river, two constants I depended upon. They were enough.
I survived, even came to thrive because of my membership in Monongahela, the
irreducible, unclassifiable, asystematic village of my boyhood. So different from the neo-
villages of social work.
All the town's denizens played a part: the iridescent river dragonflies, the burbling
streetcars, the prehistoric freight trains, the grandeur of the paddle-wheel boats, the
unpackaged cookies and uncut-in-advance-of-purchase cheese and meat, women in faded
cotton housedresses who carried themselves with bearing and dignity in spite of
everything, men who swore constantly and spit huge green and yellow globs of phlegm
on the sidewalks, steelworkers who took every insult as mortal and mussed a little boy's
hair because he was "Zim's nephew."
I hung around a lot in Monongahela looking at things and people, trying them on for size.
Much is learned by being lazy. I learned to fish that way, to defend myself, to take risks
by going down in the abandoned coalmine across the river full of strange machinery and
black water — a primitive world with nobody around to tell me to be careful. I learned to
take knocks without running away, to watch hard men and women reveal themselves
through their choices. I cleaned Pappy's printing office daily, after closing, for a silver St.
Gaudens walking-goddess-Liberty fifty-cent piece, the most beautiful American coin ever
made. I sold Sun-Telegraphs and Post-Gazettes on the corner of Second and Main for a
profit of a penny a paper. I had a Kool-Aid stand on Main and Fourth on hot summer
Shouldn't you ask why your boy or girl needs to know anything about Iraq or about
computer language before they can tell you the name of every tree, plant, and bird outside
your window? What will happen to them with their high standardized test scores when
they discover they can't fry an egg, sew a button, join things, build a house, sail a boat,
ride a horse, gut a fish, pound a nail, or bring forth life and nurture it? Do you believe
having those things done for you is the same? You fool, then. Why do you cooperate in
the game of compulsion schooling when it makes children useless to themselves as
adults, hardly able to tie their own shoes?
I learned to enjoy my own company in Monongahela, to feel at ease with anyone, to put
my trust in personal qualities rather than statistical gradations. Anything else? Well, I
learned to love there.
Just across the river bridge and over the river hill was open farm country, and anyone
could walk there in thirty minutes. Everyone was welcome, kids included. The farmers
never complained. Mother would walk Joanie and me there in the early morning as mist
was rising from the river. When she was seventy-two, I wrote to her trying to explain
what I'm trying to explain now, how her town had given me underpinnings to erect a life
I think what finally straightened me out was memory of those early morning walks you
used to take with me up River Hill, with mist rising from the green river and trees, the
open pits of abandoned coalmines producing their own kind of strange beauty in the soft
silence of the new day. Coming out of the grit and rust of Monongahela, crossing the
clean architecture of the old bridge with its dizzy view to the river below through the
wide-set slats underfoot, that was a worthy introduction to the hills on the far shore.
Going up those hills with you we startled many a rabbit to flight. I know you remember
that, too. I was amazed that wild things lived so close to town. Then at the top we could
see Monongahela in the valley the way birds must but when we turned away, everything
was barns and cornland. You gave me our town. It was the best gift.
My best teachers in Monongahela were Frank Pizzica, the high-rolling car dealer; old Mr.
Marcus, the druggist wiser than a doctor; Binks McGregor, psychological haberdasher;
and Bill Pulaski, the fun-loving mayor. All would understand my belief that we need to
be hiring different kinds of people to teach us, people who've proven themselves in life
by bearing its pain like free spirits. Nobody should be allowed to teach until they get to be
forty years old. No one should be allowed anywhere near kids without having known
grief, challenge, success, failure, and sadness.
We ought to be asking men and women who've raised families to teach, older men and
women who know the way things are and why. Millions of retired people would make
fine teachers. College degrees aren't a good way to hire anybody to do anything. Getting
to teach should be a reward for proving over a long stretch of time that you understand
and have command of your mind and heart.
And you should have to live near the school where you teach. I had some eccentric
teachers in Monongahela, but there was not a single one didn't live close to me as a
neighbor. All existed as characters with a history profiled in a hundred informal mental
libraries, like the library of her neighbors my grandmother kept.