مونونگاهلای سبز

کتاب: مدارسی که ما را کند ذهن میکند / فصل 5

مونونگاهلای سبز

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Chapter 3


Awarded First Prize, Geraldine Dodge Foundation

— Columbia University National Essay Contest.

IN THE BEGINNING I BECAME a teacher without realizing it. At the time, I was growing up on the banks of the green Monongahela River forty miles southwest of Pittsburgh, and on the banks of that deep green and always mysterious river I became a student too, master of the flight patterns of blue dragonflies and cunning adversary of the iridescent ticks that infested the riverbank willows.

“Mind you watch the ticks, Jackie!” Grandmother Mossie would call as I headed for the riverbank, summer and winter, only a two-minute walk from Second Street, where I lived across the trolley tracks of Main Street and the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks that paralleled them. I watched the red and yellow ticks chewing holes in the pale green leaves as I ran to the riverbank. On the river I drank my first Iron City at eight, smoked every cigarette obtainable, and watched dangerous men and women make love there at night on blankets all before I was twelve. It was my laboratory: I learned to watch closely and draw conclusions there.

How did the river make me a teacher? Listen. It was alive with paddle-wheel steamers in center channel, the turning paddles churning up clouds of white spray, making the green river boil bright orange where its chemical undercurrent was troubled; from shore you could clearly hear the loud thump thump thump on the water. From all over town young boys ran gazing in awe. A dozen times a day. No one ever became indifferent to these steamers because nothing important can ever really be boring. You can see the difference, can’t you, between those serious boats and the truly boring spacecraft of the past few decades, just flying junk without a purpose a boy can believe in? It’s hard to feign an interest even now that I teach for a living and would like to pretend for the sake of the New York kids who won’t have paddle-wheelers in their lives. The rockets are dull toys children in Manhattan put aside the day after Christmas, never to be touched again; the riverboats were serious magic, clearly demarcating the world of boys from the world of men. Lévi-Strauss would know how to explain.

In Monongahela by that river everyone was my teacher. Daily, it seemed to a boy, one of the mile-long trains would stop in town to take on water and coal, or for some mysterious reason; the brakeman and engineer would step among snot-nosed kids and spin railroad yarns, let us run in and out of boxcars, over and under flatcars, tank cars, coal cars, and numbers of other specialty cars whose function we memorized as easily as we memorized enemy plane silhouettes. Once a year, maybe, we got taken into the caboose that reeked of stale beer to be offered a bologna-on-white-bread sandwich. The anonymous men lectured, advised, and inspired the boys of Monongahela — that was as much their job as driving the trains.

Sometimes a riverboat would stop in mid-channel and discharge a crew who would row to shore, tying their skiff to one of the willows. That was the excuse for every rickety skiff in the twelve-block-long town to fill up with kids, pulling like Vikings, sometimes with sticks instead of oars, to raid the “Belle of Pittsburgh” or “The Original River Queen.” Some kind of natural etiquette was at work in Monongahela. The rules didn’t need to be written down; if men had time they showed boys how to grow up. We didn’t whine when our time was up: men had work to do — we understood that and scampered away, grateful for the flash of our own futures they had had time to reveal, however small it was.

I was arrested three times growing up in Monongahela or, rather, picked up by the police and taken to jail to await a visit from Pappy to spring me. I wouldn’t trade those times for anything. The first time I was nine, caught on my belly under a parked car at night, half an hour after curfew; in 1943, blinds were always drawn in the Monongahela Valley for fear that Hitler’s planes would somehow find a way to reach across the Atlantic to our steel mills lining both banks of the river. The Nazis were apparently waiting for a worried mother to go searching for her child with a flashlight after curfew, then whammo! down would swoop the Teutonic air fleet!

Charlie was the cop’s name. Down to the lockup we went — no call to mother until Charlie had diagrammed the deadly menace of Goering’s Luftwaffe. What a geopolitics lesson that was! Another time I speared a goldfish in the town fishpond and was brought from jail to the library, where I was sentenced to read for a month about the lives of animals. Finally, on V-J Day — when the Japanese cried “Uncle!” — I accepted a dare and broke the window of the police cruiser with a slingshot. Confessing, I suffered my first encounter with employment to pay for the glass, becoming sweep-up boy in my grandfather’s printing office at fifty cents a week.

After I went away to Cornell I saw Monongahela and its green river only one more time: when I went there after my freshman year to give blood to my dying grandfather, who lay in the town hospital, as strong in his dying as he had ever been in his living. In another room my grandmother lay dying. Both passed within twenty-four hours, my granddad, Harry Taylor Zimmer, Sr., taking my blood to his grave in the cemetery there. My family moved again and again and again, but in my own heart I never left Monongahela, where I learned to teach from being taught by everyone in town, where I learned to teach the love of work from being asked to shoulder my share of responsibility, even as a boy, and where I learned to find adventures I made myself from the everyday stuff around me — the river and the people who lived alongside it.

In 1964, I was making a lot of money. That’s what I walked away from to become a teacher. I was a copy- writer on the fast track in advertising, a young fellow with a knack for writing thirty-second television commercials. My work required about one full day a month to complete, the rest of the time being spent in power breakfasts, after-work martinis at Michael’s Pub, keeping up with the shifting fortunes of about twenty agencies in order to gauge the right time to jump ship for more money, and endless parties that always seemed to culminate in colossal headaches.

It bothered me that all the urgencies of the job were generated externally, but it bothered me more that the work I was doing seemed to have very little importance — even to the people who were paying for it. Worst of all, the problems this work posed were cut from such a narrow spectrum that it was clear that past, present, and future were to be of a piece: a twenty-nine-year-old man’s work was no different from a thirty-nine-year-old man’s work or a forty-nine-year-old man’s work (though there didn’t seem to be any forty-nine-year-old copywriters — I had no idea why not).

“I’m leaving,” I said one day to the copy chief.

“Are you nuts, Jack? You’ll get profit sharing this year. We can match any offer you’ve got. Leaving for who?”

“For nobody, Dan. I mean I’m going to teach junior high school.”

“When you see your mother next, tell her for me she raised a moron. Christ! Are you going to be sorry! In New York City we don’t have schools; we have pens for lost souls. Teaching is a scam, a welfare project for losers who can’t do anything else!”

Round and round I went with my advertising colleagues for a few days. Their scorn only firmed my resolve; the riverboats and trains of Monongahela were working inside me. I needed something to do that wasn’t absurd more than I needed another party or a new abstract number in my bankbook.

And so I became a junior high school substitute teacher, working the beat from what’s now Lincoln Center to Columbia, my alma mater, and from Harlem to the South Bronx. After three months the dismal working conditions, the ugly rooms, the torn books, the repeated instances of petty complaints from authorities, the bells, the buzzers, the drab teacher food in the cafeterias, the unpressed clothing, the inexplicable absence of conversation about children among the teachers (to this day, after thirty years in the business, I can honestly say I have never once heard an extended conversation about children or about teaching theory in any teachers’ room I’ve been in) had just about done me in.

In fact, on the very first day I taught I was attacked by a boy waving a chair above his head. It happened in the infamous junior high school Wadleigh, on 113th Street. I was given the eighth grade typing class — seventy-five students and typewriters — with this one injunction: “Under no circumstances are you to allow them to type. You lack the proper license. Is that understood?” A man named Mr. Bash said that to me.

It couldn’t have taken more than sixty seconds from the time I closed the door and issued the order not to type for one hundred and fifty hands to snake under the typewriter covers and begin to type. But not all at once — that would have been too easy. First, three machines began to clack clack from the right rear. Quick, who were the culprits? I would race to the corner, screaming stop! when suddenly, behind my back, three other machines would begin! Whirling as only a young man can do, I caught one small boy in the act. Then, to a veritable symphony of machines clicking, bells ringing, platens being thrown, I hoisted the boy from his chair and announced at the top of my foolish lungs I would make an example of this miscreant.

“Look out!” a girl shouted, and I turned toward her voice just in time to see a large brother of the little fellow I held heading toward me with a chair raised above his head. Releasing his brother, I seized a chair myself and raised it aloft. A standoff! We regarded each other at a distance of about ten feet for what seemed forever, the class jeering and howling, when the room door opened and Assistant Principal Bash, the very man who’d given the no-typing order, appeared.

“Mr. Gatto, have these children been typing?”

“No, sir,” I said, lowering my chair, “but I think they want to. What do you suggest they do instead?”

He looked at me for signs of impudence or insubordination for a second, then, as if thinking better of rebuking this upstart, he said merely, “Fall back on your resources,” and left the room.

Most of the kids laughed — they’d seen this drama enacted before.

The situation was defused, but silently I dubbed Wadleigh the “Death School.” Stopping by the office on my way home, I told the secretary not to call me again if they needed a sub.

The very next morning my phone rang at 6:30. “Are you available for work today, Mr. Gatto?” said the voice briskly.

“Who is this?” I asked suspiciously. (Ten schools were using me for sub work in those days, and each identified itself at once.)

“The law clearly states, Mr. Gatto, that we do not have to tell you who we are until you tell us whether you are available for work.”

“Never mind,” I bellowed, “there’s only one school who’d pull such crap! The answer is no! I am never available to work in your pigpen school!” And I slammed the receiver back onto its cradle.

But the truth was none of the sub assignments were boat rides: schools had an uncanny habit of exploiting substitutes and providing no support for their survival. It’s likely I’d have returned to advertising if a little girl, desperate to free herself from an intolerable situation, hadn’t drawn me into her personal school nightmare and shown me how I could find my own significance in teaching, just as those strong men in the riverboats and trains had found their own significance, a currency all of us need for our self-esteem.

It happened this way. Occasionally I’d get a call from an elementary school. This particular day it was a third grade assignment at a school on 107th Street, which in those days was nearly one hundred percent non-Hispanic in its teaching staff and 99% Hispanic in its student body.

Like many desperate teachers, I lolled most of the day listening to the kids read, one after another, and expending most of my energy trying to shut the audience up. This class had a very low ranking, and no one was able to put more than three or four words together without stumbling. All of a sudden, though, a little girl named Milagros sailed through a selection without a mistake. After class I called her over to my desk and asked why she was in this class of bad readers. She replied that “they” (the administration) wouldn’t let her out because, as they explained to her mother, she was really a bad reader who had fantasies of being a better reader than she was. “But look, Mr. Gatto, my brother is in the sixth grade, and I can read every word in his English book better than he can!” I was a little intrigued, but truthfully not much. Surely the authorities knew what they were doing. Still, the little girl seemed so frustrated I invited her to calm down and read to me from the sixth grade book. I explained that if she did well, I would take her case to the principal. I expected nothing.

Milagros, on the other hand, expected justice. Diving into “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” she polished off the first two pages without a gulp. My God, I thought, this is a real reader. What is she doing here? Well, maybe it was a simple accident, easily corrected. I sent her home, promising to argue her case. Little did I suspect what a hornet’s nest my request to have Milagros moved to a better class would stir up.

“You have some nerve, Mr. Gatto. I can’t remember when a substitute ever told me how to run my school before. Have you taken specialized courses in reading?”


“Well then, suppose you leave these matters to the experts!”

“But the kid can read!”

“What do you suggest?”

“I suggest you test her, and if she isn’t a dummy, get her out of the class she’s in!”

“I don’t like your tone. None of our children are dummies, Mr. Gatto. And you will find that girls like Milagros have many ways to fool amateurs like yourself. This is a matter of a child having memorized one story. You can see if I had to waste my time arguing with people like you, I’d have no time left to run a school.” But, strangely, I felt self-appointed as the girl’s champion, even though I’d probably never see her again.

I insisted, and the principal finally agreed to test Milagros herself the following Wednesday after school. I made it a point to tell the little girl the next day. By that time I’d come to think that the principal was probably right — she’d memorized one story — but I still warned her she’d need to know the vocabulary from the whole advanced reader and be able to read any story the principal picked, without hesitation. My responsibility was over, I told myself.

The following Wednesday after school I waited in the room for Milagros’ ordeal to be over. At 3:30 she shyly opened the door of the room.

“How’d it go?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she answered, “but I didn’t make any mistakes. Mrs. Hefferman was very angry, I could tell.”

I saw Mrs. Hefferman, the principal, early the next morning before school opened. “It seems we’ve made a mistake with Milagros,” she said curtly. “She will be moved, Mr. Gatto. Her mother has been informed.”

Several weeks later, when I got back to the school to sub, Milagros dropped by, telling me she was in the fast class now and doing very well. She also gave me a sealed card. When I got home that night, I found it, unopened, in my suitcoat pocket. I opened it and saw a gaudy birthday card with blue flowers on it. Opening the card, I read, “A teacher like you cannot be found. Signed. Your student, Milagros.” That simple sentence made me a teacher for life. It was the first praise I’d ever heard in my working existence that had any meaning. I never forgot it, though I never saw Milagros again and only heard of her again in 1988, twenty-four years later. Then one day I picked up a newspaper and read: Occupational Teacher Award

Milagros M., United Federation of Teachers, has won the Distinguished Occupational Teacher Award of the State Education Department for “demonstrated achievement and exemplary professionalism.” A secretarial studies teacher at Norman Thomas High School, New York City, from which she graduated, Miss M. was selected as a Manhattan Teacher of the Year in 1985 and was nominated the following year for the Woman of Conscience Award given by the National Council of Women.

Ah, Milagros, is it just possible that I was your Monongahela River? No matter, a teacher like you cannot be found.

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