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5 Hector Isn’t the Problem

######I Quit

During my thirtieth year as a schoolteacher in Community School District Three, Manhattan, after teaching in all five secondary schools in the district and crossing swords with one professional administration after another as they strove to rid themselves of me; after having my license suspended twice for insubordination and covertly terminated once while I was on medical leave of absence; after the City University of New York borrowed me for a five-year stint as lecturer in its education department; (where I ranked first among 250 education faculty in the “Student-Faculty Ratings” each year I was there); after planning and bringing about the most successful permanent school fundraiser in New York City history; after helping a single eighth-grade class perform thirty thousand hours of volunteer community service; after organizing and financing a student-run food cooperative, securing more than a thousand apprenticeships, and directing the collection of tens of thousands of books for the construction of private student libraries; after producing four talking job dictionaries for the blind, writing two original student musicals and launching an armada of other initiatives to reintegrate students into a larger human reality - I quit.

I was New York State Teacher of the Year when it happened. An accumulation of disgust and frustration that grew too heavy is what finally did me in. To test my resolve, I sent a short essay to the Wall StreetJournal tided, “I Quit, I Thin~:’ In it, I explained my reasons for deciding to throw in the towel, despite having no savings and not the slightest idea what else I might do in my mid-fifties to pay the rent.

The essay, in its entirety, read:

Government schooling is the most radical adventure in history. It kills the family by monopolizing the best times of childhood and by teaching disrespect for home and parents.

The whole blueprint of school procedure is Egyptian, not Greek or Roman. It grows from the theological idea that human value is a scarce thing, represented symbolically by the narrow peak of a pyramid.

That idea passed into American history through the Puritans. It found it’s “scientific” presentation in the bell curve, along which talent supposedly apportions itself by some iron law of biology. It’s a religious notion, and school is its church.

I offer rituals to keep heresy at bay. I provide documentation to justify the heavenly pyramid.

Socrates foresaw that if teaching became a formal profession, something like this would happen. Professional interest is served by making what is easy to do seem hard; by subordinating the laity to the priesthood. School is too vital a jobs project, contract giver, and protector of the social order to allow itself to be”re-formed:’ It has political allies to guard its marches; that’s why reforms come and go without altering much. Even reformers can’t imagine school being much different.

David learns to read at age four; Rachel, at age nine: In normal development, when both are thirteen, you can’t tell which one learned first - the five-year spread means nothing at all. But in school, I label Rachel”learning disabled” and slow David down a bit, too. For a paycheck, I teach David to depend on me to tell him when to go and stop. He won’t outgrow that dependency. I identify Rachel as discount merchandise, “special education” fodder. She’ll be locked in her place forever.

In thirty years of teaching kids, rich and poor, I almost never met a learning disabled child; hardly ever met a gifted-and-talented one, either. Like all school categories, these are sacred myths created by human imagination. They derive from questionable values that we never examine because they preserve the temple of schooling.

That’s the secret behind short-answer tests, bells, uniform time blocks, age grading, standardization, and all the rest of the school religion punishing our nation. There isn’t a right way to become educated; there are as many ways as there are fingerprints. We don’t need state-certified teachers to make education happen - certification probably guarantees it won’t.

How much more evidence is necessary? Good schools don’t need more money or a longer year; they need real free market choices, variety that speaks to every need and runs risks. We don’t need a national curriculum or national testing either. Both initiatives arise from ignorance of how people learn or deliberate indifference to it. I can’t teach this way any longer. If you hear of a job where I don’t have to hurt kids to make a living, let me know. Come fall, I’ll be looking for work.

My little essay went off in March, and I forgot it. Somewhere along the way, I must have gotten a note saying it would be published at the editor’s discretion, but if so, it was quickly forgotten in the press of turbulent feelings that accompanied my own internal struggle~ Finally, on July 5, 1991, I swallowed hard and quit. Twenty days later, the Journal published the piece.

Looking back on a thirty-year teaching career full of rewards and prizes, somehow I can’t completely believe that I spent so much of my time on earth institutionalized. I can’t believe that centralized schooling is allowed to exist at all as a gigantic indoctrinating and sorting machine, robbing people of their children. Did it really happen? Was this my life? God help me.

School is a religion. Without understanding this holy-mission aspect, you’re certain to misperceive what takes place there as a result of human stupidity or venality or class warfare. All are present in the equation; it’s just that none of them matters very much - even without them, school would move in the same direction.

Ordinary people send their children to school to get smart, but what modern schooling teaches is dumbness. Old-fashioned dumbness used to be simple ignorance. Now it’s been transformed into permanent mathematical categories of relative stupidity, such as “gifted and talented;’ “mainstream;’ and “special ed” - categories in which learning is rationed for the good of the system and the social order. Dumb people are no longer merely ignorant. Now they are dangerous imbeciles whose minds must be conditioned with substantial doses of commercially prepared disinformation for tranquilizing purposes.

The new dumbness is particularly deadly to middle- and upper-middle-class kids already made shallow by the pressures to conform imposed by the world on their often lightly rooted parents. When these kids come of age, they feel certain they must know something, because their degrees and licenses say they do. They remain convinced of this until an unexpectedly brutal divorce, a corporate downsizing or panic attacks brought on by meaninglessness manage to upset the precarious balance of their incomplete adult lives. Alan Bullock, the English historian, said evil is a state of incompetence. If he’s right, then our school adventure filled the twentieth century with evil.

Once the best children are broken to such a system, they disintegrate morally, becoming dependent on group approval. A National Merit Scholar in my own family once wrote that her dream was to be “a small part in a great machine:’ It broke my heart. What kids dumbed down by schooling can’t do is think for themselves or ever be at rest very long without feeling crazy; stupefied boys and girls reveal their dependence in many ways and are easily exploited by their knowledgeable elders.

If you believe nothing can be done for the dumb except kindness, because it’s biology (the bell-curve model); if you believe capitalist oppressors have ruined the dumb (the neo-Marxist model); if you believe the dumbness reflects depraved moral fiber (the Calvinist model) or is nature’s way of disqualifying boobies from the reproduction sweepstakes (the Darwinian model), or society’s way of providing someone to clean your toilet (the pragmatic-elitist model), or that it’s evidence of bad karma (the Buddhist model); if you believe any of the various explanations given for the position of the dumb in the social order, then you will be forced to concur that a vast bureaucracy is necessary to address the problem of the dumb. Otherwise, they would murder us in our beds.

The possibility that dumb people don’t exist in sufficient numbers to warrant the many careers devoted to tending them may seem incredible to you. Yet that is my proposition: mass dumbness first had to be imagined; it isn’t real.

######Hector, the Horse-Tamer

See thirteen-year-old Hector Rodriguez as I first saw him one cold November day: slightly built, olive-skinned, short, with huge black eyes, his body twisted acrobatically in an attempt to slip past the gate of the skating rink at the northern end of Central Park. I had known Hector for several months as his teacher, but up to that time I had never really seen him, nor would I have seen him then but for the startling puzzle he presented: he was gate-crashing with a fully paid admission ticket in his pocket. Was he nuts?

Finding Hector wedged between the bars of the revolving security gate, I yelled, “Hector, you idiot, why are you sneaking in? You have a ticket”

He gave me a look that said,”Why shout? I know what I’m doing:’ He actually appeared offended by my lack of understanding.

Hector was conducting an experiment to answer a simple question: Could the interlocking bars of the automatic turnstile be defeated? What safer way to find out than with a paid ticket in hand in case he got caught?

Later, as I searched school records for clues to understanding this boy, I discovered that, in his short time on earth, he had built up a long record as an outlaw. Although none of his crimes would have earned him more than a good spanking a hundred years earlier, now they helped support a social-service empire.

At the time of this incident, Hector attended one of the lowest-rated public schools in New York State, part of a select group threatened with takeover by state overseers. Of the thirteen classes in Hector’s grade, a full nine were of higher rank than the one he was in.

Hector was an exhausted salmon swimming upstream in a raging current that threatened to sweep away his dignity. We had deliberately unleashed the flood by assigning about eleven hundred kids to five strict categories: “gifted and talented honors;” “gifted and talented;” “special progress;” “mainstream;” and “special ed:’ (These last kids had a cash value to the school three times higher than that of the others, providing a genuine incentive to find fatal defects where none existed.)

Hector belonged to the doomed category called “mainstream;’ itself further divided into subcategories labeled A, B, C and O. Worst of the worst, above special ed, was mainstream O. This was where Hector reported. Since special ed was a life sentence of ostracism and humiliation at the hands of one’s peers, we might even call Hector lucky to be in mainstream, though as mainstream 0, he was suspended in that thin layer of mercy just above the truly doomed. Hector’s standardized-test scores placed him about three years behind the middle of the pack. He wasn’t just behind the eight ball he was six feet under it.

Shortly after I found Hector breaking and entering, he was arrested in a nearby elementary school with a gun. It was a fake gun, but it looked pretty real to the school’s secretaries and principal. Hector had been dismissed for the Christmas holiday that morning, at which time he had high-tailed it to his old elementary school (which was still in session), intending to turn the younger children loose, to free the slaves like a pint-sized Spartacus. I found this out at the faculty Christmas party when the principal came over to where I was camped by the potato salad and cried, “Gatto, what have you done to me

Travel forward now one year in time: Hector is a freshman in high school On his second report card, he has failed every subject and has been absent enough to be cited for truancy.

Can you see the Hector portrayed by these implacable school records Poor, small for his age, a member of a minority, not paid much attention by people who matter, dumb in a super dumb class, a bizarre gate-crasher, a gunslinger, a total failure in high school Can you see

Hectorr Certainly you think you can. How could you notr The system makes it so easy to classify him and predict his future.

What is society to do with its Hectorsr This is the boy, multiplied by millions, whom school people agonized about in every decade of the twentieth century. This is the boy who destroyed the academic mission of American public schooling, turning it into a warehouse operation, a clinic for behavioral training and attitude adjustment.

When the Christian Science Monitor made a documentary about my class and Hector’s, the principal said to the filmmakers, “Sure, the system stinks, but John has nothing to replace it. And as bad as the system is, it’s better than chaos:’

But is the only alternative to a stifling system really chaos The country has been sold the idea Hector is the problem of modern schooling. That misperception is the demon we face, under its many guises and behind its shape-shifting rhetoric. Forced schooling itself was conceived to be the front line in a war against chaos, the beginning of the effort to keep Hector and his kind in protective custody.

Important people believe, with the fervor of religious zealots, that civilization can survive only if the irrational, unpredictable impulses of human nature are continually beaten back and confined until their demonic vitality is sapped.

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