Learning as an Endless Odyssey

Award-winning junior high instructor aims to teach students how the real world works. TOP TEACHER: NEW YORK CITY

IT'S 6:00 a.m. on a Thursday near the end of the school year, and John Taylor Gatto is pacing the sidewalk at 107th and Amsterdam. Corrugated metal gates still cover the bodega storefronts, and Mr. Gatto looks a little like a painter, in his white shirt, trousers, and high-top sneakers. But he's a teacher and a worried one. Alex was on time; Freddy and Victor haven't shown up. They go rouse Freddy out of bed, at his housing project in Harlem. (Victor was a question mark anyway.) Finally, they are driving through the Lincoln Tunnel to Secaucus, N.J., where the eighth graders from the Booker T. Washington Junior High School in Manhattan will spend the day at a trucking company. The day's lessons now begin.

Gatto starts with the geology of northern New Jersey, the swampy terrain that dictated the strip development there. He moves on to retail distribution. Can you imagine the chaos, he asks, if every supplier to Macy's sent it's own truck to a loading dock on 34th Street? They deliver to trucking companies in New Jersey instead, he explains.

Finally, Gatto gets to real-life economics, the kind the textbooks don't talk about. His friend, who owns the trucking company, lost one job because he turned in a fellow executive for taking kickbacks. He quit a second well-paying job because there was nothing for him to do. He lost another because a close friend divorced the boss's daughter.

This is adult talk, information about the real world, and Alex and Freddy are listening intently. Gatto gives them an assignment: ``Study the guy, what kind of person he is, what makes him tick.'' He makes them feel they are on a secret mission.

Field trips are common fare in schools, of course. But Gatto considers his projects the main fare. Some students work in soup kitchens. Another works with a district attorney. Today, after he leaves Alex and Freddy in Secaucus, he has to hurry back to Manhattan to take another group to a hospital to spend the day with a doctor. He develops these programs for particular students and makes all the arrangements himself.

John Gatto detests bureaucracy. That's the first thing you should know about him. The second is that he doesn't think much of schools.

That may seem odd for a man who was recently honored as ``Teacher of the Year'' in New York City by the New York State Senate, and who has labored for more than a quarter of a century in what many see as a stifling system.

But Gatto's students revere him.

``Whenever I came back there would always be a swarm of kids,'' recalls Roland Legiardi-Laura, a documentary filmmaker and former student. ``I had to get in line.''

Gatto has deep reservations about the whole public-school enterprise: specifically, the premise that children should be uprooted from their homes and neighborhoods - from the everyday adult world - and confined in institutions. ``We are living the lie that we have some secret to impart that couldn't be learned from the family and the neighborhood,'' he says. ``We [in the schools] are all masks worn by you and the president and the establishment of this country.''

The fashionable educational critique today says the schools are neglecting the shared heritage of Western culture - ``cultural illiteracy.'' But Gatto thinks this Western culture itself took a wrong turn centuries ago, when Plato's Republic instead of Homer's Odyssey became the blueprint for education. This elevated the cloistered academy over life experience and gave credentials to experts rather than people who know the world and how it works.

It's 8:00 a.m., and Ron, the trucking company president, is at his computer, explaining how he manages the company's cash flow.

``How can you just borrow money over the telephone?'' Alex asks. His mother recently opened a Greek restaurant in east Harlem and probably he's been hearing a lot of talk about banks. He's making the connection.

A little later, Alex is out on a delivery truck. (Freddy went on another one.) The driver, a black, is obviously delighted to be teacher for the morning. He explains the economics of delivery - how you sometimes have to pass the dock manager a $10 or a $20 bill to get a place in line.

That's not the case, however, at the clothing store that is the first stop this morning. The receiving clerk there has a word for Alex.

``Stay in school, so you don't end up doing what I'm doing,'' he says. Alex intends to do that. He wants to be a lawyer. And he likes Gatto because he gets to learn about life. ``He's been through a lot,'' Alex says, ``and he tells us about it.''

GATTO is a large, somewhat burly man who still speaks with the soft, elongated ``r's'' of his native western Pennsylvania. He talks a lot, with urgency and high intellectual drama; the Odyssey and Moby Dick (``it's really about an outcast from the hearth of family'') become vivid personal experiences rather than mere objects of discussion. Gatto's great-grandfather on his mother's side was Frederick Taylor, the man who brought stopwatches and time-motion studies to the American workplace. He uses the middle name as an ironic touch.

In the mid-1960s Gatto was on the fast track in the advertising business. Then one day he quit, borrowed his roommate's teaching certificate, and became a substitute in the city schools.

The experience was sobering. Once he was given a typing class with solemn instructions not to teach typing - only a certified typing teacher could do that. He took up the cause of a girl who reading experts had stuck in a remedial class, even though she read beautifully. Later he found a note from her on his desk. ``A teacher like you cannot be found.'' Gatto decided to become one, full time.

At first he taught the bright children of the upper west side. He would spend weeks on Moby Dick, reading it line by line. Mainly he devised challenges. Once he asked two girls to interview William Shawn, the reclusive New Yorker editor. ``Think,'' he said, ``how can you get past the outer office?'' One was Hispanic; they'd want to be nice to her. The other was quite attractive. She could charm them. (Homer called Odysseus ``the Strategist.'') The two came back late the next afternoon. They had spent the entire day with Mr. Shawn.

Students remember Gatto as demanding, ``ferocious,'' a major influence in their lives.

``He made me feel very special as a mind,'' says Amy Halpern, now a filmmaker in Los Angeles. Mr. Legiardi-Laura packed up his camera gear and flew to Nicaragua to make a film about the war - without a single contact or prior arrangement. ``When I crawled around in the combat zone in Nicaragua, I knew somewhere in the back of my mind, a little seed was planted when I was 13,'' he says.

Still, Gatto had a sense that something was terribly wrong. He took sabbatical leaves, perused documents in obscure libraries, and started a book that he is now completing by arising at 4:30 a.m. In essence, it tells how America became a nation of ``homeless'' people - how the mass marketplace and public institutions like the schools have peeled away the functions of family and community, leaving these with little to do besides serve as dormitories.

This wasn't an accident, Gatto maintains. It grew from a long tradition of respectable thought. He takes the icons of Western civilization courses, from Plato to John Stuart Mill, and turns the lens so that suddenly they become part of a big mistake.

He sees the Civil War as the key event for America in this history. Freeing the slaves was a side effect; the war was really about the triumph of the industrial and central over the familial and local, Gatto says. It declared the redefining of America as a unified mass market. Little more than a decade before, the revolutions of 1848 had raised the specter of subversion throughout Europe and America. The United States was filling up with immigrants; how to eradicate the germs of foreign influence? Take the kids from their families, he says, and put them in schools.

This may sound overdrawn. Yet Gatto asks if it was a complete coincidence that Horace Mann, the revered father of public education, was also a champion of the railroads in the Massachusetts state legislature - the railroads being the forerunners of television in the creation of a homogeneous mass market. Mann's aim, he says, was ``the scientific management of a mass population.''

Gatto warns a visitor that his classes don't always reflect his ideas, and they don't. The room has the bare, cell-block quality common in New York City schools. Kids are meandering through the halls, and Gatto has to blockade his classroom door with a metal cabinet to get some quiet. Former students think this classroom assignment is Gatto's punishment for bucking the system so often.

But somehow, Gatto manages to touch the kids here, too. Recently, a student from an impoverished family had an essay published in Newsday. Why do we judge teachers according to student test scores, he asks, as opposed to what those students accomplish in life? ``No one would dare do that,'' is his answer.

One day several weeks ago, Gatto was beginning a class on American history. A nation is like a person, he says. It is shaped by the things that happen to it. Take the early pilgrims. ``If every day you looked into a dark forest,'' he says, ``what effect would that have on your personality? Would it make you suspicious, fearful, worried about difference?''

He assigns each student a chapter from the text; pretend the nation was someone you met at a party. What would these experiences tell you about that person? Then he leaves the room.

``The invasion of their privacy leaves their personalities so dependent,'' he explains, taking a seat in the hall. Better a little ruckus, he says, than total dependency. Gatto has fought many bureaucratic battles over the years. He's achieved a kind of standoff. ``He [the principal] leaves me alone as long as the parents don't get riled,'' he says.

The classroom is surprisingly quiet when Gatto returns. One after another, the students give summaries of their chapters - pretty much what previous teachers expected. Gatto keeps pressing for ideas. He gets some help from Victor, the youth who didn't show up for Secaucus. Gatto has arranged for Victor to spend Wednesday afternoons at the library on a private research project. (``He reads their personalities very accurately very quickly,'' filmmaker Legiardi-Laura says.)

Victor is unruly but shows astute psychological insight. His comment on World War I: ``There was this chauvinistic idea that when the men left for war, the women did the work they left behind.'' And also, ``People thought you didn't live unless you had been to war.''

``That makes me think,'' Gatto replies, ``did that make it easier for us to get into World War II?''

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