My Friend, John Gatto

John Taylor Gatto was a famous schoolteacher and writer whose essays and books asked people to question how and why schools operate as they do. He passed away on Oct. 25, 2018.

My favorite writings by Gatto are the ones about how, as a teacher, he helped individual students learn and grow by working with their interests and strengths. They are powerful to read and continue to influence many people, young and old, to try alternatives such as homeschooling, unschooling, and alternative schools.

There will be plenty written about John Taylor Gatto’s literary legacy, but today I’m remembering Gatto as my friend and colleague in this weird and fascinating world of self-directed education. Here are some memories of him that I have.

I first learned about Gatto in 1991 when a friend called me at the Holt office and said I had to find and read John Gatto’s acceptance speech as NY City Teacher of the Year, “The Psychopathic School.” (This is the second essay in John’s first book, Dumbing Us Down). He told me that Gatto was an award-winning public school teacher whose acceptance speech will surprise me because he mentions homeschooling positively in it. In those days, any mainstream educator speaking positively about homeschooling was important news to our community, and to have an award-winning, public school teacher citing homeschooling as a positive force for society and the schools as a psychopathic one was big news.

When I read that speech and felt its probing anger towards school and John’s strong support for alternatives to school I sent him a few copies of Growing Without Schooling (GWS) magazine, our book catalog, and a letter. John replied with a phone call to me, and we hit it off very quickly. I invited John to speak at our next GWS conference and he gladly accepted. John was one of our most popular speakers, and we had him keynote several of our GWS conferences over the years.

You can see a video of John at the last conference I put on; he is delivering his keynote, Weapons of Mass Instruction (which became a book of the same name). John told me several times before and during that conference that he was debuting this speech at our conference; a few weeks later I heard from another conference organizer that John said the same thing to him before he delivered the same speech at his event. John was a canny promoter of his work, in addition to being a powerful writer; he had many sides to his personality.

John and I enjoyed talking about many topics, not just education, and if you got him going on the Pittsburgh Steelers football team you could be in for an earful. At one of our cenferences where he was the keynote, there was a Stealers game going on at the same time and when John was done with his talk he asked to be quickly driven back to the hotel to watch the rest of the game. He returned to the conference after the game.

His background was fascinating to learn about as we became closer over the years, and his storytelling abilities were great. History, movies, literature, current events—he had an informed opinion on them all that would challenge you to respond in some way. I think Gatto’s work as an advertising copywriter honed his skill at rhetoric. And when he was even younger, John earned his living playing lightning chess for money in parks around Manhattan; this further developed his chutzpah, strategic, and tactical thinking—and led him to meet his wife, Janet.

We laughed a lot when we spoke together. I remember several conversations with John about his difficulties writing in his barn in upstate NY; it wasn’t writer’s block, it was mice that had taken over his barn. He had given up on trying to get rid of them, so he tried to coexist with them. I’d find myself laughing with him at his inability to keep the mice at bay.

That’s another thing I remember about John Gatto: his laugh was big and infectious.

Though we disagreed on certain things, particularly political tactics, John and I always managed to enjoy each other’s company. He stayed at our house a couple of times, once when he was pitching The Underground History of American Education to be published by me at Holt Associates, the parent company for GWS magazine.

After I read the voluminous manuscript, John came to Boston and we went through it and discussed it for a day. I kept telling him how much I liked the general idea of the book, but that it was too long and needed tightening; perhaps even turning it into two separate volumes. John didn’t agree at all—other than grammar and spell checking, he really felt it was necessary to keep the book as it was—and he decided he would try another publisher. He eventually self-published the book in 2001 and it was a success.

John and I were also co-speakers at several different events, which gave us more time to hang out and get to know each other. Once, we were both speaking at the same conference in London, England and we had time after dinner to be together. We walked around downtown London, talking about the events of the day, when John spied an empty bench in front of a pub. I thought he wanted to go in for a drink, but he said, “No, let’s sit out here.”

I joined him on the bench and he reached into his fishing vest (he loved to wear it) and pulled out a flask filled with his favorite whiskey, and said, “This will keep us warm and the conversation going.” So we sat outside the pub and I heard John describe his plans for a movie about education, a vast project that John thought would be accomplished easily once he secured $5 million in funding. It was a project he and his colleague Roland tried to get off the ground for years.

Another thing about John Gatto I will miss is that he was an iconoclast: a conservative at heart (he ran for the NY Senate twice in the 1980s as a member of the Conservative Party), John could often surprise you with his support for self-directed learning and giving students freedom. During one of our early conversations about education and unschooling, John told me to contact Deborah Meier, a progressive educator whose school at the time was Central Park East. John said he worked with her when he was a teacher and that she was his favorite principal; he thought she might be a good ally for self-directed learners.

Though he liked and respected John Holt’s work, he told me he thought Holt was too lenient, “soft,” with kids because Holt never had any children of his own. Needless to say, I disagreed with him.

John Gatto collected stories about people who were successful in life but not in school, or who were successful in a field that they did not attend school for, and his books are full of such stories. I think that’s a reason he so strongly supported homeschooling and unschooling; it was evidence and hope for him that school was not the only way to raise children into knowledgeable adults and he respected anyone who homeschooled, regardless of their reasons. Both Holt and Gatto strongly shared the belief, succinctly stated by Holt in the 1960s: “School is the place where children learn to be stupid.”

Further adding to his affinity for home learners, nearly all of Gatto’s research and reading was done on his own as an independent scholar.

Another funny memory about John Gatto: I was a speaker at his Exhausted School event at Carnegie Hall. John produced and stage-managed the entire event, and he asked us all to dress in formal eveningwear for our presentations. I rented a tuxedo, as John requested all the men to do. As I waited in the wing, watching John make his opening remarks to the audience, I admired how sharp John looked in his tux, but then I had to stifle a laugh—John was not wearing any shoes. He was in his socks, on stage, addressing an audience at Carnegie Hall. He was charmingly unconventional.

One memory leads to another, and I realize how lucky I was to have known this forceful, intelligent man.

Before their strokes, I was in conversation with both John and Janet several times a year. Janet was a professional chef, and she joked with us that she, John, and I could make a great restaurant together: she’d be the chef, I’d perform music and magic for the guests, and John would be the fat guy at the bar who told stories.

When John had his first stroke I was able to visit him in the rehab hospital. Within a few minutes, I realized we had stopped talking about the hospital and his condition and he had changed the topic to education. John long advocated a head-on attack of the schools, feeling they were going to collapse of their own weight soon after the millennium; I disagreed. I was surprised that he was now thinking about changing his mind about that position; he told me that alternative schoolers were better off just building a new system of education that would appeal to more and more people, causing the public to eventually leave the conventional system. “We have to beat them at their own game,” is how he summed it up to me. In subsequent visits to him at his apartment, the issue never came up in our talks, so I suspect it was just a consideration for him at the time, rather than a change of opinion.

But the striking thing to me is this: here’s a guy in the hospital, recently paralyzed from a stroke, and he’s thinking about and discussing strategy and tactics for changing schools with me. He even had an academic tome about education on his hospital table that he was annotating with notes (I can’t remember the title). Ideas clearly animated John Gatto and were part of his fiber; he was an extraordinary individual.

When I last visited him and Janet, he was working on a blog post and developing an idea for a screenplay. It was a clever plot: American Indians, incensed that Yale’s Skull and Bones Society robbed Geronimo’s grave and have possession of Geronimo’s skull [], plan a heist of the skull.

I grew up in Bronx, New York, and I visited the Gattos when I stayed with my parents. But once my parents started having their strokes (they are both alive, but incapacitated), it became harder for me to include a trip to Manhattan to visit the Gattos, and I lost touch with them over the last few years.

Fortunately, I have many good memories of John Gatto, and we all have his books to keep his words alive.