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 par“alleled 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.
Excerpt From: John Taylor Gatto. Dumbing Us Down.