The great destructive myth of the twentieth century was the aggressive contention that a child couldn’t grow up correctly in the unique circumstances of his own family. In order to avoid having you finish this essay with the feeling it might have been all right for my family to influence my growth so intensely, but for many children with worse families that just wouldn’t do, fix your attention a minute on the less savory aspects of my people, as they might be seen through social service eyes. Both sets of grandparents and my mother and father were seriously alienated from one another, the men from the women and vice versa.
On the Zimmer side, heavy drinking and German/Irish tempers led to one violent conflict after another, conflicts to which my sister and I were fully exposed. We grew like weeds as children, with full run of the town, including its most dangerous places, had no effective curfew, and tended to excess in everything. Did I forget to mention the constant profanity? By up-to-the-minute big city standards my family skirted the boundary of court-ordered family dissolution more than once.
Since a substantial number of the families I worked with productively as a schoolteacher had rap sheets similar to my own by social hygiene standards, I want to offer you my Monongahela years as a case study of how a less than ideal family by social work standards can still teach courage, love, duty, self-reliance; can awaken curiosity and wonder; can be a laboratory for independent thought, well-rooted identity, and communitarian feelings; and can grow in memory as a beloved companion even when it is composed of ghosts.
The city of Monongahela itself is offered as a case study of a different sort, showing the power of common places to return loyalty by animating the tiniest details of existence. The town is a main character in my personal story, a genius loci interacting with my development as a schoolteacher. I invested an extreme amount of effort in the physical presence of my classrooms, I think, because the physical presence of my town never left me even after I was far removed from it. I wanted that same sort of ally for my kids.
Gary Snyder once said, "Of all memberships we identify ourselves by, the one most forgotten that has greatest potential for healing is place." The quiet rage I felt at bearing the last name of a then socially devalued minority, the multiple grievances I felt off and on against my parents for being a house divided, at my sister for making herself a stranger to me, at my dad for staying away so I grew up with only a distant acquaintanceship between us, the bewilderment I felt from having to sit nightly at dinner with grandparents who hadn’t spoken to one another for fifteen years and for whom I was required to act as go-between, the compounding of this bewilderment when I discovered my Italian grandfather had been buried in an unmarked grave, perhaps for taking a mistress, the utter divide geographically and culturally between Mother’s family and Father’s—the fantastic gulf between the expressive idiom of the Germans who treated rage and violence as if they were normal, and Dad’s people, the quintessence of decorous rationality, the absolute inability of Mother to face the full demands of her maturity, yet her inspiring courage when her principles were challenged—all these made for an exciting, troubled, and even dangerous childhood. Would I have been better off in foster care, do you think? Are others? Are you insane?
What allowed me to make sense of things against the kaleidoscope of these personal dynamics was that town and its river, two constants I depended upon. They were enough. I survived, even came to thrive because of my membership in Monongahela, the irreducible, unclassifiable, asystematic village of my boyhood. So different from the neo-villages of social work.
All the town’s denizens played a part: the iridescent river dragonflies, the burbling streetcars, the prehistoric freight trains, the grandeur of the paddle-wheel boats, the unpackaged cookies and uncut-in-advance-of-purchase cheese and meat, women in faded cotton housedresses who carried themselves with bearing and dignity in spite of everything, men who swore constantly and spit huge green and yellow globs of phlegm on the sidewalks, steelworkers who took every insult as mortal and mussed a little boy’s hair because he was "Zim’s nephew."
I hung around a lot in Monongahela looking at things and people, trying them on for size. Much is learned by being lazy. I learned to fish that way, to defend myself, to take risks by going down in the abandoned coalmine across the river full of strange machinery and black water—a primitive world with nobody around to tell me to be careful. I learned to take knocks without running away, to watch hard men and women reveal themselves through their choices. I cleaned Pappy’s printing office daily, after closing, for a silver St. Gaudens walking-goddess-Liberty fifty-cent piece, the most beautiful American coin ever made. I sold Sun-Telegraphs and Post-Gazettes on the corner of Second and Main for a profit of a penny a paper. I had a Kool-Aid stand on Main and Fourth on hot summer days.
Shouldn’t you ask why your boy or girl needs to know anything about Iraq or about computer language before they can tell you the name of every tree, plant, and bird outside your window? What will happen to them with their high standardized test scores when they discover they can’t fry an egg, sew a button, join things, build a house, sail a boat, ride a horse, gut a fish, pound a nail, or bring forth life and nurture it? Do you believe having those things done for you is the same? You fool, then. Why do you cooperate in the game of compulsion schooling when it makes children useless to themselves as adults, hardly able to tie their own shoes?
[From The Underground History of American Education]