Monday, January 12, 2009

Real Work & Responsibility

Excerpt taken from an Interview with John Taylor Gatto, by Mary Pride, Feb 27, 2010.

"Nothing works as fast to give kids a leadership mindset, self-control, discipline, and a lot of good things, as work! Real work. Taking their share of the load, and that includes starting little businesses. My granddad gave me the formula when I was a kid, and I used it to good effect all my life. He said, if you find out something people need, and you give it to them cheaper or better, or you're just the only one offering it that's convenient, you've got a business! People don't care whether you're ten years old if you have what they want, or a hundred years old!

I had a boy who made $26,000 a year. That was 32 years ago. You can inflation-adjust that and say he may have even been making what some lawyers make today. He was walking dogs, also bird-sitting and fish-feeding. He had 58 customers, but he didn't do the work himself. He trained other kids to do it. He booked the business, and I think he took a 50 cent override per pet, so the kids were getting about $6 an hour, which they were delighted with, and he was banking his boxcar figures. 

When kids have real responsibility, it makes major changes in their lives. I had a boy for example, who held the hand of poor people getting intravenous drips up at a hospital in Manhattan. He was not a very nice boy when he started, and furthermore he was not somebody I would trust very far, but he was willing to try that in exchange for being freed of the school. Well, it couldn't have been three months before I no longer knew the boy. He wasn't a boy any longer. He was a young male human being, taking on some of the pain of the world. He was extremely concerned about the people he was interacting with. He wanted to know more about the hospital business and about old people who are abandoned. It was an electric transformation, and it wasn't the only one. 

For about ten years in public schools, to get into my program, I'd interview the parents, and I'd say, "Look, the only way I can give your kids significant responsibility under the law is by giving them a volunteer assignment, so I can't accept anyone into the program who won't do that. My main purpose in doing this is to give kids significant primary responsibility. So they will never be assigned in teams of 50 where they can hang out and perpetuate the culture of youth. They're going to be on their own, or at best, in teams of two or three, and they'll have something real to do, where if they fail in doing it, damage will occur. Once they pass that screen, I'm going to tell you that in ten years with the strangest eclectic group of children, I never had a single occasion when a kid's disappointed me." Now that's such an extreme statement that something must be at work other than John Gatto's design. It seemed to have a magical effect, especially on irresponsible kids, to give them a substantial solo responsibility. 

There are also some experiences that can only be handled as a team. For example, three of my kids had the rare privilege of finding a church that had an outreach program to families that were burned out or flooded out of their homes. They'd deliver clothing and food, and help the people in that transition stage. The kids were part of the larger church team, and then, all of a sudden, the adult members of the church team left. The job still had to be done, but no one was around to do it but my kids. And my kids did it fine! That was just wonderful. If I think about it tears come to my eyes, tears of joy. I couldn't believe that my suspicion, that the Ten Commandments are engraved on our spirits, could be illustrated this well, because they were hardly kids that you would expect would immediately shoulder the whole burden and not feel oppressed by it, but they ended up electrified by it. 

Substantial real experience, I've found, blots up the TV time. There's no time left. Given a choice between spending your weekend watching the cartoons all the way through the Sunday football games, versus going out and getting even more experience, kids wound up choosing real experiences. Television would go from a major item of conversation to really quite a minor thing by the end of the year, so I knew it wasn't me, that it was some principle that I had fortuitously stumbled upon that seemed to work in just every instance."

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