Issue 239 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine


John Taylor Gatto’s “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” [September 1995] reads like a more-Buddha-than-thou lecture. Would Buddha attend two Ivy League colleges so he could make big bucks, live in a three-bathroom house on the Upper West Side, and travel to the country on weekends and in the summer while having someone else cut his hay for money and add a room to his barn in exchange for land — all so that he could do nothing? I think not. Buddha would be living on the land, cutting his own hay, raising corn, and attending the monthly meetings at the Grange. Buddha doesn’t take summer vacations.

David E. Evans Portland, Oregon

I read the article by John Taylor Gatto and the following interview with a combination of chagrin and delight. America’s wilderness gave Europeans the freedom to contemplate. But the overpopulation that sent our forebears west is closing in around us again. It is a luxury for Gatto to be able to escape to the wilds of upstate New York, a luxury that undermines his educational philosophy. Isn’t it fatuous to rigorously pursue conventional education and gain the rewards it promises, then tell students that conventional education is a crock? To champion Buddhist simplicity while holding on to the perks that provide the peace?

It has always disturbed me that Buddha was fat. It is so much easier to spend long days and years in contemplation when you are a rich prince. As some guru once said, “The perfect disciple is one who can always find a chicken.”

I love Gatto’s concept that the object of education is to help each individual realize his or her greatest personal potential. Since there is no standard future for any kid, there is no point in enforcing a standard education. But the Gattos of this world are rare, and if you clone them the Establishment will get wise and close the empty rooms of freedom.

In the twenty-first century, most people will live unremittingly urban lives. How do you give them the freedom of a weedy field or an old barn while they stand on the corner of 110th and Amsterdam? Will we burn down the cities in order to plant trees? Will the homeless get wise and go in search of abandoned barns? What new tools can we create to help teachers know what a child truly desires to learn, and how can we show children that they are free to learn as much as they wish?

Christopher King Sherborn, Massachusetts

John Taylor Gatto is always provocative and insightful, yet, as a teacher, I feel called upon to defend the work of myself and many of my colleagues from his broadsides against the public-school system. Yes, public schools are flawed, they encourage too much comparison and competition, and they do not reach a significant minority of students. However, Gatto says nothing about the dedicated people who spend many hours of their lives coaching academics, the arts, or athletics before and after school. These people provide human contact that can transcend the bureaucratic system. Nor does he mention the role of schools as a focal point in many communities. And, yes, some learning does take place in these all-too-imperfect places.

For such a progressive individual as Gatto to be celebrating charter schools and voucher schools seems ironic. Charter schools and the like result in separation and gross inequality; they siphon resources from the only system dedicated to educating all students. The destruction of public education, which appears to be Gatto’s goal, will further impoverish those without supportive families or those who lack the wherewithal to start their own programs. Gatto’s often trenchant criticisms sometimes cut too broadly; a little moderation would be welcome.

Ken Klonsky Toronto, Ontario
John Taylor Gatto responds:

Part of the problem surely resides in the title The Sun chose, “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.” It drips with cheap irony. The original title, “Private Solutions, Family Solutions,” was no prize, but at least it crudely indicated one message of the piece: that within modest resources and collective family wisdom (in this case, my wife’s) are the tools to deal with any difficulty. It is a matter of determining what really matters, independent of income and status.

The Buddha quote seemed apt, so I used it, but Buddha and summer vacations were not the point of my essay. The central idea was that we must question reflexive exchanges of time for money and the use of time to impose synthetic order on natural events. My attack is on conditioned, automatic thinking, not on people who farm the land. What is most often lost in reflexive thinking is the purpose of doing things; we’ve just about ruined this planet and all its societies with the belief (1) that the poor are different and must be contained, and (2) that the devil finds work for idle hands.

It is no accident that modern Western society despises private time, unimproved property, unschooled kids, and unregulated anything. The modern religion since Francis Bacon has been machinery and systems. Heirs to this tradition — businessmen, academics, professionals, engineers, and schoolmen among them — are creeping around everywhere “improving” things until we are choked by their dubious sacraments.

I’m intrigued by the difference between the Buddha I encountered and Evans’s farmer Buddha, who puts in a full day’s work at home and Grange; intrigued also with King’s rich-fatso Buddha, dispatching his faithful to beg a chicken. Janet and I were married in a Buddhist temple in 1961 solely because Buddhists charged nothing, while Catholics, Protestants, and Jews all wanted a minimum of twenty-five dollars; at the time I had no job and only ten dollars in my pocket. But I claim no more knowledge about Buddha than Evans and King. I was struck, however, by how banal the divinities they proffer are; being a well-fed guru or a conventional good citizen are not proper responses to the grotesque, mutilated environment of, say, New York City.

To King I say that all the tools we need to help each other already exist — no new ones are necessary. Our failure is in perceiving what really matters, not in curricula or distribution of goods.

Finally, I thank Klonsky for his compliments, but he has radically mischaracterized me as “a progressive individual.” My essay should have warned him I am thoroughly antiprogressive. Progress is possible only in the individual’s struggle within him- or herself, not through government nostrums like schooling. Public education is not the enemy, but government-compelled schooling is: the compulsion is indefensible. Abandon compulsion and nothing the government does will go uncorrected for long. In my experience, the best schoolteachers are determined saboteurs. I hope Klonsky is one of them.

I feel badly for Josephine Redlin — that her beautiful, searching poem [“Looking for You,” September 1995] appeared in the same issue with Antler’s “What Every Boy Knows,” a “poem” that reads as if it were written by someone stalking young boys.

Thomas Dorn New Lisbon, Wisconsin

When I was forty-one, my father died. After the funeral, I returned home, where my life exploded. My therapist never breathed the words incest, sexual abuse, or any variation thereof. Yet the dreams and flashbacks came on their own, totally consuming me and everyone in my life. I don’t read popular magazines (where incest is now a fad). I hardly ever watch television (and never during the day). There was no implantation of “false memories.” There was only a desperate search to make sense of my experience.

One of the few beacons of sanity for me then was The Sun. Here was a magazine that allowed spiritual exploration, where contributors spoke from places I recognized. The Sun became very important to me.

The September issue arrived today. I opened it eagerly, anxious to immerse myself. But after reading the Correspondence section, I felt betrayed. I can understand your allowing Mark Pendergrast’s original article [“Daughters Lost,” June 1995] to appear. I can understand letting him have one short rebuttal (considerably shorter than the one in the August issue), but there is absolutely no excuse for the second one. By giving this man an unchallenged forum, you have taken an official position. It is a position that turns my guts inside out.

In the eighteen months I have been reading The Sun, you have never permitted an author to reiterate his position with such vehemence and frequency. You have allowed Pendergrast to refute competent therapists, as if he had expertise in psychology. Pendergrast possesses no such qualifications, yet you have granted him the last word. Your editorial decision is unconscionable.

Laurel H. Atlanta, Georgia

I was more disturbed by the responses to Mark Pendergrast’s “Daughters Lost” [Correspondence, August 1995] than by the essay itself. While I admit to thinking, “The lady doth protest too much,” when I read the essay — because it would be my nature to put it behind me, not exorcise the demon in public — no one is in a position to really know what happened or didn’t; not even the players themselves, it seems. I cannot help being reminded of my own experiences, which demonstrate how life in this century, this country, this largely faithless culture does not guarantee a one-size-fits-all explanation, though we’ve taught ourselves to expect one.

Six months after we were married, my husband was killed in an accident. We’d had a joyous sex life until the month before he died, when I was suddenly plagued with an irrational desire to hit him or scream at him whenever he expressed any physical affection. It created a huge chasm in our relationship.

A month or so after he died, I began to have memories about my next-door neighbor when I was five. I remembered him being alone with me in my house, lying on top of me on our sofa, putting his tongue in my mouth; his boozy smell, his craggy and unshaven face. I do not know if he penetrated me, I do not remember physical pain or fear, and I do not recall any threats: there is only a vague sense of impropriety and disgust.

Since these memories surfaced, I have neither had nightmares nor felt revulsion at a man’s touch. When I told my mother, she verified my memory of this man as a flaky, alcoholic, shiftless “uncle.” Upset that she had never known or suspected, she accepted — with relief, I’m sure — that I didn’t feel the need to delve deeper or force myself to recall further details. Perhaps what I remember is all that happened. If so, I cannot really claim to identify with those who were molested by their fathers or subjected to ritualized abuse. But it is also possible that some mental health professionals value pursuit of such memories at any cost to the patient’s dignity, privacy, or capacity for survival.

I have a friend whose personal life was nearly destroyed by accusations that later proved unfounded. He was accused of molesting a three-year-old by a woman in our church, based on a “vision” she’d had. The pastor believed her and set about proving the case. The police investigated and found no evidence of molestation. (It was later learned that the woman who initiated the accusation had herself been molested, along with her three children, by her own father.) The parents of the child admitted that they had not suspected my friend of the crime, and had begun to press details upon the child only at the pastor’s urging. No charges were filed, but my friend’s standing in the community was irrevocably damaged, his fiancée left him, and he nearly lost his job. Most of his friends who’d claimed to believe in his innocence could no longer bring themselves to leave him alone in a room with their children. While this is not an example of false-memory syndrome, it does demonstrate that it is possible for innocent people to be accused and nearly convicted despite evidence to the contrary.

Another friend of mine was discussing the joys of motherhood with coworkers and remarked that she loved her baby’s chubby bottom and sometimes kissed it after a bath. One woman treated her as if she were a pervert, and my friend went home feeling ashamed.

I love my children desperately at times, and keeping them safe and secure is worth any suffering. Other times it is only a few days away from them, alone on a business trip, that keeps me sane. All parents must know at the deepest level that we love our children more than any force on earth or in heaven, even God, and that is how it must be. He made us with the instinct to protect them in the face of danger, at the cost of our own lives if necessary. But sometimes we fail — just as my mother failed when she shared her intimacies with me when I was too young to hear them; just as I fail when I yell at my nine-year-old because I am exhausted or stressed by my job. And sometimes we fail when we place our children at risk of feeling responsible for our happiness. But it doesn’t automatically mean that we have abused them or neglected them, emotionally or sexually. There is a distinction.

Pointing fingers at a man who seems to be trying to understand the loss of his relationship with his beloved children is counterproductive and judgmental. At the very least, he deserves compassion for his willingness to expose his own frailties in public in an effort to help others and regain his loss. But would I leave my children in his care? Probably not — and it pains me to say so.

Rebecca Steffensrud Kirkland, Washington

By the time I finished Theodore Roszak’s interview with Carl Anthony [“Environmentalism and the Mystique of Whiteness,” August 1995], I was very irritated. Will this never end? Now I cannot possibly hear the “cry of the earth” because I have had a “white” ecological experience, and therefore an incomplete, if not totally false, one. With this kind of thinking, the races will ever remain separate.

C. R. Royal Oak, Michigan

The reason I subscribe to The Sun is that you have the courage and good sense to leave a fine ass and a fine flower in the picture, where they belong [“The Day I Got Buck-Naked with a Daisy on My Ass,” Lorenzo Wilson Milam, August 1995].

Keep up the good work.

Mike Schwager Chicago, Illinois

Recently I gave my two daughters, my sister, the woman I love, and myself trial subscriptions to The Sun. It was an experiment: would we get as much pleasure as I’d had from a few prior issues?

I am old and reflective, and have plenty of time to read and think and remember and analyze — maybe more time than is good for me. I have a lot to answer for in my life, especially to myself. I’ve failed in a lot of ways. I struggle with this pretty much all the time.

Today the latest issue came. I’ve cried and smiled and laughed with delight. Did I do the right thing in scattering The Sun around to those I love? I haven't heard a word from them about it. But I may have redeemed myself for a lot of old sins.

Name Withheld

Excuse me, but why would I want to listen to a bunch of writers and readers whine and piss and moan about their hard-luck lives? I’ve seen more hope and courage at a Codependents Anonymous meeting.

Cancel my subscription and refund my money — and don’t give me any crap about it. Find some miserable person who wants your kind of company, who wants to support your idea of creative expression.

Maurean Lally Healdsburg, California
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