homeabout kottke.orgarchives + tags

Hitting the wow

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 25, 2013

A long piece in this week’s New Yorker by Marc Fisher about more alleged sexual abuse at The Horace Mann School, a prep school in the Bronx. Fisher’s piece focuses on Robert Berman, an English teacher at the school for many years.

One group of boys stood apart; they insisted on wearing jackets and ties and shades, and they stuck to themselves, reciting poetry and often sneering at the rest of us. A few of them shaved their heads. We called them Bermanites, after their intellectual and sartorial model, an English teacher named Robert Berman: a small, thin, unsmiling man who papered over the windows of his classroom door so that no one could peek through.

Assigned to Berman for tenth-grade English, I took a seat one September morning alongside sixteen or seventeen other boys. We waited in silence as he sat at his desk, chain-smoking Benson & Hedges cigarettes and watching us from behind dark glasses. Finally, Mr. Berman stood up, took a fresh stick of chalk, climbed onto his chair, and reached above the blackboard to draw a horizontal line on the paint. “This,” he said, after a theatrical pause, “is Milton.” He let his hand fall a few inches, drew another line, and said, “This is Shakespeare.” Another line, lower, on the blackboard: “This is Mahler.” And, just below, “Here is Browning.” Then he took a long drag on his cigarette, dropped the chalk onto the floor, and, using the heel of his black leather loafer, ground it into the wooden floorboards. “And this, gentlemen,” he said, “is you.”

The next day, I asked to be transferred. I was not alone. By the end of the week, Berman’s class had shrunk by about half. The same thing happened every year; his classes often ended up as intimate gatherings of six to eight. Many students found Berman forbidding, but some of the teachers referred to him as a genius. Boys competed to learn tidbits about him. It was said, with little or no evidence, that he was an artist and a sculptor, that he knew Sanskrit, Russian, and Urdu, and that his wife and child had been killed in a horrific car crash. Though he was only in his mid-thirties, a graduate of the University of Michigan, it was rumored that he had been a paleontologist and had taught at Yale. Administrators told students and their parents that Horace Mann was incredibly lucky to have him, however odd he might be. The boys who remained in his classes were often caught up in his love of art, music, and literature, and in his belief that every moment of life should be spent reaching for the transcendence of the Elgin Marbles, of a fresco by Fra Angelico, even of an ordinary sunset. The boys absorbed the lists he made. “Take this down,” he’d say. “The ten greatest racehorses of all time.” Or, “This is the list of the ten greatest movies ever made-but you won’t find ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ on it, because it’s off the charts!” One day, he mounted a rearview mirror on the far wall of the classroom so that he could stare at the portrait of Milton behind his back.

We Work Remotely