The New Yorker: The Master
A charismatic teacher enthralled his students. Was he abusing them?
BY MARC FISHER APRIL 1, 2013
|Robert Berman’s English class was a “cult of personality,” one student said. “There was so much desire to please.” Illustration by Owen Freeman.|
When I was in high school, at Horace Mann, in the Bronx, in the nineteen-seventies, everyone took pride in the brilliant eccentricity of our teachers. There was an English teacher who slipped precepts from the Tao Te Ching into his classes on the Bible and occasionally urged us to subvert standardized tests by answering every question with the word “five.” There was a much loved language teacher who would pelt distracted students with a SuperBall. There was a history instructor who, in a lecture on how the difficulty of delivering mail in the early days of the republic helped shape Federalist ideas, would drop his trousers to reveal patterned boxer shorts.
My class, the Class of 1976, was the last to exclude girls, and, inside the ivy-covered stone and brick buildings, the social upheavals of the seventies were wearing away some of Horace Mann’s British-boarding-school trappings. Jacket and tie were no longer mandatory, hair could be as long as we dared, and seventh and eighth graders were no longer known as first and second formers. But we still called our teachers “Sir,” and they called us “Mr.” Horace Mann was, in the way that prestigious schools often are, something of a benevolent cult. The teachers devoted their lives to us—they were with us from eight-forty in the morning until seven at night, drove us to school each day, took us on vacation trips. There were about a hundred boys in each class, and, with notable exceptions, we loved the place. We competed so keenly that when the school stopped ranking us some industrious students set up a table in the cafeteria where classmates could report their grades. We divided ourselves into subcultures: boys found their joy on the stage, or at the weekly newspaper, or on the baseball team, whose coach—our headmaster—contracted with the Yankees’ grounds crew to groom the diamond.
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.”