THE NEW YORKER
A REPORTER AT LARGE
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.”
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.”
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.
Berman could be mercilessly critical. He called boys “fools” and “peons” and scoffed at their vulgar interests in pop culture, girls, and material things. He was a fastidious reader of students’ work and a tough, sometimes capricious grader. He noted carefully who accepted his authority and who resisted. After he overheard one boy imitating him in the hallway, he covered the boy’s next paper with lacerating comments: “You used to be better.” On the rare occasion when a student earned his praise, he would be celebrated. Now and then, Berman would ask for a copy of a particularly well-wrought paper, which the boys took as the highest compliment; they called it “hitting the wow.”
One afternoon in 1969, Berman announced that a tenth grader named Stephen Fife had written a paper that indicated he could be the next Dickens. Soon afterward, Berman asked Fife to see him after class. This was the ultimate invitation: personal attention from the master, who would go over a student’s writing line by line, inquire about problems with his parents, and perhaps tutor him privately in art history or Russian.
Like other teachers, Berman took students on long field trips, and one spring break he invited Fife to join him and ten other boys on a trip to Washington, to visit the National Gallery of Art. On the first day, as the boys unpacked at a hotel, Fife was alone in his room when Berman entered. It was the first time Fife had ever seen him without jacket and tie. “Berman came up behind me,” Fife recalls. “I was twirled around and he had his tongue literally inside my mouth. It was like a muscle, thick and forceful to the point I couldn’t breathe. He didn’t say a word. I remember that sensation of choking and seeing his black glasses up against my nose. He was very forceful, one hand on the small of my back, and he put that hand down the rear of my pants and I remember being frozen, paralyzed. He was the person I admired more than anyone else in the world.”
Fife pulled away, and, he recalls, Berman grew angry. (Berman maintains that the entire scene never happened.) “Why are you being willful, Mr. Fife?” the teacher said.
The English Teacher
PHOTO BY SETH NEUBARDT
In the early years of their relationship, he says, Berman regularly beat him with a belt buckle. Berman wrote to me that this wasn’t true: “I do not recall ever striking anyone with a belt buckle; I guess I’d remember if I had. (Excellent idea, though.)”