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.As you have probably guessed by now, this is all in the news now because several former students have accused Berman of sexually abusing them. According to a counselor involved in these cases, the boys have been very reluctant to come forward because
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.” . . .
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.”
In each of the Berman cases, he exercised such powerful mind control over them that it took them many years to come to terms with what happened to them. To this day, they feel intimidated by him.One wrote in his adolescent diary,
My obedience to Mr. B is absolute. If there is a God, and He descended to inform me that to follow B. were false, I would say, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan’ and continue to pursue the path that B. had set for me.This story fascinates me. Berman was a snob who dragged his teenage charges into high culture, getting them to read and love Milton, Shakespeare, and Dostoevsky. He took them on trips to Europe to see the greatest paintings, all the while condemning popular culture and abusing anyone who admitted to liking it. Tracking down Berman's former students, Fisher finds several ensconced in tenured chairs at top universities, crediting Berman with first awakening their interest in literature or art. His class was a cult, with him as the leader and literature as God. His students made enormous efforts to please him, trembled over whether he would approve their work, made themselves over in his image. They did not do this for a kind or loving man, but for an authoritarian creep.
The basic utilitarian model of psychology, that says we maximize pleasure and minimize pain, is wrong. No, what we value is powerful emotional experiences. To have a mentor who guides us away from the herd and toward something worth attaining is, for many young people, one of the strongest. For others a cold, distant, unloving presence will always enthrall more than one who is close and accessible. For some, even sexual abuse is worth enduring if it gets us membership in an elite club of privileged insiders.
I keep comparing the experience of Berman's students with my own high school English, taught by teachers whose names I cannot even remember, and who made on me all the impact of a mayfly. No doubt they were kind and loving, and no doubt I am actually lucky to have had them instead of an abusive creep. But the dark and twisted way, the Mirkwood path, the hard road under the eye of a stern master, still looms in a way that health and sunshine do not.