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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. 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.
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 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!
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.
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.
Detective Duffy admitted he felt compelled to reach out and touch tiger as he was removed from the tower block.
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.
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. 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.
“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.