I read an article, “The Master” by Marc Fisher about 2 weeks ago in The New Yorker magazine about an English teacher at the renowned Horace Mann high school in the Bronx.
The teacher’s name was Robert Berman, and the article was ostensively about sex abuse by Berman toward his male students during the 1970s. Accusations included all manner of abuse from emotional and psychological to physical and rape of these young men. Some of these students were so heavily influenced by Berman that they bought him a townhouse on Manhattan’s west side years after graduating from the school.
Since the allegations were made several years ago, Facebook groups have formed and legal suits against the school have been filed. Berman has maintained his innocence, and true to his reportedly elitist and highly eccentric personality (according to Fisher, Berman encouraged his students “to subvert standardized tests by answering every question with the word ‘five'”), Berman has remained a mystery and largely silent, requesting his privacy, insisting that he is an old man who wants to live out his final fragile years with dignity and solitude. He “speaks” through seeming disciples and communicates via hand-written letters delivered by the postal service or hand courier.
Part of the draw of people like Berman is their charisma and their personality; they create a mystique and an almost cult-like fascination for students who hang their achievement on their every word and preference. Many former students cited his strangeness but also considered him genius and a driving force in their successful careers as writers, artists, and musicians. This is all well and fine, for those who got away.
While the allegations are horrid and disturbing, the article discussed –but as far as I’m concerned largely glanced over– a very subtle yet more sinister element in all of these troubling stories and that is the power of elitism — the severe and undue influence that any authority figure has over children (or any at-risk person), regardless of environment. The food of elitism is the subject’s desperate need for approval, acceptance, love and attention. What I’m talking about is really subtle: it’s not just that Berman did these things; but what I’m talking about is the how; the tool and the device he used to do it so insidiously.
Like the Jerry Sandusky abuse scandal at Penn State, more times than not, many of these children were lured by these people because of their emotional vulnerability or a less-than ideal home-life: often they came from broken families or from families where the parents were angry, overwhelmed by their jobs, health issues or other major distractions.
Even kids from so-called good homes (both parents present, gainfully employed and stable families) were still susceptible to these types of authority figures because they were reduced by Berman. Everything they previously thought that was of value, was devalued. From music, to art; from literature to movies; from girls to sports, Berman found a way to denigrate their opinions and replace them with his. He found a way to tell them that what they loved before was worthless now because he deemed it so. By doing this with the students who were at risk, he groomed them to need his favor and his good opinion. They wanted to fit in … somewhere. This is a tool used everywhere, but it’s so subtle.
By replacing their esteem with his judgment, they gave away their power. They lost their bearings, they discarded their own benchmarks and valuations and began to engage in behaviors and studies and experiences to seek and win his approval. As time wore on, his admonitions were more severe and their appeasement became more desperate and his abuse escalated to untenable levels. Not all students were selected and preyed upon by Berman, and of those who were, not all succumbed to his advances. Some former students who stepped forward discussed their experiences with him and how they got away from him; and that once they did get away from him, that they were deemed “dead” to him. But of the others, the nightmares continue and the trauma is just beneath the surface.
Elitism’s power and the abusive influence of authority figures is not really about sex. Like all matters of abuse, it’s about power, control and the need to build a power base due to the abuser’s own issues with mortality and other screwed up reasons.
Revealed most recently: Rutgers University Basketball coach Mike Rice’s abuses. Why those huge college students put up with his crap is beyond me. But look further: these athletes are exploited plain and simple for the betterment and bank accounts of the colleges, advertising agencies and television networks. They pin their hopes on an NBA career and curry favor of the whims of insatiable coaches because of those hopes.
As parents, we need to do a better job: we need to talk to our kids about these subtleties. As a parent of three boys, all of whom are engaged in sports (two at the neighborhood club level, my oldest in a high school rowing program), my husband and I do our best to make sure the boys respect the coaches; that they listen to their opinions and practice good sportsmanship as well as work on their skills. My oldest son is just beginning this journey. Regardless of the benefits and challenges of a rigorous rowing training program, he needs to know of most of all the concept of self-respect and what that looks like not only for himself, which is paramount, but what it looks like in his teachers and coaches. A good coach will show you how it’s done and train you do to it; a bad coach will strip you of your dignity, beat the crap out of you and denigrate you and reduce you to make himself feel better and to wait for you to appease him or her. While we’re at it: there is no place for inquiries about personal preferences, and opinions of behavior.
As high schoolers, we liked teachers and coaches who were like us: who cursed, and maybe smoked or showed some rebellion. We related to that; that was cool to us. Looking back: those teachers were needy losers.
As parents, we need to hold teachers and coaches to a high level: they must behave themselves and not work so hard to earn our kids’ favor. Trust is earned when it’s proven. It’s the same as “stranger danger” — as I say to my kids and any kid or their parent who will listen: “No adult ever needs the help of a young child to do anything.” Same goes for coaches and teachers and other authority figures. They are there to teach and train, plain and simple.
The article in The New Yorker is linked above; it’s long, as many articles can be in that magazine, but it’s captivating and important to read. Elitism from our friends, our parents, our siblings, relatives, teachers, coaches, priests — anyone really — is corrosive and dangerous; its intent is to breed subservience, supplication and submission. It’s the “mean girls” of anything we do. Anyone can have their own opinions, but the moment they become empirical, black & white, or critical of yours or your child’s is the moment they can become dangerous and they create a perfect breeding ground for inadequacy issues and second-guesses.