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Mr. B

Rebecca Makkai

This is an attempt to thank a teacher whose name I don’t remember, and a request for help in tracking him down. I think he’d appreciate the mystery of it all.

His name was something like Mr. Bernstein, or maybe his first name was Bernie. It was, perhaps, Barry Berenstain, or maybe Brian Bernhard. It might have had nothing to do with those names, but I’ll call him Mr. B because I’m 60% sure that this letter was somewhere in his name. I remember him as Jewish, although I doubt twelve-year-old me would have registered this. He was on the short side, with dark hair and a dark beard. He had a daughter in the class, a girl who’d roll her eyes on cue but obviously adored him.

The setting matters: in the Chicago suburbs in the late ’80s and early ’90s, a woman with the improbable name of Joan Smutny headed up a summer program for “gifted and talented” youth. It was what we might now call an enrichment program, but America was at the height of a craze for identifying giftedness, plucking it out and labeling it and making it walk down the hall midday to special classes. The programs allowed designated “gifted” students to spend a few weeks a summer taking classes on the campus of the tony North Shore Country Day School. Many of us were dropped off from other suburbs, but a significant number of kids came on buses from the city.

What I’ve learned in recent years about the history of “gifted” labeling is alarming—and, in what will come as a surprise twist to no one who’s paid a mote of attention to American history, rooted in racism. White parents of white children often requested gifted tracks within public schools, a kind of white flight without the flight. To its credit, this program—perhaps because it didn’t exist as a hierarchical system within a preexisting school—brought together kids from wildly divergent neighborhoods, creating the most racially diverse educational program I would ever participate in, up to and including graduate school.

I attended these programs for four or five years, taking the creative writing classes Mrs. Smutny led herself (she had an Aquanet helmet of peach hair, and mostly had us respond to images in National Geographic), a pop performance workshop (I soloed on “Forever Young” by Alphaville), an art class in which we learned pointillism, and an astronomy class in which the teacher would not stop talking about the heat death of the universe in a way that left me terrified for years.

Separate from the value of any individual course was the implicit message that any subject, no matter how acute in focus, could be the subject of intense study. It was, among other things, a preview of liberal arts college.

I loved the creative writing classes for reasons that had little to do with Mrs. Smutny’s presence; like many great teachers, she was a fairly invisible presence in the classroom, leaving us time to write and share our work. What I loved was the writing.

What I loved about Mr. B’s classes, in contrast, was Mr. B.

He excelled at storytelling and at tricking us into asking him to tell stories. He’d mention, casually, that Calvin Coolidge’s son was killed by a pair of socks, and then move right on. Someone would ask what he meant, and he’d say, “That’s a story for another day.” We’d end up begging for the story. He’d tell it, and manage to give us the entire history of the 1920s and the Republican Party and the imminent Great Depression along the way.

I’m not sure the history class had any chronological or other order to it—I remember spending a good long time on both the Cuban Missile Crisis and the invention of potato chips—but content was not the point. We were learning how to find the story, how to dig for details rather than waiting passively for the important information. If we’d had the leisure of a full school year, he might have had us spend weeks in the library stacks, researching individual obsessions. As things stood, we had the books he brought to class and tossed onto our desks, the teamwork we were assigned (other kids, I discovered, knew all kinds of stuff), and the endless well of stories he had, if only we would ask him the right questions. Oliver Stone’s JFK had just come out, and we allotted a significant percentage of class time to our own assassination theories, and the zoomed-in photos in books and magazines, and Mr. B’s stories about Abraham Zapruder and Jack Ruby and the bad luck of the car top being down, that I was half sure we would manage to solve the whole case before the summer was done.

On one occasion, a fire alarm plus a rainstorm forced all the classes out of their rooms and into a large hallway in another building. Other classes played clapping games or turned cartwheels down the tiled floor. We sat there and requested more stories from him, and he obliged.

This was a time in my life when I actively wanted to be a historian. I wanted to touch historical artifacts and dig through boxes of old photos. I wanted to dig into history with no one’s agenda but my own, and let my imagination run wild. (I had not yet pieced it together that for me, this did not mean working at a history museum, but writing novels.) Mr. B’s teaching style fit my hopes of what studying history would be: chaotic, tangential, gossipy, random. I was dismayed, upon arriving in ninth-grade history a couple of years later, to find notes prewritten on the board every day, a clear plan of everything we were to learn. My prescriptive ninth-grade history teacher was both excellent and the reason I fell out of love with the full-on study of history, the idea of becoming a college history major.

One thing Mr. B’s stories made clear was the way history was so often happenstance—the product of individual personalities, of tiny strings of cause and effect, often more a matter of narrative than of immutable laws. I’m prone to see education in the same way: the luck of one summer school teacher potentially rewiring a brain for life.

The summer after the American History course, Mr. B led a class that was partly about trial law and partly about the UN; we spent half the session mock-trying a murder case, and half solving some kind of international crisis. I believe there was hypothetical plutonium involved.

That second summer, I came in wanting to be a lawyer as well as a historian. (I might not have been clear on how careers worked.) The class, while wonderful, didn’t push me any further down this road; I was forced, through the magic of teamwork, to collaborate with a show-stealing kid who was named, as all obnoxious children in the early ’90s were named, Jason. On the day of our mock criminal trial, he showed up in an actual necktie, making a speech worthy of the season finale of Perry Mason, coached by his lawyer father. There was no room for any of the rest of us that day, something my adolescent ego couldn’t handle. Speaking of individual moments and happenstance turning the tide: Jason, who is most likely a personal injury attorney today, or perhaps a wonderful person working for Amnesty International, turned me off that summer from a career in law. I suppose I should thank him.

There was also an impossibly sophisticated girl in that course, one who seemed alarmed that she’d been forced into a summer classroom. She rolled her eyes at nearly everything Mr. B said and put her earphones on during our team strategy sessions. She was from the city, and when she found out I was from the suburbs, she looked at me with concern. She said, “No wonder you don’t mind being here. I don’t understand what people do all day in the suburbs. There’s nothing going on!” I asked what she’d be doing in the city right now, if she weren’t in class. “Probably sitting on my roof,” she said, “and watching people walk by.”

I was offended not by the absurdity of her opinion—I took it on faith that people-watching from a city roof was infinitely cooler than people-watching from a suburban porch— but by her failure to appreciate Mr. B. He cared enough to pick apart our flimsy arguments! He cared enough to throw monkey wrenches into our international policies! There were kids, I realized, who got to learn from this guy all year long. I liked my school a lot, but there was no one like Mr. B there.

On the first day of each summer session, as we attended classes, parents (the suburban ones, at least) would meet in an empty classroom to commiserate about their children’s behavior problems, their insufficient local schools, their efforts to get their kids skipped a grade or moved into a more advanced math class. My mother would recount the details on the way home. A recording of those meetings would likely be one of the more cringeworthy artifacts of early-’90s parenting. I’d love to see psychological studies about the lasting effects of telling kids early that they’re special. (For me, I believe it helped my academic ambitions, but also handed me the worst, most aloof parts of my adolescent personality.) Then again: I’d imagine that while it messed many of us up, there were plenty of kids with major challenges at home and in the classroom whose saving grace might have been the acknowledgment that there was room for them in the world.

(A tangentially relevant side note: A college roommate drove a car with a license plate that read GTBBS. It did not stand for “great boobs,” as many assumed; it was her mother’s childhood nickname for her, short for “gifted and talented but basically stupid.”)

Partly because my suburban public schools were alarmingly lily-white, I’m not concerned that my mother’s drive to validate my early intelligence with Wechsler tests and opinions from professionals was a matter of even subconscious racism. I was, rather, a kid she didn’t know what to do with. She tried to keep me from reading too young, figuring I’d be bored then in school. I taught myself anyway, at three. She ended up putting me in Montessori for all of grade school, which allowed me to learn at my own pace, minus the class pull-outs she’d patiently, if smugly, listen to other parents complain about at those first-day meetings. It also allowed me to develop and indulge a wildly uneven brain.

What I was, was a kid with one particular nexus of strengths—language and creativity—that got me through humanities courses with relative ease. Teachers and, later, professors, would forgive just about any academic shortcomings (and lateness and sloppiness) if the essays were well-written and didn’t bore them. Science and math were a different issue; in these subjects, I turned out to be a person of middling intelligence with undiagnosed ADHD that didn’t allow me to regulate my own attention when I wasn’t naturally riveted.

I ended up teaching elementary Montessori myself for twelve years, an experience that led me to reject more strongly than before the label of “gifted” for any child. Or, rather: Gather ‘round while I sing you a corny song about how every single child is gifted.

My teaching style was an amalgam of the best (and maybe some of the worst) things I’d experienced in the classroom as a student. My storytelling style, though, was entirely Mr. B’s. I knew to dangle the juiciest details, and I knew not to give away the whole story—otherwise what would the kids run off to research?

Several rooms in my mother’s house are impenetrable. She used one room as an office, then abandoned it for another room, then abandoned that room. She never threw away anything that had either of her kids’ names on it (church bulletins, Girl Scout talent show posters, swim certificates, piano recital programs— the artifacts of well-intentioned middle-class overscheduling) and so somewhere in piles of papers on top of file cabinets in rooms I cannot access while she’s alive, there is documentation of those summers and those teachers. When I do set out to find those papers (something I might be risking injury to do), it will be one last historical mystery that Mr. B set me on.

Meanwhile: If you know a Bernie Bernhardt or a Benny Bernstein who was the type of guy to ask a classroom of middle schoolers to brainstorm ways the CIA could have killed Fidel Castro, please let him know there was a kid he’d have no reason to remember who doesn’t really have the details of the Kennedy administration straight anymore, but who absorbed a hell of a lot about earning and retaining people’s attention.

We’ve gotten this far and I haven’t explained how Calvin Coolidge’s son died. I’m not going to tell you. You need to go look it up, and wind up reading about Coolidge’s time at Amherst, which will lead you to reading about how the current president of Kenya also went there, which will lead you to the history of Kenya and then to Turkana Boy, a 1.6-million-year-old hominid fossil with a diseased mandible.

You’ll find one story about how Calvin Jr. was killed by the lack of socks, and another about how he was killed by the socks themselves. (The former seems to be correct.) Regardless, the result was the same: a dead son and a depressed president who was even more withdrawn in his second term, who left a seat open for Hoover and his devastating incompetency.

History steered once again by the tiniest twists of fate.

Handwritten capital letter B  with dashes on either side.

Copyright © 2021 by Rebecca Makkai

REBECCA MAKKAI is the Chicago-based author of the novels The Great Believers, The Hundred-Year House, and The Borrower, as well as the short story collection Music for Wartime. The Great Believers was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and received the ALA Carnegie Medal and the LA Times Book Prize, among other honors. Makkai is on the MFA faculties of Sierra Nevada College and Northwestern University, and she is Artistic Director of StoryStudio Chicago.

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