The Darkroom

by

06/30/2019

Neighborhood: Clinton Hill, Midwood

I learned to write in seventh grade. Not to form sentences, but to know and use my voice on paper, and to hope I would be heard. It was 1969: Nixon was president and I had a new teacher: a 26-year-old draft evader named Robert Rusch. He was six feet four and, moreover, wore cowboy boots. He had a red beard. He took us on class trips to the Apollo theater and Black Panther headquarters. He read aloud to us from Catcher in the Rye and Manchild in the Promised Land. He drew a diagram on the blackboard depicting the typical location of the clitoris. And, on the first day of school, he handed out a pile of 50-page notebooks with blue cardboard covers and told us our homework for the rest of the year was to write in them every day.

The whole school—Woodward, it was called—was weird. We did not focus on academic achievement but on brotherhood. Every grade had a single teacher for almost all subjects, and there were no report cards or tests. We were protected from strategy, competition, and complacency, and we studied slavery, concentration camps, the Trail of Tears, McCarthyism, and other hideous things. Instead of gym we had “yard,” during which we played a version of soccer with no positions—not even “offense” and “defense.” I’m still not sure what the point of that was supposed to be. Isn’t “yard” what exercise is called in prison? When it rained, we learned international folk dances and sang Woody Guthrie songs. My best friend at Woodward was Amy Stein. She lived in Midwood, in a house with marble floors and nubbed-silk couches. By the front door was a cut-glass dish of sugarless candies that no one ever seemed to eat. Amy and I had a sleepover date at her house at the end of August, after I came back from camp and she from “the country.” The point was to catch up on any important changes in each other’s lives so we could begin the school year in solidarity. We tossed around terms like “solidarity” and “relevance” all the time in those days. 

In Amy’s finished basement, we listened to records and played with her mother’s vast supply of cast-off makeup. It wasn’t long before we began to talk about what was really on our minds, which was our new teacher, Robert Rusch.

We’d seen last year’s seventh graders as Rusch made them over in his likeness. They became increasingly rowdy and opinionated, and said things like “dig it,” “I call bullshit,” and “right on” in casual conversation. “Outrageous,” was the highest form of praise. Rusch made up nicknames for many of the girls (“Bananas” and “Sassafras” were two of them), and mocked members of both sexes for their innocence and credulity. (“Awww, mommy and daddy never told you that politicians are all liars? Poor baby!”) Some of his girl disciples started wearing cowboy boots and hanging around him, half-perched on his lap, or with their thumbs in his belt loops. When they let him drape his arm over their shoulders, his fingers were only millimeters away from their newly formed breasts. In the basement, Amy and I made a pact to resist the Ruschian influence. We would not turn into his minions, would not hang out at his house after school, and would certainly not let him touch us. It was disgusting.

Given this pact, the notebook assignment was problematic. Not only was I supposed to write down my thoughts daily, but to do so knowing that he was going to read whatever I wrote. My first month or so of entries were so well-defended they might as well have been in code: “Watched Anne Boleyn with Dad and KDC.” “In my next life I will be an elephant.” “Went crazy at E.J. Korvette’s.” When my notebook came back from its first review, Rusch had made annotations along the lines of “Very interesting. Zzzzzz.” And in the margins next to “I got mad at Josh in yard,” he wrote, “Right on, Rachel!” This made me feel invaded and antagonized, which no doubt was the point.

In mid-October, after we had finished reading “Lady Sings the Blues,” Rusch brought in some of his Billie Holiday tapes. One was a very early recording, girlish and melodic. The second was made near the end of Holiday’s life: her voice ravaged, her musical style almost experimental. All I could hear was pain. After listening, we had a timed writing exercise (you had to keep writing for a whole minute or two, or five, or whatever it was). In class I often wrote “I hate Rusch” over and over, but this time I wrote about how much I’d hated the music. Rusch was obviously a huge Holiday fan. I knew it would rile him that anyone could hate her. Even better, my commentary would show him that he had failed to reach me as a teacher!

Of course, what I didn’t consider was that Rusch liked nothing better than a good argument. He copied my rant on mimeo and distributed it in class the next day. I had compared Holiday’s voice to “the scream of a plantation slave.” My African American classmates called me racist and ignorant. Rusch just grinned.

In November, Amy got her first menstrual period. Scientifically speaking, I felt that I understood this circumstance pretty well: I’d read every word I could find on the subject… my mother’s old biology textbook, Spock’s Baby and Child Care and, of course, I’d read the assertion of  Harriet-the-Spy’s friend Janie that “it feels like rocks” in the second Harriet book, The Long Secret. I had not actually discussed the matter with any adult, least of all my mother. 

“…And he knows,” said Amy, on the phone.

“You told him?”

“No, I was sitting in the lunchroom, and he sat down next to me and said, ‘You don’t have to wear those pants, it doesn’t show.’” That day, she had worn pink corduroy pants to school. Rusch also told her he had noticed that her breasts were bigger, and said that he had been keeping an eye on them—that he had looked down her shirt.

“Gross!” I said.

“I know,” said Amy. “But isn’t that wild?”

Our next book was Soul on Ice, Eldridge Cleaver’s prison essays. As I remember it, Cleaver had been convicted for raping a white woman. In Rusch’s class we debated whether or not he was truly a rapist. After all, society had so demonized the idea of black men with white women that his crime could also be viewed as an act of revolutionary transgression. Hence, Cleaver was a political prisoner. We actually believed this. And that wasn’t even the part I remember being disturbed about. What most bothered me was the inevitable conclusion from this chain of reasoning that those of us whose skin was white were, by genetic heritage, enemies of Black Power and would be treated as such “come the revolution.” It enraged me that, after three years at this ridiculous school that didn’t even have lockers, let alone cheerleaders or dances, I was going to die when the Panthers mounted their armed offensive, which seemed imminent.

One morning, Rusch called on me to read aloud from the New York Times—a report on the wedding of one of President Nixon’s daughters to a young man named Cox. The article described the bridesmaids’ dresses and the food. As I stood, reading, I wondered: Why me? Has he divined my secret obsession with clothes (at the time, I dressed exclusively in BVD T-shirts and Levis)? Is he mocking my (also hidden) WASP background? I didn’t even notice when the words, “Lemon-blown Cox” came out of my mouth. He had to ask me to read the sentence again. There had been a misprint, and the bridegroom’s surname had been substituted for some word like “cream” or “meringue” in a description of the dessert that had been served. On the front page of the newspaper of record! Rusch howled at the error. The class caught on and followed. No doubt I did, too.

That spring we began a new unit, Photography, taught by Rusch. There was a small darkroom in the attic of the Clinton Hill mansion that housed our school. For the first few classes, we all crammed in while Rusch showed us the procedures for loading and developing film. Then we were sent out to document our lives. I took a lot of pictures of fire hydrants and subway cars.

When it came time to try printing my selects, Rusch came up to the darkroom with me. There was every good reason for him to stand behind me and use both his hands to direct mine as I fiddled with the enlarger in the red safety light. And when he made me flinch with a quick tickle or prod, I was ashamed of my fear. So I pretended to be cool while wondering if the feeling that I was experiencing meant I actually wanted him to touch me. Was leaning into me officially “touching”? What about massaging my belly? I told him to stop. “Why, doesn’t it feel good?” I was left to ponder my answer as my first print went in and out of the fixer and up on the clothesline to dry.

My dad had a darkroom in our apartment, and when he had lived with us he’d spent a lot of time in there working on images of my mother, my brother, and me. I associated the smell of fixer with his undershirts. There was a strong connection in my mind between my handsome, silent, missing father and that tiny room where his private language was spoken. Now it seemed the darkroom was also the domain of my problematic teacher. No clothes were removed or bodily fluids expelled. Rusch didn’t force himself on me; at least he did not use his size or weight. He just went on tickling and teasing and touching and making utterly inappropriate observations for the rest of the day. I transferred into Typing, the other “elective.”

That summer, Amy joined Rusch, his wife and three kids, and four other girls and two boys from our class on Rusch’s annual cross-country van trip. They drove to Alaska and slept in tents. She had already had sex with Rusch one May afternoon after modeling for nude photographs at his house. She told me about it while soaking in her mother’s bathtub. I was sitting at eye level with a shelf stocked with remedies I had never seen before: Pretty Feet, Jolen, Sal Volatile. I can remember these details but not the content of Amy’s story or the sound of her voice. I preferred not to hear.

I learned a lot in Rusch’s classroom: I learned that “rhetoric” meant “bullshit;” that the New York Rangers were a hockey team (and not mounted police, as I had supposed); that the man on the Zig Zag rolling papers was not Che Guevara; and that Woody Guthrie’s song “Pastures of Plenty” was ironic (which makes you wonder about “This Land is Your Land,” doesn’t it?). I learned who I was, and who I was not: I cared far more for safety than for adventure or romance. I was a collaborator—not a revolutionary. Well, okay. I was fourteen years old. I knew a lot for fourteen.

***

In Rachel Cline‘s third novel, The Question Authority https://www.rachelcline.com/the-question-authority , a middle-aged civil servant returns to her old Brooklyn neighborhood and confronts the damage done by her charismatic, sexually exploitative 8th grade teacher.

 

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