“A Meeting With Mr. Bart”

Memoir by Geraldine Chrein

Mr. Bart was my favorite eighth-grade teacher at David Stein Junior High School. He taught social studies in an experimental core curriculum program. We worked hard researching projects alone and in small groups. I liked the work. It was grown-up, creative work, which he made more fun by joking with us. I never thought of him as a teacher but rather as a wise guide who pointed out the signs we missed along the way. He seemed to know how to support and encourage kids to success. We trusted him to lead us through the learning maze. 

We looked forward to Mr. Bart’s double-period social studies classes. Miss Goldstein, our homely English teacher, demanded perfection while demeaning those who couldn’t meet her standards. Mrs. Kirsner, our young science teacher, also guided with compassion, while Mr. Rubins, our handsome French teacher, exemplified joi de vivre, but tended to grade low. 

As the teacher-leader of our team, Mr. Bart was also honing his administrative skills. He left the next year to take a position as an assistant principal in another junior high school. We sadly went through ninth grade “Bartless.” He was missed by all. 

Twenty-seven years would pass until I met Mr. Bart again. My life was full, with almost-grown children and husband. We had recently made a big transition from our comfortable home in New Jersey to a loft in Manhattan. The move was convenient for my husband, but I went from a good job as an education program coordinator to unemployment. Before our move I believed that I could easily get a good job, but my confidence was quickly eroding in the recession of 1982.

I landed a per diem job as an education evaluator at the Central Board of Education. Bob, my friendly and supportive boss, knew I was looking for full-time work. One day he told me that a friend of his, a retired principal, Harry Bart, who was now the C.E.O. of a small educational publishing house, was looking for a curriculum developer/writer — would I be interested? Like a 14-year-old girl I blurted out, “Harry Bart was my favorite eighth-grade teacher. Harry Bart, I love Harry Bart! He was my model for good teaching!” Bob sent him my résumé and arranged the interview. 

I was so excited to see Mr. Bart. I fantasized about working with him and this glamorous job in a publishing house. How cool it would be to be working within walking distance of my new loft and only blocks from my husband, Stan’s, office. He could occasionally take me to lunch. 

I was also very nervous. Even though I was an adult who had recently earned an Ed.D. degree and had worked in the field for almost 20 years, I was interviewing with Mr. Bart. In some parts of my brain I was still that 14-year-old girl and he was my teacher. 

I dressed carefully to look professional. Conservative tan suit, pink blouse, and abstract print scarf to add a bit of artistic flair. Not too much makeup and only a drop of light perfume to appear more intellectual than glamorous. I wanted to convince both of us that I had successfully transitioned from schoolgirl to professional woman. 

What did I expect? Mr. Bart is also 27 years older. If I am 42 than he must be at least 55 or 60 now. He had an impressive career as an educator in New York City working his way up to assistant superintendent of schools assigned to the chancellor before he retired. Now he runs his own publishing company. Oh yes — I was very nervous. 

He was warm and welcoming; he put me at ease by giving me a big hug and saying, “I am so happy to see you.” He was interested in hearing about my life and work. He complimented me on my new degree, achievements, and appearance. His personal life was displayed on his large mahogany desk. Pictures of his pretty wife, a grown son, and two grandchildren. More pictures of him with Mayor Koch and several board of education chancellors. 

Mr. Bart was not a particularly good-looking man with his thinning hair and ruddy complexion. He was also a bit too stout, but he had the satisfied smile of a successful man in every photo. 

Turns out that he didn’t really have an opening, but he was hoping to create a position in reading and language arts. I didn’t want to seem too anxious or overly enthusiastic, like a gushing schoolgirl. I attempted to show him what a good match I was for this position with my experience in both language development and reading. 

He was impressed enough to want to show me around the place. So we left his comfortable office and walked down the wide hallway where three people were working in a brightly lighted staff room. Rather than stop to introduce me to them he seemed anxious to show me the storeroom where he kept all the books. This seemed a bit odd, but I was sure he wanted to discuss the wide variety of books he published. The room was locked, but he had a key — he bragged that only a few employees were trusted enough to have a key. 

We entered a dark, windowless room that smelled sweetly of ink on printed paper. He turned on the fluorescent light fixture over the large wooden table in the center of this space and turned to lock the door. 

Books of all sizes and shapes covered the table and the shelves lining the scarred walls. As I approached the table to look at the book titles, Mr. Hart quickly pushed his stout body against mine so that I fell with my back on the table, where he pinned me down, groping clumsily to lift my tan skirt. The room seemed to go dark again. 

I was so shocked that it took me a few moments to realize what was happening. When I finally did, denial took over — this couldn’t be kind, trusted Mr. Bart attacking me. And then reality!

I screamed, “Mr. Bart, get off me!” 

He pushed me down with more force, pressing his sweaty body against my chest. I kicked him hard with the pointy toe of my new pumps. Although he was bigger and stronger than me, I was younger, faster, and terrified by what I now comprehended was Mr. Bart, sexual predator. 

Luckily, I am very good in dangerous situations — intuition maybe or that primitive brain concerned only with survival. I reached behind me for a book, hit him hard, and managed to break away and became a very strict teacher. 

“Mr. Bart, back away now! I am so disappointed in you. You let me down with your aggressive behavior. I respected and admired you. You were my best teacher. Open that door and let me out right now!” Our power positions had magically shifted. 

Wasn’t he afraid I would tell Bob about this predatory interview? What would he tell him? I don’t think Mr. Bart had murder on his mind. I guess he basically had two choices: let me out of the room with a quick, clean goodbye or rape and then murder me to keep me quiet. Luckily he seemed to wither in response to my strict teacher voice and he let me out. 

I ran down the hall, passing his large office, the now empty staff room, the waiting room that smelled of lilies, into the hallway, impatiently punching the button for the damn elevator. The people in the elevator noticed my disheveled appearance and the tears streaming down my face. They politely looked away. 

I deeply breathed in the fresh spring air as I left the building. I didn’t know where to go. I just needed to sit down in the cleansing sun and cool air. I sat in Bryant Park across the street crying.  Not because I was physically hurt — he didn’t have a chance to really hurt me — but because my illusion of a good, almost perfect person was totally shattered. I sat there for a long time trying to make sense of what happened. When I stopped shaking, I walked home slowly. 

I tearfully told my husband what happened in my interview with Mr. Bart. He consoled me with a hug saying, “I know a good job is in your future.” 

I never told Bob because I didn’t think he could or would be able to do much about it. In truth, I was embarrassed to tell him what happened to me. I just thanked him for the contact and explained, “Mr. Bart had not yet formulated his personnel needs.” 

Geri Chrein is a writer who lives and plays in North Sea. She has previously contributed to the Star’s “Guestwords” column and has essays in the book “Stringing Words” by the Windmill Writers group. The names have been changed in this story.