By Ryan Gellis
Most people who heard about Theophilus Burroughs’ bust for attempting to sell night-vision goggles, 200,000 counterfeit cigarette stamps, and bulletproof vests to undercover operatives he thought were connected to Middle East terror organizations probably uttered a “WTF?” and moved right on, albeit feeling a little safer. But to me the news was a bit more personal. Burroughs was my high school music teacher.
Less than eight years ago, he could have been overheard making clichéd statements to a class of Stuyvesant high school freshman about his cheating policy — “If you do the crime you gotta do the time.” Just weeks ago, he was heard making the suggestion to blow up a police station and a Jewish community center.
It would be overly dramatic to say that he went from pushing knowledge on reluctant teens to pushing automatic weapons on religious extremists. No one regarded him as the finest teacher. People would ask who you had for music appreciation — a freshman requirement — and you would simply say “Burroughs.” They would nod in a that’s-an-experience-I-don’t-miss kind of way.
What he did do, however, was introduce us all to a certain realism. He never gave a sappy speech about the important role music plays in our academic and cultural development. Instead, he would tell us how he had to teach the class to earn a salary, explaining the harsh realities of life that are often swept over in favor of motivational posters and No-Child-Left-Behind rhetoric.
He did some strange things, things that some people might be tempted to call warning signs. He used to flirt with all the pretty girls in his classes, receiving complaints from parents and students a number of times. But there was also a normalcy about him. He sat for conferences twice every year to meet students’ parents. He shook their hands, he kibitzed. Parents took him for that instructor who comes along every now and then to teach their children a different kind of lesson: something about the difficulties life throws at us.
As for his religious affiliations, they were certainly not apparent while he was teaching. His only outward sign of belief was a copper bracelet which he told us signified his belief in, well, the healing properties of copper.
The media seems to want to make the connection between Burroughs the arms dealer and Burroughs the high school teacher — the Stuyvesant high school teacher. As if specialized public high schools like Stuy have some special screening process completely different from the Department of Education’s standard vetting protocol. As if every one of us Stuyvesantians must bear at least a small segment of the blame for his actions.
Meanwhile, after the news broke, Facebook walls were full of phrases like “Can you believe this?” or “Who would have ever thought?”
Did any of us notice telltale signs? Could that day he got really mad at the class for talking point to signs of instability? I’ll tell you this; he wasn’t the meanest teacher who passed through the halls of Stuyvesant. Or the most secretive. Or the most religious. Not even close.
Stuyvesant, where Burroughs was fired years ago, had no comment regarding their former music teacher, not even for an alum who was one of his pupils. But for the many students who passed through his music room there is a desire for some kind of closure. We probably won’t get it. Instead, we have memories of that cliche Mr. Burroughs once used, suddenly permeated with greater meaning. “If you’re gonna do the crime…”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 22, 2010