For three decades, Norman Swerling was the nice, happily married man who taught the kids in Newton how to drive. He was strict. He was dedicated. He loved his role in helping teenagers become adults. Then one day a girl said he raped her in his driver’s ed car.
The Boston Globe Magazine
July 9, 2006
By Keith O’Brien
THE FIRST THING the experts will tell you about a rapist is that there is no recognizing a rapist. He could be a thug. He could be your dentist. He could be handsome. He could be fat. He could be your brother, your husband, your best friend. Everyone might trust him. Everyone might know him. And still it could be true. The man could be a rapist.
Norman Swerling never thought much in the past about this whole business of who’s a rapist and who’s not and how you can tell the difference. But now he can’t stop thinking about it. The 58-year-old man sits at the kitchen table of his home in Wellesley Hills, unemployed and looking out the windows over the treetops to the east. From here, over his French-pressed coffee every morning, Swerling can see the Boston skyline, tiny in the distance. His is not a luxurious home – not by Wellesley standards. But it is a good home. The neighborhood quiet. The young drivers well trained. Or at least they were before the girl started saying those nasty things about Swerling.
Even now, almost a year after everything ended, Swerling still thinks about her: what she said, how she said it, the way she smiled and even laughed in court. God, how he wishes he could stop thinking about it all. But he can’t. She is the main character in the story that keeps playing over and over inside his head. She is the reason why he is unemployed and at the kitchen table midmorning on a weekday. Without her, there would be no rape and assault charges, there would be no trial. Without her, he would still be Mr. Swerling, the driver’s education teacher in Newton schools for more than three decades. Not beloved, perhaps. But not a rapist.
And yet even the jurors wonder. The 12 people who unanimously acquitted Swerling one year ago this month on eight counts of rape, assault, and indecent assault and battery – even some of them still wonder. The case didn’t add up. It didn’t make sense to them that a 16-year-old student would cook up a bunch of allegations simply because she didn’t like Swerling. And yet that was exactly what they determined. Many jurors believed the girl was lying when she said Swerling forced her to perform oral sex on him inside the driver’s ed car in Newton in December 2003. One juror called the girl’s testimony “an act,” and the jury as a whole came to a swift decision on the worst of the charges last July. Swerling, they determined, was no rapist.
But the idea that someone would craft grandiose lies and repeat them in court just to take down a teacher didn’t make sense to jurors. And so, while they voted to acquit Swerling on all counts, some jurors told me that they couldn’t help but think as he walked free that maybe he did do something, maybe touched the girl somewhere or made inappropriate comments. Something.
Only two people know exactly what, if anything, happened, and one of them is off at college now and not talking (the Globe does not identify accusers in sexual abuse cases). The only trace of her new life is her Web page on myspace.com. Her parents, who still live in Newton, aren’t talking, either. Attempts to reach them were ignored for months, then finally rebuffed in May in a two-line e-mail informing me not to try contacting their daughter anymore. In conclusion, the girl’s mother typed, “You will hear from our attorney.”
I never did. Nor did I hear from the Newton police officers who were involved with the case or from the prosecutors who brought the case to court. In fact, not one witness for the prosecution agreed to discuss the Swerling rape trial. Everyone seems to want to move on. Something like this – a sex scandal involving a longtime teacher and a pretty high school girl – can’t go away fast enough. But it lingers. The Swerling case isn’t just every parent’s nightmare; it’s every teacher’s. One child’s comments – be they true or not – send nervous adults running for cover. And just like that, your teaching career might be summed up on the front page of your local newspaper under this headline: “Teacher indicted on rape charge.”
That’s how it went down for Swerling. And so, as others move on, he sits here: still being paid his $83,000 salary by the school district, but unemployed, possibly unemployable, and with way too much time on his hands. His interest in his own case borders on obsession. He repeats the same facts again and again. He has confronted some of the prosecution’s witnesses to try to interview them for a book he is writing, and in conversation he admits to feeling as though he has to prove his innocence. “I’ve got to stop doing that,” he says, “and yet I keep doing it.”
He can’t help it. His story is all he has. He won his trial and his freedom, but he lost his place in life.
A: … I felt his penis against my mouth and he told me to open my mouth. And then he pushed my head down.
Q: And did you open your mouth when he said to do so?
A: Yes. I was very scared.
Q: And did he put anything in your mouth at that time?
Q: And what was that?
A: His penis.
- From the student’s grand jury testimony, March 9, 2004
NORMAN SHELDON SWERLING was a large man. Maybe 300 pounds. He liked to eat. Still does. And although he has dropped weight since the girl’s allegations, he’s still not a handsome man. He wears a goofy, aw-shucks smile and short-sleeve, button-down shirts. He’s bearded. He’s bald.
He’s also dedicated. Norman Swerling loved teaching driver’s ed in Newton. He lived for it. It wasn’t just his job, it was his identity. At parents’nights over the years, he would remind those gathered before him that what he was teaching truly mattered. “I have the honor,” he would say, “and the awesome and enormous responsibility of teaching the most immediately relevant course in this high school.” The way he looked at it, if he failed, kids died. This was his community, too.
His parents moved him and his two siblings from Dorchester to Waban, one of the villages of Newton, when Norman was 11. As the children of Russian Jews who had immigrated to the United States, Arthur and Ethel Swerling wanted stability for their children. Norman, their middle child, graduated from Newton North High School in 1965. He was a member of the motion picture squad, the rifle target-shooting team, the folk-singing club, the Key Club.
Swerling went off to college and later earned a master’s degree in secondary education, but he returned to Newton in 1971 as a driver’s ed instructor. It paid well, $5 an hour in those days, and offered immediate results. Kids practiced, learned, and got their driver’s licenses – a coming-of-age moment that Swerling witnessed countless times. His wife of 20 years, Chris Swerling, who works for Newton schools as a librarian, says her husband was “a lifer,” one of those people who planned on teaching forever. The Swerlings have no children. “I could clock him. He was never late. I knew exactly where he was. He’d leave for school at the exact time every day, and on Monday and Wednesday nights he would clock in at 9:29 after his driver’s ed classes.”
But then a school official left a message for Swerling on January 15, 2004, asking to meet with him the next morning.
She was talking. Swerling was informed by school officials that “a female student” was making “serious allegations.” This was all he knew as he was suspended from his job. He searched his mind for an explanation. What had he said? What had he done? Had he looked at some girl the wrong way? Peered down her blouse? Swerling stopped sleeping and began to unravel.
By the time the indictments came down two months later, Chris Swerling had sent her husband to Florida on a discount train ticket just to get him out of the house. That’s why she had to break the news to Norman’s parents. That’s why she was the one racing over to their house to tell them about the indictment before they heard about it on television.
Norman Swerling wanted to die. Embezzlement, tax evasion, even robbery – they’re all crimes. “But rape,” he tells me, “the molestation of a child, is one thing that’s not forgivable.”
He felt as if everyone were watching him, even strangers, and finally, that October, his body, overweight and under stress, broke down. Swerling had a heart attack. He needed triple-bypass surgery, and it occurred to him that if he died then, the charges would hang there forever. He would be the dead rapist.
Q: During the lesson on January 6th, did Mr. Swerling touch you anywhere?
A: Yeah. He, like, put his hand on my thigh, like my inner thigh, and then, like, he put his hand on, like, the top part of my pants, like the inside of it, on my upper butt. And then –
Q: And how did that make you feel?
- From the student’s grand jury testimony
THE GIRL WAS BEAUTIFUL. Still is. And she’s hardly shy about it. That much is obvious from her Web page on myspace.com, which appeared less than three weeks after the trial ended. On her page, the girl, who is now 19, says “shopping is one of my favorite things to do” and “i ALSO LOVE TO LOOK HOT AND SEXY for myself and anyone who cares.” Beneath one of the pinup shots she has posted of herself is the caption: “do I look like a slut?” But according to the page, she also likes literature and wishes she could have met Mother Teresa. It’s a hodgepodge of random thoughts and photos – some of them a bit graphic – like many of the personal Web pages on myspace, which has become the place to swap and post both mundane and racy tidbits that were once reserved for a diary hidden in a bottom drawer.
In high school, though, she was just another kid who needed her driver’s license, and that’s where Swerling came in. It was his job to teach her how to drive. By all accounts, it did not go smoothly.
She said Swerling yelled at her. He said the girl didn’t take correction well. She said Swerling was “so mean.” He said the girl had a bad attitude. She called Swerling “creepy” and complained that he made comments about her good looks that made her feel uncomfortable. He called her driving sub-par. “The fact is, I liked 98.9 percent of my students,” Swerling says. “This one was not likable. She was goddamn unpleasant.”
Their clashes began in late 2003 while the girl was fulfilling her in-class requirements for driver’s ed. Swerling, in general, is a polite, genuine man. With Norman, his wife says, there is never any deception. What you see is what you get. It was one of the reasons why she fell in love with him after they met on a tour of Italy in 1984.
But Swerling also does not suffer fools easily. Especially when it comes to driving. He’s a stickler for details. A green light doesn’t mean go; it means you have the right of way, if it’s safe to take it. Those who didn’t understand that felt his frustration. Even those who love him say he could be critical, impatient, fussy. Class started on time and never ended early.
“I don’t suspect he was wildly popular with the kids,” says Swerling’s defense attorney, Tom Guiney, who met him only after the girl made her allegations. “He would really take this driving stuff seriously. I would be driving the car with him, and he’d be telling me to come to a complete stop.”
The guy was a character. “He stood out. Let’s put it that way,” recalls Cheryl Turgel, president of the Newton Teachers Association.
The girl, though, was saying other things. After she completed her class with Swerling and her road practice with his assistant, Swerling was calling her house and telling her mother that she needed more time behind the wheel. The mother agreed to the extra practice – for which Swerling charged $45 per hour – in part, she later testified, because Swerling was “very persistent” about it. The girl and the man rode alone together during these lessons on two occasions: on December 16, 2003, and again on January 6, 2004. (Swerling says that being alone in a car with students was a daily occurrence for him.) Swerling was alone with the girl a third time when he accompanied her to the Watertown Registry of Motor Vehicles for her driver’s license exam on Friday, January 9. The girl passed, and only then, the following week, in school, did her accusations begin.
On Monday, she reported to the school nurse Gail Kramer – a woman with whom the girl often spent her lunches – that Swerling had slapped her butt outside the Watertown RMV. On Tuesday, she told Kramer that Swerling had once placed both of his hands over hers on the steering wheel, that his hands were sweaty and she could feel him breathing on her. On Wednesday, an appointment was made to talk about these matters with school officials, and the accusations escalated.
The girl said that Swerling once put his hand down the back of her pants, under her shirt, and often on her inner thigh; that he wanted to make people believe they were boyfriend and girlfriend at the Watertown RMV; that he walked very close to her there and “practically sat on my lap”; that he grabbed her hand and placed it on his penis while parked in an “alley” or on a “side street” as it was “getting dark” during one lesson and then forced her head down into his lap and put his penis in her mouth. The girl said that as she began to gag, Swerling told her, “OK, pull up the car, we’re leaving.” Then together, they drove to Newton Centre, where Swerling left her alone in the car and walked into Dunkin’ Donuts to buy coffee.
“I’m confident the truth will come out,” Swerling told a reporter after the charges against him were announced. But privately he was less sure. He began to prepare his wife for the possibility of jail time. Jurors were sure to convict him of something, he figured. Just to make a statement. Just because, as he likes to say, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
He suffered his heart attack, and then two months later, he watched his father die. The frail man had wanted to help. Before his death in December 2004, he had asked Norman, “Do you needmoney?” The son said no. Now Norman’s father was gone, his wife supportive but helpless. And his trial was still six months away.
Q: Starting in December of 2003, mid-December, did you begin to note or make observations of changes in [your daughter] at your home?
Q: Can you describe those for us?
A: She was very scared, very sad person, would not sleep through the night.
- Testimony from the student’s mother under direct examination at trial last July
TOM GUINEY, Swerling’s defense attorney, is not a true believer. The silver-haired, plain-speaking lawyer knows that teachers rape children. He knows that dirty men do dirty things to innocent girls. As an attorney representing teachers for years, he’s seen it many times.
But as he got to know Swerling, he didn’t see a predator. He saw a goofy, happy-go-lucky guy, not afraid to correct Guiney’s driving. “He was much more interested in getting the early-bird special at dinnertime,” Guiney says, “than he was at preying on girls.” The attorney became confident – “as confident as I had ever been” – that Swerling was innocent.
There were inconsistencies in the girl’s story. She said Swerling raped her as it was getting dark, but Swerling said their lesson ended around 3 p.m. and he was still wearing sunglasses. She said he forced her head down into his lap. But that would have been difficult, Guiney pointed out to jurors, seeing as she would have been strapped into her seat belt at the time. The girl said Swerling had her take the seat belt off. But Guiney told jurors at the trial that this was a “recent contrivance.” Seat belts had never been mentioned before.
He hammered away at that omission while questioning other aspects of the girl’s statements. The alleged assault, for example, would not have happened in an alley or a side street, but rather, Guiney said, on a lane for parked cars, parallel to CommonwealthAvenue, “one of the grand thoroughfares in this Commonwealth.” He questioned why anyone would choose to assault a girl in such a public place in broad daylight or at the Watertown RMV, where people knew Swerling. And Guiney also questioned the credibility of the police work. Newton Police Officer Kathleen Cosgrove said at trial that she had taken “a passive approach” to this investigation “so as not to retraumatize the victim.” She said she had asked just one question: “whether or not Mr. Swerling had ejaculated.”
The girl initially reported that she didn’t know. Twelve days later, she said he may have ejaculated. She remembered “tasting something really bad.” Police conducted a search for semen in two Newton driver’s ed cars; none was found. But this did not dissuade Middlesex prosecutors from bringing the case to trial. Rape cases often lack eyewitnesses and forensic evidence. It often boils down to his word against hers. And while prosecutor Mark Walter granted to the jury that the girl was “inconsistent” about some details, she had never wavered, Walter said, on the basics.
Walter asked jurors to consider why Swerling would have insisted on extra lessons when the girl had already completed her required road practice with his assistant. He pushed them for a reason why anyone would fabricate such stories, and he reminded them of the testimony of another Newton officer, Tyrone Powell. Just before the alleged rape, Powell testified, he had seen Swerling with the girl and struck up a conversation with them in their car; he remembered Swerling commenting on the girl’s beauty. In the original police report, that’s where it ended. There was, according to that report, no “inappropriate touching.” But at the trial, Powell did recall Swerling placing his hand on her thigh – something that Walter reminded jurors of in his closing arguments.
BUT IN THE END, jurors agreed the prosecution had not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Swerling was guilty of anything.
He wept. His wife wept. They thanked the jurors and left. He was vindicated. He was screwed. Swerling wanted his job back. But school officials were having none of it. In the wake of the allegations, they had disbanded the driver’s ed program. And Turgel, the union president, believed it a bad idea for Swerling to return to the school in some other capacity. In the 18 months since Turgel first met Swerling when he was suspended, she had stopped thinking of him as an odd duck, a quirky man who perhaps said something inappropriate to the girl. Like Guiney, she became convinced he was innocent. Still, Turgel didn’t want him in the classroom. Among children, she thought, he would be vulnerable.
“I know that people don’t think that kids lie,” Turgel says. “But they do, and they can be cruel.” They develop crushes on teachers, and sometimes they lie. They believe they’re wronged by teachers, and sometimes they lie. “I don’t think the general public understands,” says Turgel, “how vulnerable we are working with children.”
Out of work, Swerling tried to start over. But it was hard. Doubts lingered. Acquitted or not, he was still considered “strange” by former students who were quoted at length in the Newton Tab after the jury’s verdict. They recalled his short temper, his inappropriate jokes, and the general feeling that something had always been a bit off about the man. “This is the aftermath,” his wife says. “He was tried. He was cleared beyond a shadow of a doubt, as far as I’m concerned. And there’s still this perception. I think there is still this perception that he’s guilty or he might be guilty.”
“One has to ask oneself, and I’m just raising this as a question: Is this man completely and totally innocent just because he was acquitted? That’s the question. And I don’t think anyone can answer it. Not even us.”
- A recent statement from one of the jurors
“You want to see where she lives?” Swerling asks me.
It’s late April. We’re on a tour of Newton. He’s at the wheel of his Chrysler van, seat belt fastened, in control. Swerling keeps talking during his tour. We visit Newton South High School and Newton North. He points out his old classroom and parking space. He shows me the location where the rape allegedly occurred. By day’s end, we even visit the Watertown Registry, aglow with fluorescent lights and crowded as usual. He waves to people he knows there, and they wave back.
We head for the girl’s house. “We’ll go this way,” he says. “It’s pretty.” The driveways are brick, the lawns impeccably kept. The houses – some old, some new – shimmer in the sunlight. Everything is green. Everything blooming. And there it is – the house.
SWERLING DOES NOT SLOW DOWN. We are there, and then we are gone. He knows he must move on.
The school district paid him to walk away last October, agreeing to send him checks until January 2007, and they also agreed to remove any mention of administrative leave from his file. It’s as if nothing ever happened. He should be happy. But he’s not. Not really.
The problem is, he still thinks of himself as Mr. Swerling the teacher, instead of Norman Swerling the man. The problem is, teaching driver’s ed is all he’s ever known, and now, he says, no one will hire him to do what he loves.
“By not working,” he says on another day, “your mind goes to hell. I’m serious. I used to be sharp. In driver’s ed, you’ve got to be like that.” He snaps his fingers twice – snap, snap!
He is a free man, but he is stuck in the past. Back then, he had catchphrases, aphorisms he would use to help a student, or sometimes even his wife, become a better driver. One of them was “Strive to improve your position.”
It means: Be aware of the traffic around you. Don’t get caught in someone’s blind spot. Don’t be caught off guard. It is an apt metaphor for life. But it seems lost on the old teacher. When I remind him of his catchphrase and ask how it applies to his life now, Swerling talks of finding another teaching job. Then, conceding that’s not likely, he returns to talking about the people still lodged in his rearview mirror.
The police officers. The prosecutors. The school officials.