Gary Smith Facing His Attacker
Gary Smith was a popular physical education teacher at I.S. 166 in the South Bronx. His life and career changed forever on May 26, 1988, when he was attacked, unprovoked, on a playground by 17-year-old Tommy Brown. Smith was hit on the head more than 10 times with a wooden bat and was left near death in a coma. He lost his right eye and has undergone several operations for reconstructive and brain surgery.
Two days after the beating, Tommy Brown turned himself in and is now a model inmate working on his college degree at Elmira State Prison in upstate New York.
Smith can’t teach anymore because of his injuries. He now coaches CCNY’s (City College) male basketball team and counsels other teachers who have been victims of violence.
Last December, The New York Times ran an article on Smith in which he said the only way he could get on with his life was if he could ask Brown why he almost killed him.
Through the intervention of HBO, Smith did meet Brown face to face. The meeting is chronicled in the HBO “Undercover America” special “Confrontation: Attempted Murder,” airing Wednesday.
Smith talked to Susan King about his confrontation and his life since the brutal attack.
Q. Do you remember anything of the beating?
I don’t remember anything after about the second (hit). I remember I blocked one (hit) with my hand and I took a real hard shot across the head. After that the only thing I remember is that I really saw stars for the first time in my life. And then I felt blood coming down my face.
I was told I was in a coma for 24 hours. Some certain little bits of that medical information even to this day my wife has held from me.
Q. How many operations have you had since the beating?
I have had four operations and will have a fifth and final one Sept. 18. They are trying to fit me with a prosthetics eye. Also my tear duct has been destroyed. I have constant tearing and I can’t control it. They are going to try very hard to open up the tear duct. And for the second time I am getting a bad bone spur (near the socket). They are going to try to carve that down.
All of this is what made me leave the Board of Education. I couldn’t do a lot of things any more that are required of a physical education teacher. I couldn’t be Gary Smith again.
I don’t think it was fair to the kids. A lot of physical education teaching involves officiating, demonstrating and balance. Those are the type of things I couldn’t do because of the eye. I went back for a little while, but it became difficult and the board was not against giving me a disability pension.
Q. How long after The New York Times piece about you ran before HBO contacted you about meeting Tommy?
They called me within two days with this idea. I said it sounded like an almost unreal idea. They didn’t know if they could arrange it, but then everything started moving from there very quickly.
Q. How would you describe your confrontation with Tommy?
It was so intense. I didn’t have any preconceived question list. If I had done that it would have been too phony. That wouldn’t have been me. So I came in and we just started talking.
I had some pretty direct questions and I thought that his responses were honest. And to me, knowing kids as many years as I had, if he wasn’t honest I would have picked it up in one second. He didn’t come in prepared with a set book of answers either. He answered me and he was pretty straightforward. He said he was aware of the injuries. He was aware of the damages he had caused other people. At this point, he said he was happy he didn’t kill me. He had remorse.
Q. Weren’t you filled with rage when you first saw him?
When he came into the room we made this tremendous eye contact. The first thought in my head was that he looked so different because he was cleaned up and older. I didn’t want to break the eye contact. It was very important. And then we just started talking. When we finished I asked the arbitrator if I could speak to him off the camera with no microphones off in a corner somewhere. So we had another conversation which we said we would keep to ourselves. Probably it was more important than the one on camera.
Q. Did you get closure?
It was closure for me in that as I have said a lot of times, I am not getting my eye back and I am going through these operations and all of these different medical things, but in all regards I should have been dead.
But a lot of people were praying for me and I was under the impression I was a pretty good person, especially helping students. I am alive and I am very happy about that. I try to make the loss of the eye and the pain and the headaches I get a minor inconvenience. I don’t like to harp on it. Sometimes I get the worst headaches...
Q. Has the prison set up more confrontation meetings for other victims?
I don’t know, but I would like to meet with people who are considering it to see if it is for them. I am sure it is not for everybody. I think there is a percentage of people out there, unfortunately, if they get to this point it might be (good) for them.
I could say most of my friends and relatives, including my wife are in total disagreement with what I did. The main reason is they say, “He tried to kill you. You should want him dead.” But they don’t understand.
“Undercover America: Confrontation: Attempted Murder” airs Wednesday at 11 p.m. on HBO.