In 2017, Dr. Carolivia Herron read a dialogue we had written about an event seven years past. In it, we discuss bullying and how we as people respond to harm.
When I was in 13, I was a student in a home school class that Dr. Carolivia Herron taught. I was 13 years old at the time. She taught first a class on Greek epics–the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid, which is less Greek in original nature than it is Greek inspired–and then a creative writing course. I attended both, which were separated by a fifteen minute break.
Five years later, my mother told me that she had seen Carolivia at an art event a couple hours away. And Carolivia had been talking about me.
“No, she doesn’t. How do you know that she wasn’t talking about another student?” I asked.
“She mentioned a young girl who would get so excited about the content and stand up and wave her hands. She would talk a lot and the other students didn’t like it.” My mother said.
“Well, that does sound like me. But how do you know for sure?” I asked.
“She also mentioned that the girl volunteered to put duck tape over her mouth so she would stop talking.”
A chill ran over me. I had completely forgotten about that. That was definitely me.
Two years later, I reached out to Carolivia to engage in dialogue about the incident and it was shared on her weekly radio show. Below is that conversation.
Ellis: I don’t know if you remember me. I was in two of your classes seven years ago, the ones about epics and creative writing. I was the youngest in the class. You might remember how they almost put duck tape over my mouth that one time?
Carolivia: How could I forget you, Ellis, although that day I had mostly Vergil on my mind, and how Aeneas was supposed to read the sibylline leaves, prophecy and memory at the edge of the abyss. So when I came back to the class from using the restroom, and I saw the students surrounding you, and one of them with the duck tape about to tape your mouth shut – horror ran through me. To think that hell could open up right in front of my feet, just like that.
Ellis: I don’t remember that part, just the overwhelming wave of your shock and horror and me not understanding why.
Carolivia: I didn’t realize that I showed so much of my horror. My first impulse was not peaceful. I wanted to knock their heads together — in your defense. Not good. Responding to accelerating violence with authoritarian violence. I remember thinking, “I’m the teacher of everyone in the class, not just hers, not just the one who is about to get her mouth taped. How can I be a teacher to everyone? I don’t exactly remember how I stopped it, but I didn’t knock their heads together. I’m thankful for that.
Ellis: Your moral outrage was obvious–you who was usually so calm, your voice a not-at-all restrained fury–they knew it was wrong, even before you walked in. That’s why it began as a joke.
Carolivia: And I remember the one with the tape, why did she have the tape with her in the first place? I think she was trying to finish up some project. She was actually a good student. That’s what horrified me the most. How can people perpetrate such evil without even knowing? Years later she contacted me with a question about Hercules, HERCULES!! She connected the worship of Heracles / Hercules – that’s the Roman form with what? Was it the rise of Christianity? Was it something like that! It was not a ridiculous question. But she didn’t remember that day of horror. Or did she?
Ellis: I don’t know. That’s the thing about stuff like this. You can never know.
Carolivia: “But she said we could do it.” That’s what she said. That’s what THEY said. As if that were an excuse. “What if she had asked you to cut off her head? What if she had said that it was okay to throw her out of the window?” But THEY – she – probably would have said that that’s different. Taping up someone’s mouth – with permission – didn’t seem like violence. Is that it? I am not really teaching epics, I am teaching critical thinking.
Ellis: I cannot speak for them, but I believe that’s exactly it. They didn’t connect the spirit of wanting someone to be quiet, and the act to ensure it with oppression. As I remember it, we were all middle-class white kids, who hadn’t known much prejudice. The stories you taught us only had one perspective, the one agreed on and popularized upon by society. We get so caught up in the version we know, the winning side, that we don’t see the other perspectives of the minority. Especially to those who are a part of the majority, micro aggressions and oppression is almost a foreign language. We aren’t taught how things build up, how slippery the slope can be, or how to recognize these feelings and choose equality and inclusion instead. That’s just never been a part of the curriculum.
Carolivia: Ah, Ellis, Ellis — now you are touching on the heart of the matter and it hurts, it hurts me. My first desire is to defend myself and my way of teaching. Do you remember me showing the class how to write “voice papers,” in which you took on the voice of something or someone in the epics we were reading, something that didn’t have a voice?
Ellis: I don’t remember.
Carolivia: That was not just a creative writing assignment. I wanted you students to discover on your own not to be taken in by the surface meanings of a story. That “other curriculum” — showing the immorality of the great works, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid — is there all the time. I wanted all of you to discover the negative critical perspectives on your own. But even as I say this I remember an awful moment from my first year in college, Howard University, when in Humanities class we read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. In my reading, the book appeared to condone murder, and I was horrified. I kept waiting for the teacher to give me a way to fight against the book, to disagree with murder. But no help came from the teacher.
Ellis: In Great Works, the class I took years later, the first book we read was the Odyssey. I remember how the professor asked us to write a paper on gender roles in the book. I remember raving about how upset and angry I was about the gendered power breakdown that transgressed the divine, the double standard of female roles and how the value of females is often less than males of inferior races–I.e., Mortal hero Odysseus. The professor tried to reframe it as though this-is-the-way-things-were-back-then-and-we-as-a-society-have-grown-more-accepting-it-was-a-different-time-let’s-move-on. He was a classicist trying to teach us the canon of Western literature, who often injected his own thoughts into class. His acceptance of the antiquated gender roles was very different from his treatment of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. He could not justify the main characters attempt at infanticide, despite everything she had been through as a slave. I explained to him that as a parent, one wants the best for their child, and asked whether such a life she has lived is really a life, or it’s own particularly horrible death sentence that never follows through. It bothered me that it was okay to have a system that marginalized people and made them unable to take action, and yet when they try to prevent the continuation of the cycle of oppression…? Admittedly, the morality of the means may be questionable, but it was an act of desperation caused by years of dehumanization. It continues to disturb me how he could accept the oppression of women and condemn murder to prevent what I can only describe as torture, when it was so clearly an act. That he could pick and choose, and what he pick and chose was the mainstream while pretending to be accepting.
Carolivia: It took many readings over many years later for me to discover within my own thoughts a way of disagreeing with the ideas this novel seemed to be teaching. But what if I had not kept trying, what if I had been persuaded that murder was justified? I was baffled and confused. I would not want to just tell you how to read subversively, I want you to discover it. But perhaps that takes too long. Perhaps that discovery never happens. Perhaps I could have suggested the other curriculum by giving an example.
Ellis: I don’t know if anything would have helped. Not that fast, surely. Something like that takes years of experience and maturity to recognize. Granted, they all were older than me by at least three years, however I can’t underestimate the disconnect people feel between the present moment and what they can identify as bad with some distance. For example, with Donald Trump, many people still cannot take the current situation seriously. Others are able to recognize it, however they don’t know how to dig in their heels and make it stop. If we are to enable individuals to self-police their own behavior, which we must do for the betterment of our own society, then we must bridge that disconnect of story and reality. We have to teach people to think of effects they cannot directly see in real time, and teach them how to make choices that improve the world around them.
Carolivia: We agree that the teenagers who were trying to tape your mouth with duck tape did not understand the gravity, the great evil in fact, that they were starting. But what if they had known? What if this had happened in a class of students who knew very well the horrible implication of what they were doing? Should these two groups receive the same reprimand? Do you see where this leads? One place it leads is to trying some ten year old offenders as adults in court. They are considered adults presumably because they understood what they were doing. Other ten year olds, those who “didn’t know” – get released to their parents. I refuse to believe that there is no way to teach critical moral thinking to both groups of children, soon enough to help.
Ellis: …They knew. I know they knew, and I think you do too, that it was wrong, and why. They wanted to. They wanted me to take away my voice, even though that is all that I had in that class. Without my voice to remind them that I was there and existed they might have been able to forget that I was there at all.
I forgot the duck tape. I forgot the countless people trying to rob me of myself. What makes me the most terrified was that I was so eager for my peer’s acceptance that I gave it away.
Carolivia: A cry of horror from you, yes, thank you for crying out now, even though you didn’t cry out then. I thought we were going to lose you. I feared for your life. Even now I don’t want to deal with the question of what they know as much I want to celebrate your survival, your flourishing. Let’s turn there, let’s choose another for knowing and almost knowing and unequal punishment for equal sins. Can you tell me how you survived? I remember talking to your mother after the incident. I didn’t want to say to her . . . your child’s life is in danger.
Ellis: First, I have to ask: How? Why did you think my life was in danger?
Carolivia: I thought you would blame yourself. I thought you would think it was your fault and that you had “agreed” with your oppressors. I didn’t know you would find a way to realize that they were to blame, not you. I keep hearing the Simon and Garfunkel song playing in the back of my head when I think of you and your mother, “Save the life of my child, cried the desperate mother.” I haven’t wanted to say this to you, but I feared suicide. I now know you have escaped that, you have found a way to see that you did not do this to yourself. And I want to understand your path.
Ellis: For me, there was no option but survival. Yes, I did blame myself, and I did try to kill myself. I blamed myself for my difference, which was stark enough to set me apart, yet subtle enough to be invisible. I didn’t blame myself for their wrongdoing, because I couldn’t understand what had happened.
I did try to kill myself, if only to escape the suffering. It wasn’t because of that particular episode, but because of the series that preceded it. I survived–not because someone stopped me or talked me down. I remember sitting there, in my quiet room with the door locked, the stunted, sharp blade of the knife poised over my wrist, willing myself to cut. I could only push hard enough to feel momentary pain of the sharp edge of the blade. Ironically, it hurt too much.
It was almost as though it happened because this darkness had been accumulating inside me through all of those years
Carolivia: There it is, my unspoken fear. Your mother never said it. You never said it until now. The fear of suicide. And even when i said I feared for your life you wanted to know what I was talking about. I had to say it first. I feared that you would take your own life. And you with so much vision, so many ways of seeing that I need, that we all need . . . a knife in a solitary place. And me screaming out — not loud enough, not so that you could hear, “NO!. NO!” Don’t leave us. Stay for your sake, stay to see what intricate beautiful thing you will make of it. Stay because we all need to see . . . I need to see what it is you see. This is why oppression, slavery, abuse and bullying is so bad. It is bad not only because of what the evil ones do to us, but it is bad also because the abuse persuades us that we have no worth. I’m no psychologist or psychiatrist, I don’t have these answers, but I wonder, is it to convince ourselves that we have greater control over our lives that we lean toward, that we internalize the negative view the evil ones have of us?
Ellis: I don’t believe in evil. If I were, it would be too easy to give in to the deep-seated cynicism and pessimism about people.
Carolivia: I have a problem with the word “evil” as I used it as well, I struggled for another word to use for the people who were bullying you. In Jewish tradition there is the concept of “yetzer hara” and “yetzer hatov” — badly translated as evil impulse and good impulse. The powerful implication of this concept is that a good action and a bad action can be the result of the same impulse. The impatient driver who cuts in front of you on the Beltway and causes (or almost causes) an accident may be the inspired, non-traditional medical researcher whose impatience drives her to develop the medicine that saves the life of someone you love. The drive to protect your family with comprehensive insurance could be the benevolent form of a drive to attack a harmless insulting colleague.
Ellis: Yes, that. They’re impulses. We all have this expectation of intent, malicious intent, and if somebody doesn’t really mean it we are expected to forgive them. I often feel like I have no right to be affected by it, first because it wasn’t that bad. Second, because it wasn’t like they meant to mean it what it meant. What we recognize as bullying is first or second degree murder. There may have been planning, but even if there wasn’t, there was malice. That’s what this was. When I said yes, they started making plans to bring in tape next week, until that girl said she had some in her backpack. It didn’t feel like bullying, because I said it was okay. I realize, the consent doesn’t make it ok. If this wasn’t bullying, what was? Where is the line?
Carolivia: You are telling me things that I didn’t know, I didn’t know that the students were planning to bring in the duck tape the next week. I didn’t know that the student – a top student as it was – mentioned that she had the tape with her, that they could do it “now.” I thought the act was more accidental than that, I thought the class was relaxing because I was out of the room for a few minutes – maybe the students looked for a candy bar or rummaged for a pen . . . and that somehow the students noticed that she had tape with her. I am horrified still. Let me ask you this, did you know any of the students outside of my classes?
Ellis: No, I didn’t. I haven’t seen any of them since either.
Carolivia: So there was no history of their response to you carried over from other incidents. And I assume they never saw you again after that class ended. I keep asking such questions. I keep trying to understand how such a crossing of the line could happen. Crossing the line . . . do you know that in the Russian title of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the word translated as “crime” is a Russian word for crossing over a line – in this case a moral line, and psychological line. I want to convince myself that their response to you was not random, not accidental. I want to convince myself that something had to have happened before they could “cross over” to do something like this, to utterly silence a fellow student. I think of another literary term, “Surprised By Sin,” — a term applied to Adam and Eve in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Adam and Eve were lulled into sleep because they had no idea that sin was possible. They did not think critically at the critical moment.
Ellis: *Describes Rhythm 0 by Marina Abramovic.*
Carolivia: I just watched it. Rhythm 0. The audience ran away after what they had done. I would not have run away. I would have pulled away the hand that put the bullet in the gun. I would have stayed there and waited, and watched. Human beings. And the word “humane!” Where do we get that from. Too many tears thinking about our species. Why did they run away? The day that Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed I was in college, in the dorm. I heard the horrible news on my radio, went out into the hall to talk about it with other students. And they had all run away. They all left the dorm — with all of the door to the rooms open and everything. I was the only Black person in that dorm. There were only five of us in the college.
Ellis: I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to say about any of this. We can talk and talk, and turn it around in our minds, but the truth is that what happened happened. The fear is that it will happen again, and it will. Because no matter how ethical and human we think and want to be, we listen to those impulses. We make excuses as we allow our own cruelty to be made into a reality. And as much as I want it to stop, I wish it would stop, the truth is it won’t. So many people turn their eyes away, try to pretend that it doesn’t exist, but every time we hurt someone, our brains are flooded with the very same chemicals that create the pleasure of food, of love, of sex. It’s biological. It takes strength to own that part of yourself, recognize that urge, and deny it fruition. Those of us with integrity of morality, but the capacity for those evil actions are always going to be there. In looking away and pretending that we are above that possibility, we deny ourselves the opportunity to choose differently.
Carolivia: I don’t recognize that – the pleasure of hurting someone. Also, I try to be vigilant morally because I don’t think I am above the possibility of doing evil actions. I think quite often evil actions occur because the doer doesn’t believe she / he is capable of it. There is also a way of knowing without fully knowing. The students in the class may have known within themselves somewhere that they were doing something quite wrong. Yet I think that they had a superficial understanding of themselves that asserted their own goodness. They did not fully believe in the possibility of they themselves doing evil acts. Again, I don’t recognize any flooding of my brain with pleasure chemicals when I hurt someone. I feel horror at myself, even if I believe intellectually that the victim deserves to be hurt. I want to defeat ISIS, but I don’t want even the ISIS fighters, whom I hate, to die. This is the Pesach / Passover season. There is a story about the Exodus that captures my mood. The Egyptians are drowning in the Red Sea, the Israelites celebrate, but God says to the rescued Israelites, “How can you celebrate when some of my people are drowning?”