On Silence

On Silence

Daisy Levy

I wrote this piece as a way to try to reconcile some difficult events in my life as a teacher, a scholar, and a person living in a complicated world. I wanted to make visible the collage effect of all these things, and so a collage essay was the most interesting form for me. I examine the politics surrounding subjectivity, authority, and the role of voice, in and out of the classroom, in daily life.The events I am drawing on are related: comments from a student on institutional course evaluations, rejection letters from a prominent university's graduate writing program, reflection on my participation in one year's Day of Silence in my writing classroom, and my own personal experiences of restricted, imposed, or chosen silence. In the spaces between all these incidents, I reflect on multiple suggestions about an ideology of speech, voice, listening, and embodiment in the institution.

On Silence

Pre-Cursor

I shouldn’t be reading the evaluations yet anyway. I’m in class still, and my students are working in pairs on their essay, due next week. But it’s been a long day, and I need something to keep my mind on the plan—composition, teaching, thesis statements—not dinner, a shower, bedtime. So I slide the cool white envelopes out of my tote bag and start to riffle through them.

There, at the bottom of one, is a comment that I can see has been erased. Not carefully enough to get rid of the traces of the ideas, and so, since I am a glutton—vain and self-absorbed like most of us when we’re reading about ourselves—I hold the paper close to my face, and read the following:

"I think she is a raging lesbian and wish she would stop flirting with my girlfriend."

Your participation in this Day of Silence is hard, this not talking. Even as you were walking to class, your throat felt thick, a shout pushing against your chest. Strange how even the suggestion of not talking is so...

    Uncomfortable

    Hard

    Painful

    Violent? No.

    Violation? Yes.

Even if you chose it. What does it feel like to know you’ve "chosen" it when you feel it has been chosen for you?

She is a raging lesbian

Thinking I must not have read it right, I squint my eyes and look closer at the pencil traces. Yes. In fact, this student did say lesbian. Not just lesbian. Raging.

I’m stunned. I’m mad. I can’t say what I’m mad about yet; I won’t understand this for a while. I feel embarrassed, too. Did I flirt with someone’s girlfriend? I run through the course roster from last term, and (oh, you know you’d do this too) decide which of the students made this comment.

What is it that feels so violent, invasive, angry, controlling? Why do I feel scared, walking to my car tonight? Why does it matter at all? After all, being called a lesbian is no insult. So what makes my eyes burn? My friend Steve (and others too, probably) would ask me, angrily even, "What’s so bad about that?"

I could be Gay, Straight, Bi, Jewish, Muslim, Evangelical, Atheist, Bi-Polar, Liberal, Conservative, Radical, Not Radical, Addict, Racist, Sexist, Vegetarian, Child Molester, Pornographer, Communist, Anarchist, Socialist, Capitalist, Part Cherokee, Part Nigerian, Part Irish. I could be some combination of these things of course.

Some of you are thinking, "Yeah. So?"

Day of Silence

You’ve heard it so many times—

"Those who can’t do, teach,"
"Actions speak louder than words"

and you know these words are meant to inspire, provoke, get us off our lazy couch potato asses and MOVE.

You are devoted to movement. You have made a living by waiting tables (and anyone who says that’s not moving can wait for an iced tea refill a little bit longer) and teaching pilates. You have been a dancer, and though you never made a living at it, you made a life of it.

But this you know: movement is ineffective without intention behind it. And intention may come from our hearts or minds, but it is not until we understand the power of words, ultimately, that we can communicate those intentions. It is not until we learn the strength of speech that our actions MOVE with force.

Not just lesbian, but raging

It’s not that this student could have "outed me" or called me a bad word when he called me a lesbian. It’s that he thought a student course evaluation was an appropriate place to discuss a person’s sexuality. To critique it. You’re right; I wouldn’t have been as upset if he’d said, "she’s A RAGING HETERO." Or even, FEMINIST.

We all know why. We can toss words into the conversation like hegemony, or compulsory heterosexuality, or dominant sub-culture, homophobia, ideological control by The Man. They all make sense. I won’t deny it. Sure, I’m shaped by the dominant white heterosexual hegemony that is our country. You bet. Whether I like it or not, there’s no denying the truth. Being a lesbian, raging or otherwise, is to occupy a particular position, a position of less.

Day of Silence

Your students are all so good at being quiet. They’ve been well trained, you guess. Is your surprise at this to do with the length of time you’ve been out of high school? Were you quiet, then? Were you well trained? You believe you were–you like to think of yourself as being–defiant, but were you? Really?

Were you when it counted?

I don't know.

Are you now?

I don't know.

Position of less

I know I don’t come close to understanding or feeling the homophobic wrath that simmers in our country. But walking to my car at close to ten at night, I think about how the word “raging” carries with it a deep hatred of people "like" me. I think about whether or not I should get Campus Safety to walk me through the nearly empty parking lot. I think about the choices I have made about what to teach, and how to teach it, about whether they have put me in danger, or if I am just overreacting.

I think of myself as having done something wrong.

Day of Silence

Ask the ones who are so smug about doing more than saying:

    Have you ever struggled to speak?

    Have you ever wished you could say No or Wait or What about me?

Or, Yes; I love you; Come home.

Have you ever been in a room full of people with something to say, but powerless to get the words out?

Have you ever shaped your mouth, your lips, teeth, tongue to form a word, and felt the voiceless air gather outside your face?

Think of myself

When I started teaching literature and composition classes at this college, I heard stories about the county’s historic and recent tolerance for racist judges and court proceedings, about Klan marches through the center of town, about particular discrimination against people of color and against the gay and lesbian community. Partly because of these stories, but also partly because I teach (as most of us do) in many of the same ways I have been taught, I think it’s important that the people in the classes I teach read and talk about work by writers of color, writers of multiple identifications. I assign work dealing explicitly with contemporary (read: subversive) themes like racism, sexism, and homophobia. I am embarrassed now to admit that I had, until this night, been operating with the presumption that my students either 1) shared my political agendas, 2) would accept my own political agenda blindly, without resistance, or 3) wouldn’t really notice my political agenda, but would magically wake up one day seeing the world through my eyes.

Tonight, it occurs to me for the first time that just by including these works in our syllabus, never mind my comments in class discussions, I have sent signals to my students, the interpretations of which I can not foresee, mitigate, or control in any way whatsoever.

Still, I will not take credit for their small-minded, ignorant, misplaced assumptions.

Day of Silence

Whether you chose silence today or whether it was chosen for you, this coercion means no negotiated way to make group decisions. Silence creates hierarchy. Devolves the group dynamic. Acts as a barrier between people. Cultivates internal focus. Encourages reflection within but discourages communication between.

You wonder about the cumulative effect on the act of LISTENING—do we get so used to not speaking that we stop listening?

I am tryingto hear you, listening to those of you who are tired of defending what does not need to be defended. There’s nothing small minded about someone assuming I’m gay. The small mindedness is not to do with the assumption, specifically. The small mindedness is someone thinking it’s his or her place to make decisions about who I am, how I live, and in what I believe, when I have chosen not to make that information public.

Apparently, I’m not a teacher. Apparently, I’m a dyke. Not just any dyke, but one who threatens this student’s relationship with "his" (my assumption, of course) girlfriend. After all, lesbians are insidious, aren’t they? They can turn another woman to sexual depravity with minimal effort. Subtext: Lesbians (communists, radicals, "anyone not like me") should not be teaching our children, college students, Americans.

Day of Silence

Isn’t there an act to speaking? Think about the last thing you reminded your students one night—"a statement has a subject and a verb." It’s one of the most basic ideas behind Standard English grammar; even though you’ll be the first to admit that sometimes a well placed sentence fragment says more than anything complete does, generally we assume that in order for a sentence to be whole, it must say something about what the subject is doing.

In order for a sentence to be WHOLE.

Subtext

"He" erased it. Sure. For whatever reason, this student decided not to record that comment. Maybe this student even felt bad about writing it, and wishes he or she had thought more before putting it on the paper. But he or she didn’t.

When I tell my partner, K, about it later, he says, "It doesn’t have anything to do with you. Not one thing."

Silence

Is it just semantics? Think back to a few months ago, when K woke from sedation to find he was on a ventilator, breathing through a tube the size of a coffee stirrer. Because that stirrer was positioned through his trachea, holding it open, no matter how hard he tried (and he did) he would not be able to get a vibration of air on his vocal chords.

No matter the act, his body would not let him speak.

Day of Silence

You can’t presume to understand how K feels, his consciousness matched with forced silence. You can say that you watched his frustration rise, that regardless of how patient he was with you trying to read his lips (and you were getting most of what he mouthed wrong), he seemed some combination of angry, scared, and tired. Eventually, every afternoon would end the same way—

a very clear "never mind" mouthed in your direction, closed eyes, and a hot pile of misunderstandings filling up the space between you.

Wishing she had thought more about it, and it having nothing to do with me

I am awake in the middle of the night. I lie in bed and talk, in my head, silent talking, through all the events of the days before, the morning ahead.

I talk in circles. I do not stutter, or question. I declare. I state.

I do all this without making a sound.

Daisy Levy recently completed her PhD at Michigan State University, and is now Assistant Professor of English at Southern Vermont College. She is continually fixated on questions of voice, on silence as an active space, and how the body sustains its rhetorical agency. She also has an extensive collection of rejection letters.