(This story originally appeared in Quillette.)
Heart fluttering, Sophia Libby thumbed through her lecture notes as she waited for the last few students to trickle into the room. The mere sound of their voices now stirred within her a sense of dread that was, physiologically, identical to what an inmate experiences while being prepped for execution. The feeling was said to be common among teachers at inner-city public schools. But not professors at top-tier universities.
A resonant buzz, her phone vibrating against the surface of the lectern, startled her, and she glanced down to find that an email had just arrived from Dick Swaddler, the Dean of Students. The emetic power of the Dick’s missives had grown substantially in recent years, and as Sophia began reading, she saw that the present piece was no less potent than usual.
Just a quick reminder that our students’ well-being is our top priority. I recently received a report that one of our colleagues said the words, “That’s wrong,” to a student during a recitation. That student is now undergoing counseling. With this incident in mind, I suggest that now would be a good time for all of us—myself included—to review the university’s List of Unsafe Expressions (LUE). Remember that it is updated daily and that the most recent version is available online.
When Sophia looked up, the students were staring at her with wide-eyed expectation, and she couldn’t help thinking that they seemed so innocent. Perhaps that was the problem. They were far more innocent than people their age ought to be. And yet she had also seen how diabolical they could be. No, she decided, they weren’t innocent at all, but fragile. Diabolically fragile.
Pushing the students out of her mind, she shifted her focus to the lecture she was about to give. There was no reason anything should go wrong; she had her notes, and they had been screened by the department chair to ensure that they contained nothing offensive. All she had to do was read them. It would make for a boring class, to be sure, but safety was all that mattered now.
And so she began.
The topic was cognitive development. Her delivery was sterile at first, as all of her lectures had been of late. But then something unexpected happened. A spark of caring that had been floating somewhere inside of her, undefeated, landed on the ample, desiccated remains of her long-dead passion, and a fire was kindled. Words began flowing freely; her confidence surged; and before she knew it, she had stepped away from the lectern and begun speaking from her heart rather than her notes.
It was a dramatic change, enough to wake sleeping students, to wrench vacant eyes away from poorly-concealed electronic devices. Incredibly, even Cody Holt was now staring in rapt attention—Cody, the school’s star running back, who was paid forty times Sophia’s salary (a fact he had made known on the first day of class), and who, despite never having turned in a single assignment, was nevertheless going to walk away from the course with an A-minus, the lowest grade professors were allowed to give now, per Dick’s decree.
Just a few seats to Cody’s left, equally entranced, was Bratley Turdstone—another case study in pathology. Actually, it was Bratley’s mother who was the real problem. Mrs. Turdstone attended all of her son’s classes in order to take notes, ask questions, and haggle over grades on his behalf. “I’m helping him develop independence and assertiveness,” she had said when confronted about her level of involvement. That had been the moment when Sophia began habitually fantasizing about clocking the woman in the face. And now even she appeared to be learning. It was glorious.
It was also short-lived.
A widening of the students’ eyes was the first clue that something was wrong. Sophia knew, of course, that she had been treading on forbidden territory, particularly with her discussion of “learning” and “testing”—words that had recently found their way onto the LUE—but in her exhilaration, she had begun to imagine that she might get away with it. As it turned out, however, the triggers—she didn’t even know which ones—were simply too strong.
It was Bratley who moved first, apparently having chosen this moment to begin exercising the independence and assertiveness with which his mother was instilling him. As shaky as a newborn foal, he stood, eyes wide and mouth twisted. Then, sloth-like, he turned to face the back of the room, covering his ears with his hands like a toddler blocking out words that he didn’t want to hear. It was absurd, but somehow not at all surprising.
What came next was more of a shock. Other students began to copy Bratley, with such precision that the whole event almost seemed planned. It was slow at first—one here, one there—but then Cody Holt joined in, and with the star athlete standing, it was all over. Like dominos moving in reverse, row after row of students rose to their feet, turned their backs on Sophia, and covered their ears, until not a single one remained seated.
Sophia’s voice croaked and trailed off, the spell she had been weaving now thoroughly broken. For a while, she looked out over the silent audience, waiting, desperate for something to change; but no one stirred. With their backs to her, the students stood frozen in perfect stillness, like gravestones; and for the first time in her career, Sophia had no idea what to do.
“Please don’t do this,” she said.
Her words echoed, more loudly than they should have, and then died. She waited a while longer, but after a minute had passed, she knew that she had lost. With trembling hands, she gathered her notes and walked to the door, suddenly glad that the students’ backs were turned. At least they couldn’t see her tears. The door swung shut behind her, and when the latch clicked, the sound of applause erupted on the other side.
The phone call that evening from Dick was inevitable. “Why couldn’t you just emulate Max?” he asked, not bothering to say hello.
Max Coddlesworth was the most beloved professor at the university, with the highest ratings by far. The reason, in Sophia’s opinion, was both obvious and scandalous: He didn’t teach. Each year, he provided his students with blank textbooks and gave them only one assignment: to write their own version of history, including or omitting whatever they pleased. The previous year, one student had turned her book in without having written a word, apart from a note saying that since humanity kept making the same mistakes, history might just as well never have been recorded at all. She had received an A-plus.
“I’m not having this conversation again,” Sophia said.
“No? Well, turn on the news, and see if it changes your mind.”
Against her better judgment, Sophia fished the remote out from between the sofa cushions and pointed it at the TV. Seeing the outline of her head reflected in the blank screen, she hesitated for a moment, imagining the remote to be a gun, the power button its trigger. Then she pressed it.
The local news anchor, Jenna Clark, materialized in mid-question. “. . . mind telling us the exact nature of the offense?” she asked, directing her words at someone off-screen. The camera angle changed, and Sophia saw that the interviewee was Bratley. He opened his mouth to speak, but his mother, sitting beside him, placed a silencing hand on his shoulder. Evidently, Bratley’s moment of assertiveness had passed.
“Professor Libby kept going on about what was ‘normal’ and ‘average,’” Mrs. Turdstone said. “Can you believe that? I mean, it was nothing but a disgusting, bald-faced reminder that Bratley might not be above average in all respects. He is, of course, but for that woman to call to mind the possibility that he might not be is absolutely unforgiveable.”
“And that’s what led Bratley to take his stand?” Jenna asked, her voice laden with sympathy.
Mrs. Turdstone’s face hardened into a mask of heroic humility. “It wasn’t just about Bratley,” she said. “There were people in that room who actually were below average. How do you think they felt? Bratley was standing for them as much as for himself. He is a man of action, and he wasn’t about to sit idly in the face of hate speech.”
Sophia resisted an impulse to hurl the remote through the TV, and changed the channel instead. She landed on a national news outlet, and immediately, her eyes were assaulted by footage of half a dozen people, somewhere, being burned alive. It occurred to her that she ought to recoil in horror, but all she really felt was relief at getting a break from Bratley and his accusations. She heard the newscaster explain that the victims had been executed for publicly criticizing their government, and briefly, she felt a vague sense of connection to them, but then her mind returned to the thought that her story, thank God, was only local.
I can weather this, she thought.
But it turned out that she couldn’t. In the following days, which Sophia had off because her students had uniformly requested leaves of absence to undergo counseling, Bratley’s actions went viral. On day two, “Bratley’s Stand” became a national headline; on day three, students across the country began turning their backs on professors and covering their ears at the slightest discomfort; and on day four, the movement acquired a name: Stand Against Hate. Sophia found herself watching with masochistic fascination as news anchors and talk show hosts beatified Bratley before audiences of millions.
Daily protests sprang up at the university, with students first calling for Sophia’s resignation, then demanding that the chancellor herself step down. When Sophia was at last called to a meeting with the Board of Trustees, she wanted nothing but to be done with the whole affair; and it looked as if she was going to get her wish when the chairman, with Bratley’s mother and a roomful of protesters standing behind him, dismissed her with orders to clean out her office.
On her way home, she started to console herself with the thought that the worst was over, then realized that she didn’t need consoling. The unfamiliar feeling that had been growing within her was one of freedom. Giddiness, even. Sensing that she might actually have an appetite the next morning, she decided to stop at a grocery store to pick up breakfast supplies. She was examining a carton of eggs when she noticed a woman pointing at her while talking to a man in a Polo shirt. She recognized him as the store manager, and her giddiness evaporated as he approached her with a sour expression on his face.
“You’re Sophia Libby, aren’t you?”
“Get out of my store.”
Sophia protested, but the manager declared that if he had his way, not a grocer in the country would sell her a grain of rice, and it would be fine by him if she starved to death. She responded by crushing the eggs against his chest and striding away, leaving him standing over her now-abandoned basket of groceries, egg yolk running down the front of his Polo.
The next morning, Sophia was eating a plate of eggs—having driven three extra miles to find a shop where she could buy them in peace—when her dining room window exploded, sending shards of glass into her face and food. A brick rebounded off the wall and tumbled across the floor, coming to rest by her left foot, and she stared numbly at it for a moment before noticing that there was writing on it: Die, you hate-mongering bitch!
The teacher within her took note—and appreciated—that the sentence was well punctuated; but the greater part of her was overcome by a terror she had not previously thought herself capable of feeling. A screeching of tires drove it home, and she found herself clutching her chest and gasping, wondering whether her heart could survive its own frenetic pounding. It was all she could do to dial 911, and when she finally managed it, she was unsure whether she needed to ask for an ambulance or the police. The dispatcher calmed her down, and she settled on the latter.
Some ten minutes later, an officer arrived. He was friendly at first, but when she gave him her name, recognition flashed in his eyes, followed by a look that made his opinion all too clear: A brick through the window wasn’t half of what she deserved. He went through the motions of an investigation, asking the standard questions, checking off all the requisite boxes, but by the time he left, Sophia knew that nothing would come of it. She was now an approved target for hate crimes, and next time it could be her body lying on the floor rather than a brick.
The post office continued delivering her mail, at least, but the nature of the letters that she was now receiving did nothing to relieve her jitters. At dinner, which she decided to eat in her living room, away from any windows, she was still very much on edge, and her adrenaline began flowing in full force when she heard footsteps on her front porch. A moment later, she was crouching on the floor, not really knowing how she got there or what part the crouching would play in her defense if the intruder burst in and attacked her. An involuntary moan escaped her lips when a loud grating of metal on metal echoed through the house, and it took her a moment to realize that it was the sound of the mail slot being opened from the outside.
A small package thudded to the floor, and Sophia was unable to do anything but listen while the person who delivered it walked slowly away. Minutes passed before she managed to stand and approach the package, and when she did, she saw that it was a fatly bulging envelope. Her curiosity trumped her fear, and without regard for whether the envelope might explode or expose her to some infectious disease, she picked it up, slid her finger into it, and tore it open. What she found was money—a thick stack of ones, fives, tens, and twenties, probably totaling around a thousand dollars—and a note.
Come to the Franklin Library at 9:00 p.m.
Sophia pursed her lips in thought. Before closing permanently, the Franklin Library had been renamed the Freedom Library to appease the growing segment of the population who were upset over the fairly recent discovery that the founding father had considered compromise to be a good thing. Few people today would be interested in the building at all, and fewer still would call it by its old name. This, more than the money, decided the matter for her.
She arrived to find the entrance padlocked, and when she knocked, no one answered. She turned to leave, but then saw a figure approaching on the sidewalk in the dark. As it drew closer and mounted the steps to the entrance, she saw that it was a young man, perhaps in his twenties, well dressed and cleanly shaven. He held an unlit flashlight in one hand.
“I’m glad you came,” the man said.
“What’s this about?” Sophia asked.
“Let me show you.”
The man turned, leading her around the building to a decrepit wooden door that opened into darkness. He then lit the flashlight and motioned for her to follow him inside, which she did, her fear having been quenched by the spirit of the library. They walked through a maze of dark hallways before emerging into a lit foyer that she recognized. It was the entryway to a room where public lectures had once been held, many of which Sophia had attended. But those had stopped twenty years ago.
The man opened the door, and Sophia blinked in surprise at what she saw. The room was packed with chairs, every last one of them occupied. Even more surprisingly, the people stood when they saw her. Out of respect. Sophia turned to look at the man once more, her unspoken question written plainly on her face.
“We’re students,” the man said. “And we meet here to share ideas. In all things, we seek the truth—even when doing so makes us uncomfortable. We brought you here to teach us.” He paused, swallowing nervously. “Would you be willing to do that?”
Before the man had even finished speaking, Sophia’s face was wet with tears. But this time she didn’t care whether anyone saw. The question hung before her, and she knew that everyone was awaiting her answer. Taking a deep breath, she wiped her eyes.
“Yes,” she said. “I’m willing.”
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