Karisten Lyn Herman was 23 years old. She died on Christmas Eve, 2017.
My niece, a teacher, paid tribute to her last week by sharing Herman’s story with the students in her middle-school classroom who had just watched a news story about the opioid crisis and drug addiction.
Those students were fourth-graders, the same age as students who participated in Brazosport ISD’s CHICKEN Club rally this week. Those students watched fun skits, did the “Chicken Dance” and swore an oath to never do drugs. They heard messages about the dangers of addiction and what can happen if they try an e-cigarette, smoke a joint or sneak a swig from their parents’ liquor cabinet.
Late October also brings the annual Red Ribbon Week, featuring theme days like “Sock it to Drugs” when kids wear funny socks to school to reinforce the anti-drug message. Students at T.W. Ogg Elementary watched a taekwondo demonstration and interacted with the Chick-fil-A cow in between the anti-drug messaging.
“You don’t need drugs to have fun,” Principal Kristi Traylor told the assembly.
These messages are intended to mix information in a fun atmosphere so kids remember when they’re older and reject a classmate who offers them an illicit substance. In many communities, however, they don’t need to hear about what drugs can do. They already know.
Kids don’t need to see everyone wearing red or dancing fast-food mascots to have the effects of opioids, heroin or meth hit home. They see it in their own homes, watching parents, siblings or other loved ones destroying their lives for the next high.
In a Facebook post two days after his daughter’s death, Tim Sherman shared her story, how a bright, young woman had sunk into the ugly cycle of addiction, one no amount of scolding or rehabilitation could break. He mixed support for recovery with tough love, he said, neither with lasting effect.“I will be the one to zip you up” in a body bag if she could not “kick the dragon for good,” he would tell her, according to the post.
“Well, I kept my word and spread the bag out and carefully placed her in it to say goodbye to her so they can find out what it was that she took,” he posted. “I zipped her up in her body bag and helped them carefully place her on the cot.”
He described falling to his knees in the winter snow and sobbing after a detective had called to say his daughter had died. He shared the horror of seeing his lifeless daughter as a warning to others that no one is immune to addiction and its often inevitable death.
Karisten Sherman had been clean for a year before she injected her fatal dose.
“She … had her arms straight out with a slight bend at the elbow, fists clenched, with her thumbs tucked under her fingers grasping so tight at what looked like she was trying to grab life back in her,” her father posted. “She was all blue-faced, veins out, had a little blood from her nose, and her teeth were so tight together that her mouth wouldn’t open.”
It’s not easy to bring together those two incongruous images — children dancing and singing in an anti-drug frenzy with the anguish of a father whose daughter had sat through those same assemblies maybe a decade earlier.
“This morning, I was reminded of a post of Karisten Lyn Sherman that we would always be friends,” my niece posted last week. “Today was hard, but I honored Karisten the best I could by teaching my students the dangers and effects of opioid addiction (as appropriately as you can on a fourth-grade level).”
Which approach — the real-life story of a promising woman lost to addiction shared in a single classroom, or a frenetic, repeat-after-me assembly — works better in the long term probably won’t ever be known. Whatever the method, anti-drug messages are missing too many young people, and too many parents have had to say goodbye to their children before they zip the body bag.