I had always considered myself to be a mathematician, someone who looks for patterns, quantifiable outcomes, symmetry and the like. It makes sense, you know? To the son of a computer software engineer who preferred video games to reading during his formative years, it was the low-hanging fruit, and I fell easily into the mold of the future engineer. You could argue that I’m still in it as a senior bioengineer at Clemson, but I’d beg to differ. You could argue that it’s always been that way and will always be, but I’ll show you a career path that proves otherwise. You could even argue that music is a phase – that after a few years, I’ll wise up and join the rest of the world – but I’d argue that it’s been a long time coming, and it was really just beneath the surface all along. But when did I start to look a little deeper, beyond the symbols and figures and definite outcomes of math, and begin to ask questions that don’t have a single right answer – questions that are all the more beautiful because they don’t have a single right answer? Well, I guess I’d say it started somewhere around my tenth grade English class.
Flashback eleven years or so: I’m in sixth grade hearing horror stories about how my sister has to read novels – usually by some guy named Hemingway – and answer questions like, “Fill in the blank: ‘No, that is the great fallacy: the wisdom of old men. They do not grow wise. They grow ________,’” all from memory – no open book, no notes, just pure recall. And it wasn’t like this was rare; quizzes like these happened every day, and sometimes a fifty was actually pretty good, relative to the rest of the class. But my sister said she liked it, so I enrolled in the class a few years later – the class taught by Mr. Greg Fish, the coffee-crazed, Hemingway nut who somehow, after ripping them a new one each year, still got his students to say that it was one of their favorite (if not their favorite) classes ever. And, whether I looked at it as a challenge to show up my sister or as the only way to get honors credit for English, I’m sure I never expected to get out of the class what I did.
Fish forced us to have an opinion, which is sometimes difficult for high school students who, up until then, had been told what to say, how to say it, and finally how to regurgitate it for a grade. So, I think I speak for the majority when I say that we were a little taken aback when Fish walked into class each morning with a full pot of coffee (all for him) and a childish smile on his face that said, “Oh, you’re in for it today, but man, are you going to enjoy it.” With everything from song lyrics to prose passages, we were asked what we thought, exposed to others’ opinions, and forced to answer that tenacious question of, “Why?” And, I don’t know if it was the novelty and intrigue that comes with knowing that there’s really no right answer, or if it was the freedom that seemed to ebb from the class’s white walls – always speckled with literary greats and motivational quotes – but there was something liberating about going to that class and saying utterly and truly, “This is what I think.”
He’s always tread the line, I guess, but after the second year of taking his class, you’re usually prepared – well, I’ll say not surprised – at whatever Fish might do. Unfortunately, however, some people live more sheltered lives than others – or at least try to – and when someone in a position of authority threatens that figment of protection, he can easily be made a scapegoat. Now, I won’t dive too deep into the details of the issue, but basically, someone thought Fish crossed the line by using profanity in an original poem and by using it in a class exercise. Taken extremely out of context, parents got involved and asked a school district administrator to address the issue. He did so by asking Fish to resign.
But I don’t feel bad for Fish. I feel bad for the students who got a taste of his class and won’t get to finish it. I feel bad for the students who will never know what it’s like to be inspired through literature the way Fish could. I feel bad for the person who brought this allegation forward and for the parents who, in a sad attempt to shelter their child, bit off a little more than they wanted to chew. I feel bad for the school district of Pickens County because this is a major step backward in censorship – in stifling the discussion of important things because someone could get offended. I feel bad for the vast majority of students who had Fish in the past, loved him in the same way I do, and now have to watch this sort of injustice happen in his career. But, like I said, I don’t feel bad for Fish. More so now than ever, he has the opportunity to completely immerse himself in his own projects and pursue a career as an author and maybe even a collegiate professor. I don’t feel bad for Fish because he’ll have no problem getting hired in another district or really wherever he wants. But really, I don’t feel bad for Fish because – let’s be honest – Easley High was never really good enough for you.