Fishing for Education

By Adam W. Jordan and Todd S. Hawley

Fishing is the ultimate antidepressant.  

Regardless of the stresses that accompany life in the 21st century, there is something about wetting a line that transcends time and space. It’s a pastime that has held strong across generations in spite of changing landscapes and in contrast to an era marked by hyperconnectivity. Perhaps no fish has symbolized the South better in popular culture than the catfish, and if you’ve had the experience of catching one, you know why.  

Other types of fishing require a certain level of privilege. Bass fishing can get pricey with a big ol’ fancy boat, and trout fishing requires access to some pristine areas. But, catfishing, well, you just need a farm pond or a riverbank and some bait — any bait, really. You see, catfish appreciate simplicity, but don’t dare let that simplicity fool you for weakness. They know what they want and when they see it, they go get it. While a trout or bream may nibble at your bait and give you time to tell your buddy, “Hey, I think I’ve got a bite,” a catfish will usually just grab your line with gusto and authority. If you’re slow, he’ll take your bait in a split second. He’s scrappy, he’s not overly concerned with what you think about him, and he’s held true to his ways for quite some time. An iconic Southern fish. If you are lucky enough to hook him, you better hold tight, because you’re in for a fight.

One of a catfish’s favorite meals is chicken liver, the more pungent the better. The problem is, chicken liver doesn’t stay on a hook very well, and there is a decent probability that when fishing with liver you’ll have a few crafty catfish that fill their bellies without ever feeling a hook. There is, however, an old country-kid trick, but you have to promise to read this with an open mind. Are you ready? Pantyhose. Yes, pantyhose. Don’t be shy. Buy you a pair, cut out the toe, put your chicken liver in, tie a knot, and bait your hook. There is a strong probability your liver to catfish ratio is about to decrease rapidly. You can thank us later.

Now, you’re probably wondering all sorts of things at this point, but somewhere on that list has to be, “I thought this column was about education? Why am I learning high-level redneck fishing techniques?” Well, just consider that fishing tip a bonus and let us explain. First, in true Southern storytelling fashion, we have to backtrack.

We are two university professors in teacher education, and two former public school teachers who love progressive, public education. We are also a couple of Georgia boys who love the South. We like to think we are what you’d get if you combined Paulo Freire and Chase Elliott, and we love both those guys. Currently, we spend our days fighting for public schools. Along the way we talk with many well-intentioned people who still use language such as “failing schools” or the more politically correct alternative, “underperforming.” We still have folks ask us, “Why would anyone want to be a teacher in this day and age?” Or perhaps our personal favorite, “Thank y’all for all you do and for all the work of those teachers.”  

Don’t hear us wrong, we appreciate the good wishes, but so many times we wonder if folks know what good teachers are doing all across this country. It seems many of the same folks who thank us also talk about “failing schools.” Failing at what? Based on what?  

Now, back to that catfish…

We are proud to introduce you to this column on Southern schooling, and we hope our work here personifies the ferociousness of a hooked catfish on a lazy Sunday afternoon. As teachers, we have been screaming the good work we do to the rooftops in hopes that someone will hear us and stop making villains, even if unintentionally, out of our students and us. As educators, we’ve cast our bait time and time again. Unfortunately, like the slick catfish, too many folks take that bait, fill their bellies, serve their own interests, and swim away.  

This column is an attempt to wrap some pantyhose around our bait as we rage against the rhetoric of failing schools and highlight the brilliant work of committed and dedicated teachers and students along the way. As we’ve written in The Bitter Southerner before, we want teachers to be advocates and leaders for anti-racist, anti-biased, anti-dumbass practices that are common in all communities, and we believe they are already doing that. Our job is to make sure that’s showcased. It’s no easy task, but like the catfish, we love a good fight.

So, stay tuned each month as we invite all y’all to a critical and progressive discourse about public education in a critically important era for public schools. We hope to highlight the truly good work that is being done and to change the dialogue on public schools. Like any good catfishing trip, it is better taken together than alone.

Welcome, y’all.