There are a lot of things the world needs more of right now -- renewable energy, diplomacy, decent-paying jobs, non-surgically-enhanced boobs -- but above all, what we need more of is smart people. Specifically, smart people who aren't afraid to be smart. And we need one more than we did Monday, because one of the best of them, Jim Fletcher, died of a heart attack that night. Mr. Fletcher was my humanities and AP English teacher my senior year of high school, and was probably the greatest teacher I've ever had, at any level.
Because of Mr. Fletcher, I know about Greek culture and all the things they did that still influence us today; I know about the ways in which Western culture and art was preserved throughout the Dark Ages when any kind of written historical record or learning was at a premium; I know how the Renaissance got started and how it morphed into the other artistic and cultural movements that came after. I can walk into an art museum, look at a painting, recognize what style or "ism" it is, and understand how that reflects what society was going through at the time it was created. Mr. Fletcher not only taught us about all those things, he taught us why they mattered.
But I don't want to make it sound like he was some effete snob who shut himself up inside his house with his classics, completely disdaining everything about modern culture. At the end of a long unit on the Dark Ages, he showed us "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" in class; for those who were interested in learning more about the 1960s while we were reading Slaughterhouse-Five in class and discussing that decade's various cultural upheavals, he invited us over to his house to watch "Easy Rider" and "The Graduate," which was the first time I saw either. He rarely shied away from discussing difficult or controversial topics in class, because for all his sarcasm and irascibility -- which, to be sure, became the stuff of legend throughout the Columbus teaching community -- he gave us credit for being strong enough to handle that stuff unless we showed otherwise.
If we did show otherwise, of course -- whether it was by making a stupid comment in class or just getting caught napping in the back of the room -- we'd get called out for it in the most ego-shriveling manner possible. I can't recall a single time Mr. Fletcher yelled, or even raised his voice, at anyone; he'd just shake his head and mutter something about one of us needing to ride the short bus to school. "Wetumpka Tech," i.e. the only college we'd get accepted to if that was the best we could do, was another one of his favorite catch-phrases. He enjoyed verbal sparring with his students from time to time, but I rarely saw anyone get the better of him, and I can't recall a specific instance in which I enjoyed that privilege myself.
But in spite of the legend that had been built up around him over his 26 years at my high school, that kind of acidity wasn't his standard teaching M.O. It was OK if you didn't understand a concept the very first time. It was even OK if you didn't like a book or a piece of music or a style of art we were discussing in class. The only thing that was guaranteed to not be OK was not caring, was not wanting to know more. Differences of opinion were perfectly fine in his classroom, often even encouraged. Apathy was the biggest no-no.
That, even above all the other things Mr. Fletcher gave us, was the most important -- the belief that knowledge was a good thing to have, that an awareness of one's history and culture was important, that willful ignorance was to be ridiculed, not celebrated. You'd think that'd be an obvious virtue, but look around you at all the people who go into life with a "Don't confuse me with facts when I've already made up my mind" attitude, the people who condemn anything the least bit edgy or challenging as dangerous to society, the people who'd mutter "faggot" if you tried to spark any kind of conversation about art or literature. There is a certain segment of society who not only don't know anything more about the world around them than the prejudices and assumptions they've already created, but whether because of fear, laziness, or resentment, they don't want to know anything more. But Mr. Fletcher did his part to help mold entire generations of kids in Columbus, Georgia, who were worldly enough to resist that.
Mr. Fletcher leaves behind a wife, kids, stepkids, and grandkids who are all going to miss him very much, but he also leaves behind hundreds, maybe even thousands, of former students who remember the gifts he gave them vividly enough to know what the next few generations will be missing. That may be the saddest thing about all of this -- the fact that the kids who come through Hardaway after us will never know what it feels like to be made smarter by James T. Fletcher. That was a pretty special privilege.
The word "elitist" gets thrown around a lot these days, so much so that it's started to lose any meaning. And the people who seem to be throwing it around the most are the ones in that group I mentioned earlier, the willfully ignorant who don't want to know anything more than what they've already decided. I'm sure they would've found Mr. Fletcher to be irredeemably elitist, too, had they ever met him, but Fletch didn't think he was better than other people based solely on their taste in art or music, their appearance, their political convictions, or any of that. The only people he thought he was better than were the people who didn't care enough to want to know more. If that makes both him and me elitist, then I plead guilty on behalf of the both of us. But I think it's the kind of elitism the world needs more of, and for helping to create more of it, Fletch has my gratitude.