First Bell: English Teacher Shatters Adolescent Conception of Masculinity
Parrish went to Istrouma High School in Baton Rouge during the mid ‘70s.
He was a jock with a lot of anger, caught up in the racial violence of the time.
And then he walked into Fred Shirley’s English class
Shirley was the teacher who would introduce Parrish to counter-cultural books like the Great Gatsby and Slaughter House Five.
And he showed Parrish there was a different way to be a man.
If I could have imagined, and I probably couldn’t have, the person who would turn out to be Fred Shirley, I probably wouldn’t have imagined him.
He was in his forties, which seemed ancient to us at that time. He had kind of whispy brown hair which he was always pushing back. He was bucktoothed. He had a really big bushy mustache. In fact, to us, he looked really British -- not that we really knew what British people were and not that all British people look alike -- but that was our first impression. He presented as a kind of cologned dandy. But he had a first intelligence, and a cunning wit, and a love for literature, really just absolute devotion to his students.
Then he was also an outstanding basketball player. He played college basketball and I was trying to reconcile these two parts of this aggressive intellectual guy who loved literature and loved writing and wanted us to make arguments that we supported with facts, with this jock who questioned all authority and questioned academic hierarchy at Istrouma High School. And I think more importantly he demanded rigorous thinking and he pushed me to look at all sides of an argument, which was revolutionary to me, and to be open to changing our minds.
I saw mostly from Fred that there were alternative paths to doing things. The primary one that stuck with me was in terms of being a man.
There was a very narrow path that I understood toward being a man. And it had to do with things that won’t be very surprising to people -- not showing much emotion to people, except anger, you were allowed to show anger, but other emotions were sort of considered weak.
And I was searching and floundering and I had mixed feelings about him in some ways, because I thought I’d be found out, because I was struggling with so much racist behavior on my part, and feelings of racism, and trying to embrace those just so I could get my head clear and feel like I fit into this created world that I thought the men around me wanted -- which was to be racist and aggressive and violent. And then here came Fred, and he’s saying let’s think through everything, let’s not be intolerant, let’s look at things from all angles. And he just really, in a useful way, shattered my conceptions of what masculinity was.
You know, once you saw -- once I saw -- there was this world of ideas, this world of thought, and that the constraints didn’t have to strangle me, I felt I could start to create a different kind of identity. So I started to write. I started to think about becoming a teacher -- even though being a teacher paid so poorly it wasn’t really rewarded in my family’s upward mobility goals…
I had him four semesters. I knew in the first week he was showing me -- he was making demands of me intellectually that no one had ever made. And even though I resisted it at first, I was on board with a sense that he was touching part of my better self. And I think I intuited that pretty early.
By the second semester I had him, not only me, but many of my classmates knew, that this guy was revolutionizing our lives.
Tim Parrish now teaches Creative Writing at Southern Connecticut State University. A former student has described Parrish as the teacher who is, like Fred Shirley, always telling students to “question their sources”.
Parrish is also the author of, Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist, a memoir chronicling his reckoning with the racial violence of his adolescence in Baton Rouge in the 1960s and 1970s.