“I just wanted to let you know that while you were out, one of your students killed a fish in front of the class. He said it was for art, and that you would understand.”

You always wonder what they’re doing when you’re out sick.

This is what you get for taking them to the MOMA.

I remember when I got my first fish, felt their four little heads butting into the sides of the plastic bag. I’m holding life, I thought. I’m holding bright gold life in the palm of my hand.

(They died, one by one. Their replacements died. We lost seven fish. Our tank is cursed.)

“I wanted to make everyone question if they could sacrifice their pride to save a life,” he says. He told the class that they had five minutes to come to a consensus on the question of whether or not God exists. If they could agree, the fish would live. If not, he would pour a cupful of bleach into the plastic bottle, and the fish would die.

Argument exploded. He counted down. No one would give in. The fish was killed.

(Well, you did tell them they could do any kind of art project they wanted as long as it made people think. You showed them “Piss Christ” and “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” and debated the value of art that challenges conventional morality.)

The fish was destined to die anyway, he says, because he bought it to feed to his turtle.
This way, it died for a cause.
It died to make people question their beliefs.
It’s immortal!

What I thought, when I held my bag of little fish, was how extraordinary and terrifying it was to have responsibility for the life of something else, to hold it literally in your hand.

And what I think, facing a room of mildly traumatized students who now feel responsible for the death of a fish because they couldn’t agree, is how much like little fish they are sometimes: bright and hungry and butting their heads against the plastic walls.