Big Fish, Small Fish

[Author's Note: Another college essay from December (New Year's Eve, no less). This one I wrote in a halfhearted and shameless stab at a scholarship to the College of Wooster, gleefully and (I believe) successfully tearing a somewhat trite prompt to thoroughly disoriented shreds. I think you'll be able to discern what the prompt was. The upshot of it all is, these four paragraphs were apparently worth $18,000 a year (or $18,000 a paragraph), and I'll be starting orientation at Wooster in less than a month. Sometimes, things turn out well.]

High school guidance counselors are proud to stand as little anchors of stability in the midst of whatever tumult might cause a student to seek them out, and no tumult is more formidable in its gravity and uncertainty than the college application process. In this, as in all things, counselors lean heavily on simple, unshakable absolutes—truisms such as “There is a college for everyone,” which is true enough, and dichotomies like “There are two kinds of colleges: small fish/big pond colleges and big fish/small pond colleges… which are you?” The latter is, by far, the more contentious point. First, I am not a college at all. I’m Dorothy Gale, from Kansas. Second, there are surely no fewer flavors of colleges than there are colleges, seeing as no two exist in parallel universes. And third, quite apart from the matter of postsecondary education, this apparently innocent question raises several questions of its own—questions that are troubling, muscular, and must be wrestled with—questions like: Can I not find a pond that directly corresponds to my size?

When I think of big ponds and the fish that would choose to swim in them, I think immediately of Jack Sparrow, wily and witty protagonist of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. The fact that Jack is drawn to the biggest pond of all, the sea, even above all other pirate vices (rum, wenches, and brawling) radiates a sense of sublime self-worth. Jack’s braggadocio is ultimately a reflection of the thrills he seeks in life, a wild ambition that has far outgrown the smaller ponds of the world. The question, however, then becomes: Is Jack really a small fish in a big pond? Is he not a big fish? His conduct is perfectly outrageous; he is selfish, dishonest, vain, infamous, and lawless. When a Commodore of the English Royal Navy puts to Jack that he is “the worst pirate I have ever heard of,” Jack replies, “But you have heard of me,” speaking cheeky volumes about his size as a fish. The truth is that only a fish of considerable stature would willingly cast itself into a large pond, perhaps as a wild challenge the ordinary limitations that govern less ambitious fish.

Similarly, when I consider small ponds and big fish, I invariably think of Phish, the Vermont-based jam band (1983-2004, R.I.P.) of considerable renown. Their success, to the reasonable extent they enjoyed it, resulted from playing to a modest but rabid fan base that gradually, through word of mouth, spawned more fans. Phish got to be big fish by remaining faithful to the silly, eclectic band they wanted to be and to the small pond they occupied. Never once did they, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “open a window and make love to the world.” In another sense, however, Phish were really just four small fish: generally shy, easygoing, and unassuming. None of them aspired to the status they eventually attained, and they became far more uncomfortable with themselves as that status began to swell, hastening their eventual breakup. Fish that are truly and deeply small will only ever thrive in small ponds; let them wash out to sea and they lose their way.

Whether I’m a big fish or a small fish hardly seems to matter. Can I possibly avoid a catastrophically mismatched pond? Do they tailor ponds to be big enough to allow my dreams to breathe yet small enough to shelter my insecurities? Was this really about college all along? Ultimately, we are humans, not fish. We are courted by both risk and comfort, but only the latter preserves our mobility, forestalls a final, possibly fatal, decision. There’s no better place than the smallest pond in the world to contemplate a vast, cruel, unfathomable ocean.

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