Sitting in my boss’ office, I began to feel thirteen again. Although a grown man and a teacher, there was something about sitting in a principal’s office that reminded me of my first experience in such a room. My mind wandered off, and I was starting to feel an old ache , like a bum knee on a cold day, creeping up stealthily. It was in a room like this – cramped, poorly lit, and symbolically authoritative, that I learned a valuable life lesson: big fish make ponds feel small.
Standing near my principal Dr. Sellers’ office, waiting for her to call me in, feeling the occasional assault of the fan positioned strategically in the hallway, I thought about why I might be there, and I watched some troubled-looking kid I didn’t know exit her door. He had a weary look on his face and a detention slip crumpled in his hand. This office was not a place I frequented, and I was hesitant to go in when I was called. It was the end of the school year, I was about to go to high school, and this is what I believed: my place was in a fish bowl – a small one – and I had always been a big fish.
My neighborhood elementary school was also my neighborhood middle school. Grades K through eight coexisted awkwardly on the same small campus. I entered school there as a shrimpy first-grader, quickly establishing myself as a strong student.
On a perceivably average day, Dr. Sellers walked into my eighth grade language arts class. She was an imposing figure, not because of her size, but because of her authority and her notorious reputation for never smiling. She was like a hurricane: a force that you could sense coming before it touched down. When she opened the classroom door, I thought it was typical principal posturing, entering to make sure the students – and teacher – were on task. Foolishly, I looked her way and made eye contact with her; I was caught, trapped like some tuna in a fisherman’s net. She sauntered over to me with a small envelope in her hand, placed it gingerly on the corner of my desk. I pretended not to notice, but my curiosity got the best of me. I reached out and poked the note with my finger, then tried to lift the mysterious paper. As I did so, Dr. Sellers gently placed her hand on mine and said, “Not now. You can open it after class.” The anticipation killed me, but being the attentive goody-good that I was, I agonizingly heeded her request.
As soon as I stepped out from Mrs. Flynn’s classroom door, I tore open the envelope, not really understanding why I was so eager. Most kids would be terrified: a note from the principal, the person who you intentionally tried to avoid, the disciplinarian and adult figurehead who represented everything totalitarian and evil on a school campus. This note, however, was addressed to me, not my parents. In my mind, I was probably the smartest kid in the school. What did I have to worry about? I read her neatly drawn scrawl: “Come see me after school.” Those five vague, terribly non-descript words, lingering like gray clouds over my otherwise sunny day.
When the last bell rang, I quickly packed my things and hurried to the principal’s office, an act most students would commit to by dragging their heels, heads down, posture slumped. When she dismissed the student who was in her office before me, his eyes met mine, both silently begging the same question of the other: what is he doing here?
“Come in, Joseph,” she beckoned. I entered and sat in the aged chair, wondering how many other butts had sat there today. It was still warm.
I looked around her office and realized that, in eight years’ time, I had never been in there before; I had only seen it from a distance. Now, I was an invited guest, close enough to read the spines of the books on her shelf, still in the dark as to what my purpose here was. “I called you in today to congratulate you,” she began. There it was, praise. I liked praise. There was more for her to say. “I have had the pleasure of having you as a student on our campus for the past eight years. I’ve watched you grow into an intelligent and capable young man,” more praise, “but,” there’s a but? “But I wanted to remind you that you are entering a new chapter next year.” Yes, I understood this. “You’ve always been a big fish here, but Wildflower is a very small pond. What you get to high school, it’ll be different.”
My petulant, middle-schooler, internal response was, “Duh,” but clearly she was doing somewhere with this.
“This isn’t to be discouraging, but you may have to adjust. You’re used to being known and succeeding. You may have to share that limelight with others.” I stared at her blankly, blinking, my silent signal for her to continue. “Don’t be disappointed if you’re not as successful, you may have to settle for ‘Top 10,’ that’s all.” There it was: her telling me that I wouldn’t be a big fish any longer. Was this supposed to be encouraging, some cautionary tale to help me avoid deep disappointed?
“May I go?” I asked, not waiting for an answer as I walked out her door, for the first, and last, time. I could feel my face getting hot, reddening with anger. Who was she to tell me what my future would be like? Was she hoarding a crystal ball that told only her of events to come?
I stopped; placing my backpack on the nearest flat surface, I unzipped it and pulled our a piece of lined paper and a pencil. As quickly as my hand could fly, I drew, as best I could, an oversized goldfish squeezing its way out of a way-too-small bowl. Beneath the picture, I wrote, in very large letters, all capitalized for emphasis, “YOU’RE WRONG.” Finding a piece of tape inside my binder, I recycled it, placing it on the corner of my artistic endeavor.
Quickening my pace, I reached Dr. Seller’s door, and with an open palm, I forcefully smacked the page onto its surface, shaking the door with a loud boom. I pivoted and walked away quickly, turning a corner as I heard her door creak open. Peeking around the corner, I saw her grab the paper and look up. From a distance, I could see the corners of her mouth bend slightly upward, forming the closest thing to a smile that I had ever seen on her face. As I turned and walked towards home, I decided my goal, for the next for years, and forever after, was to prove her wrong, and be the biggest fish I could be.
When my boss walked in the room, he said my name twice before I snapped out of my memory. His face looked gray and tired beneath the fluorescent lights, and I was mentally swimming into the sides of my bowl.