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The Yellow Pages is a Very Big Book

For those who aspire to tertiary study, there are few more stressful moments in life than looking up the newspaper on the day university offers are announced. If it’s not bad enough that your entire future seems attached to the 5 digit course code clinging to the back of your surname, there’s also the fact that the whole thing is going on in an alarmingly small font. Throw in some substandard eyesight and a common surname and the ordeal can be transformed into a 3 hour thriller.

In terms of great life transitions, it’s the next big one after kindergarten to primary school, and this time there’s a brutal competitiveness about. At aged 4, it would be unseemly to think that a government department was hovering over our shoulders telling primary schools whether to accept those of us in a certain finger painting percentile, but by 17, we’re deemed ready. Dr Brendan Nelson this week likened the experience to salmon fighting their way upstream, and for me in 1991, that’s what it felt like. Opening the newspaper and hoping that none of the other salmon had understood Giuseppe di Lampadusa’s The Leopard either.

On Tuesday, the education minister focused on tired salmon, salmon that are experiencing ‘disillusionment and disengagement’ and how it should be considered okay for these salmon to drop out of the run, to find their own ‘quiet pond’.

The problem with this is that at 17, it’s difficult for a disillusioned salmon to know whether it is having a problem with the run itself, or is just depressed because the good looking salmon in Maths Methods looks like going off and spawning with someone else. ‘Quiet ponds’ might be easy enough to find, but if priorities change, without higher education they can be tough to get out of.

For those who do want to continue the swim upstream, reduced federal funding for tertiary places this week meant higher entry scores, and thousands missing out on either their chosen course. Of course funding is not the only reason people missed out (there was also that massive night at The Metro in April) but it’s certainly one worth dwelling on, especially if the alternative is blaming yourself.

In any event, there are plenty of disillusioned salmon that have paused midstream this week. Because of the way the end of school is marketed to us by teachers and parents: ‘this is your whole life your know … you don’t get a second chance at this … do you want to end up cleaning my car? … really?… oh stop being ridiculous … you hate cleaning the car’ failure in VCE is laid down as permanent failure.

The reality is of course that you can’t be a permanent success or a permanent failure at the age of 17 or 18. It’s only if you’re 19 that you have cause to panic. If you’re not a runaway success by the age of 19, you have clearly learnt nothing from the example of Mozart or Brett Lee.

There are tens of thousands of possible jobs in the world and they can present themselves anywhere, anytime, at any stage of life. If I could try my hand at careers counseling, pick up the Yellow Pages, skip over the infuriating Telstra promotional material, and open up randomly on any page. If you get ‘Medical practitioners’ or ‘Lawyers’, that doesn’t make my point very well, so I’d ask you to do it again. Do it until you find something that you didn’t know people do. A career that wasn’t sold to you by the careers counselor at school. I eventually got ‘carcass removal’ on page 75.

VCE isn’t your whole life, even if it feels like it for one year and a few weeks in January. And so to all the despondent salmon out there, keep swimming and chasing the dream (which I think we agreed in the last paragraph was carcass removal) To all the happy salmon, keep swimming because currents change quickly and when it’s least expected. To Dr Nelson, keep swimming, and we could do with some money for the spawning grounds. And to the big black bear plucking the salmon out of the river and feeding them to its young, what the hell do you think you’re doing?