There was once a school of herring that lived far out in the ocean. They all looked exactly alike, with thin and long bodies covered in beautiful, gleaming silver scales that sparkled in the sunlight. They spent their days all swimming together in a big group, at the same speed and in the same direction, looking for food and good, rocky spots to lay thick, mucus-y clumps of their eggs.
One day a young herring asked a question of the rest of the school.
“Why do we always swim together like this? In big groups groups, at the same speed, and all in the same direction?”
“It helps us hunt the tiny zooplankton that we like to eat,” said the school. “And it protects us from bigger fish that like to eat us.”
“I think it’s kind of boring,” said the young herring.
“Ha-ha-ha!” The school all laughed in perfect, rhythmic unison. “Boring? Do you think it’s “boring” to have plenty of zooplankton to eat? Do you think it’s “boring” to keep safe from predators and live long enough so that one day you may find a good, rocky spot to lay your own thick, mucus-y clumps of eggs?”
“But I want to do more than eat and lay eggs,” said the young herring. “I want to sing!”
“Oh, we can sing if you’d like! We love to sing, too!” said the school and all at once they launched into a rousing verse of their herring song.
We swim together all day in the waters so deep
Tiny zooplankton are what we like to eat
We don’t got arms and we don’t got legs
In thick, mucus-y clumps we lay our eggs
“No, no, no!” shouted the young herring. “I mean I want to sing for other fish. I want them to hear just me.”
“We see…” said the school. “We don’t know if we’ll have time for that. We really need to focus on deflecting herds of zooplankton into each other’s mouths and making sure that our layers of eggs are not so thick that some of the eggs don’t get enough oxygen and die.”
“Then I will go off by myself,” said the young herring. “I’m tired of swimming in a large group in the same direction and at the same speed as everyone else. I will leave the school and sing for every fish and dolphin and squid and whale and crab that I meet until every creature in the sea knows my name.”
“But you will surely die on your own!” cried the school. “Who will deflect zooplankton into your mouth? Who will swirl in a dense circle with to confuse your predators? And who will fertilize your thick, mucus-y clumps of eggs?”
“Don’t worry about me,” said the young herring. “I’ll be fine.”
“Of course we will worry about you,” said the school. “You are one of us.”
“No, I’m not!” snapped the young herring. “I’m different!”
“Individuality is only a product of ego,” cooed the school. “If you can learn to release the desire to- Oh, look! A good, rocky spot to lay our thick, mucus-y eggs!”
The school darted towards an especially gravely bit of seabed and started squeezing out tiny mounds of phlegm covered eggs.
But the young herring did not dart towards the especially gravely bit of seabed. He just floated in the same spot for a moment, wondering if the school would notice if he was missing. But the school didn’t notice. They just rubbed back and forth against one another in astounding synchronicity, their scales flashing in time to the beat of an unheard song, as they pressed the eggs and seed out of one another’s bodies.
Free from the rest of the school for the first time, the young herring swam wherever he pleased. He swam to the left and then he swam to the right. He swam to the surface and he dove back down to the sea floor. He picked up a bit of seaweed, plopped it on his head, and looked at himself in a piece of sea glass.
“See?” he thought to himself. “The school was wrong. I am different. Just look at me. I’m wearing a seaweed wig.”
The young herring swished back over to the school.
“See?” he said to the school. “You were wrong. I am different. Just look at me. I’m wearing a seaweed-”
Suddenly, the school spotted two swordfish swimming towards it.
“Predators!” screamed the school! “Everyone bait ball! Bait ball! Bait ball! Bait ball!”
The school started swimming in one big circles, faster and faster and tighter and tighter, until they formed a dense sphere of shimmering scales. The young herring got swept up into the bait ball, going around and around and around with the rest of the school.
“Uh oh,” said one swordfish to the other as they got closer to the school. “I’m getting a little confused…”
“Me too,” said the second swordfish. “I can’t tell where one fish stops and another starts. Or maybe…” The second swordfish trailed off for a moment, deep in thought. “No. Nevermind. It’s dumb.”
“What?” asked the first swordfish. “What were you about to say?”
“I dunno,” said the second swordfish. “I was just thinking that maybe it’s not a lot of little fish like we thought at first and that maybe it’s one big fish? That’s dumb, right?”
“Honestly,” said the first swordfish, “I was just thinking that it might be one big fish, too. It’s not dumb at all. You know, I’ve noticed that a lot of times, we think we are alone in our experiences and we don’t speak to them because we are afraid that it might ostra- Wait! Look there! It’s a fish in a seaweed wig!”
“Oh yeah!” said the the second swordfish with a grin. “I see him! His seaweed wig makes him easy to spot in that big group of fish.”
“You hear that?” the young herring shouted to the rest of school as they swam. “They can tell I’m different!”
“We know!” screamed the school back. “Take off that seaweed wig!”
“Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you?” sneered the young herring as he shook a couple loose strands of seaweed out of his eyes. “Wouldn’t want anything or anyone to challenge the status quo, right? Heaven forbid that someone stop following the leader, right? Listen, I can understand if you don’t have the guts to do what I’m doing. It’s not easy and it’s not pretty, I’ll give you that much. What I don’t get is being so jealous that you feel like you have to-”
Just then, the first swordfish skewered the young herring through the gut with his razor-sharp bill. With the young herring still impaled on his nose, the first swordfish swam over to the second swordfish and they feasted on his flesh, blood, and eyes.