Growing advocados: an unexpected metaphor for senior year

“And then I bought an avocado tree.” It sounds like something you’d say to save a dull anecdote, something akin to the amateur storyteller’s panacea of “and then I found 20 dollars.” The avocado variation, however, is more absurd and, in my case, absolutely true.

“Free for a good home,” the Fall Plant Sale workers declare, causing my ears to perk up the way they often do around that f-word. Apparently, this avocado tree has the plant equivalent of scoliosis, but the gardeners convince me that it’s nothing to worry about. Still, though, I worry. I ask how long this tree will live, because lord knows I don’t want to deal with the stress of a death on top of a rigorous course load. They assure me that this tree is very hardy, but I take this information with a grain of salt after what happened to my similarly “hardy” dorm plants of yore. Nevertheless, I decide I am up to the challenge. I love guacamole.

There must be some metaphor in this whole situation, I know. There must be some comparison between dealing with this tree and dealing with my senior year in general or else some elaborate Parable of the Avocado Tree that I can extract from it all.

Maybe it lies in the absurdity. I find myself questioning, “Really, an avocado tree?” using the same incredulous intonation as I do whenever I ponder, “Really? Senior year?” And the latter usually happens at least once a day. How did this happen to me? In the beginning, I went through a mild case of Seniorship Denial, but then Convocation, really just an early dress rehearsal for Graduation, whammed me over the head. So now I can rest assured of my ability to march in cap and gown, and of my stamina to sit through speeches – and this senior year thing has become very real indeed.

When I chat with freshman, I have to try my hardest not to slip into Wise Old Grandmother mode. But I like sharing my snippets of advice, the morsels I’ve learned over my last three years here. Incidentally, most of them can apply somehow to the avocado tree.

Even though the first-years usually know it, I stress to them the excitement and importance of new experiences. College is the time to get a taste of things you’ve always had a hankering to try in addition to things that just sound awesome – from growing an avocado tree to signing up for that obscure tutorial. We’re faced with a countless array of opportunities, and even if they don’t pan out, at least give them a shot. I tell first-years about my short-lived (but exhilarating) stint with the handbell choir as well as my longer, more rewarding experience rowing crew.

Then, I share my gradually-acquired revelation that you don’t have to do everything, but when you find something you love, throw your all into it. The first year is the time for exuberantly scribbling your name and unix on a dozen extracurricular sign-up sheets at Purple Key Fair. The later years are times to streamline, to develop your passions. I’ve grown up hearing that if you’re going to do something, then you ought to do it well.

And so this is why I start becoming worried when three days after my avocado tree purchase, something goes horribly awry. The leaves have started to shrivel and droop, and the scoliosis looks worse than ever. I don’t know what’s wrong, but I am determined to save this tree.

I do what my three years at Williams has taught me to do: I research. This investigation takes the form of a “gardening tips for avocado trees” Google search. I learn that the avocado tree, Persea Americana, can grow up to 65 feet tall, which, admittedly, is a bit overwhelming. I learn that yellow leaves indicate iron deficiency. And then I do what my three years at Williams has taught me that I do: I get distracted. I discover that avocado is a corruption of the Aztec word ahuacacuauhitl, meaning “testicle tree.” Before I can spread the news to the people in the Sawyer carrels near me, I get further distracted by the most depressing news I’ve read all day: “Indoor avocado plants rarely bear fruit.”

I bounce back quickly, though, when the next line informs me that it helps to have several avocado trees growing together to aid pollination. It’s as simple as finding a few more avocado trees – no problem. What’s more, the tip relates perfectly to one of the biggest pieces of advice I like to give freshmen: the importance of community and connection, from bonding with an entry, hanging out with friends or meeting a professor for coffee. Late nights of deep conversations will always be some of my favorite college memories.

And as for the fruit-bearing news? It does say “rarely” and not “never.” There’s always hope and there’s always something to be happy about, even if the situation seems glum. Who knows what will happen?

I’m looking forward to fresh guacamole in the spring.

Elissa Brown ’09 is a psychology major from Palo Alto, Calif.