In June of last year, I attended my niece’s high school graduation. I was happy for my niece, but I found the ceremony speeches tedious to sit through. The speech of an elderly English teacher told the story of a boy throwing starfish stranded on the shore back in the ocean. A man comes up to the boy and tells him that he can’t possibly hope to make a difference when there are so many stranded starfish on so many miles of shoreline. The boy picks up another starfish, throws it in to the sea and replies….
“Makes a difference to that one!” I said smugly to my sister as the teacher paused for dramatic effect. I’d heard that fable before. It was in one of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books I read when I was in middle school.
As tedious as that graduation ceremony was, I think it ultimately played a part in me finally returning to college to finish my degree the following winter. During the first week of class I had dinner with a friend of mine.
“Hey there, dinner date!” my friend greeted me, as I stepped in to her car from my driveway.
I kissed her on the cheek and asked her how her day was.
“Stressful. My students are driving me crazy.”
“Too bad you can’t have more students like me.”
Although I call my friend by her first name now, in a part of my mind she’ll always be Mrs. Walters.
“You’re looking good,” she said as she turned to me from the driver’s seat.
“Thanks. I brushed my hair and there’s no toothpaste in it…Remember when I got that sewing needle caught in my hair?’’
“Of course. I’ll never forget that.”
“Yeah, that’s what you said when it happened 20 years ago.”
“Gosh. Has it really been 20 years?”
We settled in to one of those diners off Route 1 that are so emblematic of New Jersey.
A loaf of bread was placed in the middle of the table. I told her she should cut it because her fine motor skills are better than mine.
I congratulated her on winning the teacher of the year award and told her no one deserved it more than her.
She told me she will be retiring at the end of the year and that next year she will be volunteering in the school with dogs. She showed me a funny cell phone video of dogs. We talked about our previous and current pets. She asked if I remembered Mrs. Staggard and I said that yeah, I remember I was jealous that her class had a hamster and ours didn’t.
“I like how you remember everyone by their animals.”
Throughout that dinner as the intervening years between middle school seemed to melt away and the past seemed to meld with the present, I was filled with the kind of joy that comes with catching up with an old friend that you connect with so genuinely and so completely, but I also felt tinges of sadness. I found myself wishing I’d “overcome” the struggles I’d faced in middle school and become a “normal” adult. Instead I’d become the kind of adult who can’t hold a job, live on her own, or have a romantic relationship.
Yet I knew the fact that I was sitting there right then having dinner with a long- time friend was a testament to what I have overcome. Maintaining friendships with other humans once seemed impossible for me. Now I have become a social animal. I know I owe it all to the good animals, good friends and good teachers in my life. I also know that those are overlapping categories.
On the drive home my friend talked about how special education has changed over the years, how she could never get away with being as friendly with her students now as she was with me back then. She said she’s seeing an increase in aggressive, depressive and suicidal behavior in students. She said she used to think she could make a difference as a special education teacher but now she’s not so sure.
That statement shocked and bothered me. As I reached across the car to rest my hand on her shoulder, that starfish metaphor entered my head and it was as though my arm had been transformed in to the arm of a starfish.
“You made a difference to me.”