#TBT: Of Starfish


Once upon a time, I was a teacher and a librarian. That was a long time ago, but back when I was and I started this blog, this post got more views than any other had up to that point and it is still in the top five ten years later.

I’ve been thinking about a lot of things and doing some intense soul searching over the last few weeks since finding out my position has been cut at school and I don’t have a job next year. To be honest, I’ve been seriously considering some field other than education just because the endless politics and prurience keep dragging me down. So I’m publishing this article that I originally wrote for my state association’s newsletter. I’ve been rereading it to try and boost my flagging spirits.  I hope y’all like it.

“Of Starfish”

Starfish and coffee, maple syrup and jam;
butterscotch clouds, tangerines, side order of ham.
If you set your mind free, baby, maybe you’d understand
Starfish and coffee, maple syrup and jam. (Music and lyrics by Prince Rogers Nelson)

Most everyone in education has or has read the poster / cup / screensaver about the young boy throwing starfish back into the ocean as the older gentleman watches him and comments on how useless the boy’s efforts are. Many of us, especially after a hard day when the children (and faculty) have tried our patience, are sustained by the hopeful last line of that free verse that says, “It made a difference to that one.”

We all have starfish in our careers. They are our life’s blood and they keep us going; their very existence validating our best efforts and giving us the desire to come back in August even if we left in May or June swearing we’ll “never come back again.” Our starfish, our precious students and even teachers, in whose lives we have made a noted, tangible difference, are the most valuable revitalizing resources we possess.

I got to pondering starfish last Saturday after eating with my wife at one of the nicer Italian restaurants in town. Our regular waiter at that particular eatery happens to be one of my first, and still one of my most beloved, starfish. Jason (not his real name) was a sensitive, broody young man in my honors English class during a particularly bad year for me professionally. He thought deeply of subjects far beyond the purview of many of his classmates. He pondered much more than proms, power, and the popular crowd, of which he was an abject outcast. Jason had problems at home where a burly stepfather insisted he play football even though Jason had precious little athletic aptitude and even less interest. To make his life even more stressful at the time, Jason was also extremely confused about his sexual orientation. For some reason, he chose to confide in me. In all honesty, it wasn’t a subject I liked, was comfortable with, knew much about, or wanted to discuss, but something in me knew that Jason wasn’t going to go to anyone else, at school or out.

So, I listened before school, after classes and at the end of the day as he talked through what he was feeling. I felt terrible because I didn’t think I was being much help other than as a sounding board. Then one day, whether by luck, intuition, or some latent librarian skill, I gave him a copy of a book that had come to me in a box of classroom library donations. The title character was a teenaged boy with an emotionally abusive stepfather and confusion about what sexual orientation he had. It wasn’t a famous book; if someone put a gun to my head and demanded I tell him the title, I’d be shot dead.

Be all that as it may, the book seemed to be a key for Jason. He took solace that someone, even a fictional someone, had similar thoughts to his own. I don’t know why, but whatever the reason, he seemed to regain a little more life and a bit of zest. I remained his unofficial father confessor through his senior year and he stopped by quite often during his first year of junior college. We lost touch for about two years until he walked up in his spiffy waiter’s uniform and apron to be our waiter one night about two years ago. Between the breadbaskets and the ice cream desserts, he told Budge and me that he’d dropped out of college, gone back, dropped out again, started waiting tables in good restaurants and got certification as a physical therapy masseur. He now has a wonderful live-in girlfriend, whom I have met, so apparently, as I’ve kidded him, he has a handle on his orientation. We see each other about once a month, either at the restaurant or at a bookstore or ice creamery. He mentions those bad times every now and then, but no matter how many times he says it, I still get shivers and Budge says my face lights up when Jason says, “Coach, you listened when no one else did . . . I appreciated it so much.”

Jason was my first memorable starfish, but I’m glad to say, not my last. I hardly have space to talk about the wonderful parade of miscreants and misfits, talkative and taciturn, popular and pauper who have made my career as a teacher and now as a librarian incredibly interesting and unbelievably fulfilling, like the five boys who demanded I sign their diplomas because they felt I was the only reason they got them or the young lady and her beau who asked that I perform their wedding after graduation. Then I had the two tough middle school football players who say I’m the only one who could ever get them to read a book, the list could easily go on. They are all my starfish.

I suppose my reasons for focusing so much on starfish have a lot to do with one particular young student I knew well once upon a time. He was very overweight and had pasty white-pink skin. His middle school playground nickname was “The Great White Marshmallow.” Overly smart for his age, non-athletic to the extreme, bookish, he was simply not a success in the shark tank of middle school. I can see him now in sixth grade huddled in the back of the small library poring over a copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, hoping earnestly that the large eighth grade jocks wouldn’t come inhere after him.

The young man’s best ally was the school’s librarian. She was the picture of kindness to him, even lending him her personal first edition of The Fellowship of the Ring because the school’s library didn’t have one. Looking back, he can understand how incredibly busy she was at the time and he knows now that she was going through tough times of her own, but she always took as much time he needed to talk about elves and dwarves and hobbits.

Because of the love of books and learning she imparted to one lonely starfish, that starfish had the desire to go on to college, then to library school and become a librarian himself. The librarian is now at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory as a psychometrician on the venerated faculty of Harvard University, but the boy starfish is now a middle school librarian and he’s never forgotten what it felt like to be burning up on life’s beach only to have a caring set of hands take him back to the cool ocean.

In closing, my esteemed colleagues, remember your starfish. Some of them may drive you crazy while some may make you smile and laugh, but either way, remember you never know the difference you make in someone’s, some starfish’s, life.

Love y’all and don’t forget to wash your feet.

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