One of my favorite stories is by Loren Eisley. He tells of a man walking along a beach and discovering a boy gently picking up starfish and throwing them back in the ocean. Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?” The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.” “Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!” After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man he said, “I made a difference for that one.”
I am a teacher. It’s not what I do. It’s WHO I am. I was teacher before I was wife or mother. On some primordial level, it is who I was always meant to be. I have lived my adult life under the auspices of Christa McAuliffe’s words, “I touch the future, I teach,” and when someone has pointed out that I ‘can’t save them all,’ I’ve just smiled and continued to ‘make a difference’.
That’s not to say that I haven’t had bad days, but I’ve always joked that a bad day at school was better than a good day at the company I worked for just out of college. I’ve been able to get over those days by pulling out my ‘sunshine folder’, a bright yellow file filled with positive notes from parents, students, teachers, and administrators. A few minutes of sunshine usually did the trick, and I could put whatever it was about the day in perspective.
But recently I have questioned the very thing that has kept me going for twenty-four years. Have I ever truly made a difference? I know I matter in the here and now, but what about long-term? Has the time, energy, heart, and soul I have poured into teaching really made a difference to any one of my students?
For the first time, I actually thought that maybe I should be doing something else.
I tried to stifle that little voice in my head; after all, I’ve kept in touch with many former students, and they’re leading happy, productive lives. It’s always a joy to hear about a college graduation, a dream, a new job, a wedding, or a baby, and, it’s easy to feel pride in what they’ve accomplished and take a little credit for their successes. But in a dark moment earlier this week, that little voice whispered, “Those kids would’ve done well with or without you. What about the other ones? What did you do for them?” And that little voice, that little doubt, opened up a floodgate I wasn’t quite prepared for; a feeling of total insignificance.
I thought about the starfish story. A story that had always filled me with hope, suddenly took on a different meaning. What if the man was right and I wasn’t making a difference?
I’ve been walking that beach for twenty-four years, gently rescuing starfish, and I’ve done so under the misguided notion that once I tossed them back into the ocean that everything would be okay. Oh, if only I had that kind of power!
In reality, when I look back at the beach I’ve walked, I see some of the same starfish washed back on shore. Some of them I tossed back in several times, but reality is I can’t save them every time they need it. Even sadder is the fact that some of them have washed so far ashore that I can’t even reach them. And if I look forward, I see more rescued starfish being washed up on the shore again and again, and I worry that many of them won’t make it back in the water safely.
I spent the better part of last week on the verge of tears, my heart aching because there were so many things outside my control that I really wanted to fix but I knew I couldn’t. It was sort of a Jimmy Stewart/It’s a Wonderful Life kind of week. And then, for some reason, I went through my virtual sunshine folder, and came across this email: “You added to my life, and I would like to think I wouldn’t be where I am today without you.” It came about three years ago from one of those ‘starfish’ I still worry about.
So, what can I say? I AM a teacher. I may never know how far-reaching my influence is, but I have to trust that it doesn’t end when a student leaves my class. And I have to remember that even though I can’t remove all the pain and sorrow from my students’ lives, I DO make a difference. For some of them, I may be the only person who does.