A young girl was walking along a beach where thousands of starfish had washed ashore during a terrible storm the night before. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up and throw it back into the ocean saving its life. People watched her with amusement. She had been doing this for some time when a man came up to her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach, look at all the starfish! You can’t save them all. You can’t begin to make a difference!” The man’s words made the little girl sad. But after a few moments she smiled, bent down, picked up a starfish then threw it as far as she could into the ocean. She looked up at the man and said, “Well, I made a difference to that one!” The old man looked at the girl and thought about what she had done and said. Inspired, he joined the little girl and spent the whole afternoon throwing starfish back into the sea.
That’s “The Story of the Starfish”. Though I’m sure I had listened to this story many times from many teachers when I was young, the first time I really heard it was at my Aunt Bonnie’s funeral. Her nephews told it as a perfect analogy for the way Bonnie lived her life. Spending much of her working life in the Ohio education system, she changed the world one child at a time. When I heard them tell the story I saw so clearly the truth of it, that change comes not through big actions but through the smallest acts of helping out however we can.
Now I teach a writing class as part of the ESL course at my school. When we get to the lesson on morals I use “The Story of the Starfish” as my example. Though many students enjoy the story, and I can usually engage them in a pretty lively discussion about its meanings, after the bell sounds the story, like the rescued starfish, drifts away on the tide never to be seen again. After all, they have more on their minds than starfish like passing IELTS or preparing for a job interview with a western company, so though enjoyable “The Story of the Starfish” isn’t practical learning for them.
Before class today my student Grace told me she wanted to tell me a story. In near perfect fashion she recited “The Story of the Starfish”. I was dumbfounded. When I then asked her what the moral was she answered, “I can make a difference.” The moment caught in the back of my throat.
So often teaching in China is a rollercoaster ride of high expectations and demoralizing results. We want to enrich our students, educate our students but those goals often succumb to lack of good materials, insufficient funding, tests that are incapable of accurately measuring student abilities and the resulting poor placement of students in the wrong levels, bureaucratic office policies and unfortunately also ungrateful or lazy students. But thanks to Grace, today was a victory. Listening to her was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had teaching in China because I got to watch an ah-ha moment not about a grammar rule or word pronunciation but about an entire ideology in which one person can make a difference (not an entirely common notion in China). I think my Aunt Bonnie would be proud, not of me but of Grace who is both the starfish and the girl.