Starfish, Sand and Ripples

 Many of the little things we do to show kindness and caring to others go unnoticed and even more are quickly forgotten.  For the most part, it isn’t a big deal; we are guilty too. Two days ago, I needed a special, hard to find bolt for a home project. I finally found it at an independent local store (Dal R’s) where they refused payment since it was such an inexpensive item.  Despite being very touched by their kindness, I also admit that if I saw the clerk again today I wouldn’t remember his face.

  Early in my career when I was still a newbie to the counseling profession, I found that I was struggling with the fact that not every student that came to me for guidance or therapy walked out with the knowledge, skill or mindset to improve their circumstances.  I had become a counselor to help others and when I failed it troubled me.

   I remember one young man in particular named James. He was a self-referred sixth-grader. Back in the early 90’s it wasn’t common for upper elementary boys to self-refer.  I don’t recall what was happening in his life that prompted him to ask for weekly sessions; what I recall is my feelings. My best efforts didn’t seem to be enough; I wasn’t able to help him get where he wanted to go, or so I thought.

This went on for several weeks, perhaps months. I couldn’t refer James to another counselor because I was the only one assigned to the small rural school. Referring him to a community counselor was also out of the question because he had made it clear that he didn’t want his parents to know he was talking to me about his problems. I didn’t give up on James but perhaps more importantly, he didn’t give up on me.

  I finally asked Alan, another counselor that I had become friends with during graduate school, if he had ever had a student that he just couldn’t reach.  He admitted to having the same experience from time to time. “How do you deal with it?” I asked.

No matter how tightly you grasp sand, some of it will slip through your fingers.

   Alan told me that counseling our students was, in some ways, like grasping a handful of sand.  No matter how hard you try, some of the grains of sand will slip through your fingers. You can use all of your energy to worry about those or you can focus on the ones still in your hand; the ones you can still touch.

   I accepted that theory and it helped me.  It was spring and when school let out for summer vacation, James stopped by for one final session.  He would start middle school across town when the summer break ended. He didn’t get emotional but asked if there was any chance I would be willing to change jobs when school resumed. It was a high compliment; still, I told him it wasn’t likely.

   Summer break, short as always, ended and school resumed.  The middle school students, my former “kids”, rode buses back to their previous elementary school, where they switched buses to ride in the ones that would deliver them to their homes. I had hall duty rather than bus duty so I didn’t get to see James or my other former students during those brief moments of transition. From time to time I would think about James and hope that he was okay.

   Two years passed, I no longer had hall duty at the end of the day. Typically I used that time to finish up notes and straighten my office for the next day.  I was at my desk with my back to the hall when I heard a voice asking, “You don’t remember me do you?”

  I turned around and saw a much more mature version of the student I had worked with when he was a sixth grader. “Of course I remember you, James!”  I was happy that he thought of me and took the time to say hello.

  He gave me a sheepish smile and admitted that he had told the busdriver he needed to use the bathroom as an excuse to come into the building and quickly try to locate me before the buses left again.  “Do you remember when I used to come talk to you?” I said I did and to my surprise, James very sincerely stated, “I probably never told you, but it really helped me.” He didn’t have time to say more and dashed out the door just in time to load the waiting bus.  I have never seen James again.

   All the time that I thought I wasn’t helping him, thinking I was failing him, I was wrong.  In that moment, knowing I had been wrong was the best thing that had happened to me in a very long time.

   The sand analogy, while pretty cool, may not be the best one for those of us that make our living in one of the helping professions.  Instead, our work may be more like the story of a man that is walking along a beach that is heavily littered with stranded starfish. As he walks, he picks them up one at time, tossing them back into the ocean.  When his companion tells him it is impossible to save them all, that his efforts are futile, he responds by tossing yet another starfish back into the sea and remarking, “Yes, but I saved that one.”

   Some of our good intentions go unnoticed and sometimes our best efforts fail.  There is another angle to keep in mind. James gave me a gift. He made me realize that we don’t always get to see the fruits of our good works but that doesn’t diminish the sweetness to those that reap the harvest. I venture to say that, James has no idea that in thanking me for helping him, he helped me.

  I am challenging myself to be mindful off this, especially when others treat me with disrespect or are intentionally hurtful. If I can see past their behavior in the moment, to where perhaps a broken spirit resides, then I might just be able to choose a reaction that doesn’t further break them. 

  As we go about our lives this week, I hope you will join me on this quest;  the quest of the ripple effect brought on from human interactions. We help or we hurt and most of the time we have no idea how far our ripple travels and how many lives are touched. I set off a small ripple for James and it returned to me as a wave. That is why I want to try harder to be a helper instead of a hurter. The difference I make might be compared to giving first aid rather than a cure but isn’t that better than twisting the knife sticking out of someone’s back?

Be well, my friends. If you enjoy my blog, please pass it on to your friends.

Photo credit to the following: Deepak Mahajan, Ian Dooley, Pedro Lastra and Amy Humphries.

The Truth

 I don’t claim to be an artist so go ahead and laugh at the little sketch I have posted.  I am tough like that. I will use it to tell a story that I think you will enjoy and perhaps you will even share it with your children or grandchildren since it teaches or reminds us of something we all need to know.

 Question 1.  What is this thing that I have attempted to draw?  If you answered a sheep or lamb you are correct and just became a prized pupil for you wisdom and willingness to give an answer.  If you said it is a poodle or some other kind of dog I will also count that as correct since, as I already stated, I’m not an artist.

 Now how many legs does this creature have?  Grab a scrap of paper and jot down your answer.  If other family, friends or coworkers are nearby at this time you may ask them also and record their answers just to add to the fun.

 Did you say four?  Tomorrow is April Fool’s Day but this really is not a trick question.  The answer is four.

 Now, look at the next picture.  See where I added an arrow pointing to the appendage over the sheep’s fluffy little butt?  If I call that a leg, how many legs does the sheep have now? Jot down you answer and if you have engaged others in this little exercise ask them as well and record their answers.  Resist having a discussion for the moment, we’ll come back to that in a few minutes.

  Let’s talk about something else for a few minutes.

 If  you enjoy rumors, half truths and false news either raise your hand or shout out Amen!  Imagine the teacher, scanning the room right now looking for hands or listening for exclamations.  No one?

 Some highly honest student might say, ” It depends.”  If the rumor or half truth is about someone we do not like then we might feel a touch glib and savor the nastiness. We may believe that our adversary deserves for the world to know about their shortcomings or crimes.

 Some other less judgmental listeners might choose to neither believe nor disbelieve the rumor and assume a, let’s wait and see attitude.  Maybe you are part of this group and if so, good for you for not jumping to conclusions.

 What if you hear the same information again from someone else the next day.  Perhaps you keep hearing it from various sources. What if some of those sources are people you know and trust?  Perhaps you hear it from your spouse, parent or an esteemed member from your church, maybe your best friend? What if you read it in a newspaper or it is put on social media and/or television by a major news source?

 Imagine that you keep hearing and reading this and you do not hear anyone voicing an opposing opinion?  If everyone you know says it is fact do you accept it as fact?

 Most of you probably see where I am going with this.  I used this same little sketch in years past with third graders to teach a lesson.  Do you want to know how it played out?

 Most of the time the kids, anywhere from 22 to 30 in a class would agree that the drawing was a sheep.  If one or two wanted to argue that it was a poodle they quickly changed their minds when a classmate pointed out that the creature has hooves and dogs do not.

 I would guess that over the years I probably taught this lesson 40-50 times, maybe more.  I never had a child disagree, when I first asked how many legs the sheep had. Every time the answer four was unanimous for the entire class.  After that things sometimes changed a little, but not often.

 When I pointed to the tail and asked, “If I call this a leg, how many legs does the the sheep have now?”  Almost every time the kids would quickly and with great delight answer, “Five!” They felt like my questions were really easy compared to their other third grade questions they did not shy away from answering.  I could tell they were feeling very confident.

 Out of the 40 to 50 times I presented the lesson, 3 to 4 times, a student would continue to say the sheep only had four legs.  At that point I would ask them if they were sure. I never told them they were wrong, instead, I would point to each leg in the sketch and ask everyone to count with me.  “One, two, three, four”, then I would again point at the creature’s poofy appendage just over it’s little butt and I would repeat, “If I call this a leg, how many legs does it have now?”  Almost always the child caved under the pressure and said that the sheep had five legs. If they didn’t I would ask another student to explain why they said five, (Note, I never said five was correct).

 Only twice in all those lessons did I have a student that stuck with saying the sheep only had four legs. Two kids out of approximately 1,250.

 Be honest, what answer did you write down? Did you write 4 or 5?

If you said 3, 6 or any other number I can recommend a good therapist, tutor or both. Many years ago when I taught seventh and eighth grade math my favorite joke (that I could tell at school) was; There are three kinds of people in the world, those that can do math and those that can’t.  If you don’t get it, it will probably hit you ten minutes from now, or if it doesn’t just accept that you are not mathematically gifted.

 The answer is four and the lesson is not about math.  Even if I, as the teacher, call a tail a leg that does not change it.  It is still a tail. If everyone in the class calls it a leg, it is still a tail.  If your mom, dad, favorite news source or the candidate you voted for calls it a leg, it doesn’t change anything.  It is a tail.

 The truth is not determined by popular vote, the number of retweets or even by what your family and friends believe.  W. Clement Stone said, “The truth will always be the truth, regardless of lack of understanding, disbelief, or ignorance.  He’s right.

 The kids loved this lesson and I always asked them to go home and reteach it to their families.  I knew that if they did they would remember it for a much longer period of time. Some years when the kids were 5th graders, their last year in elementary school, I would ask if they had a favorite lesson that I had taught to them during our six years together.  The sheep lesson and the the tail that I tried to call a leg was always mentioned as one they enjoyed and remembered.

 Even now that I am retired, sometimes when I read or hear information that is questionable I remind myself of the lesson and I do my homework to try to dig out the truth.

 Winston Churchill said this, “The truth is inconvertible.  Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, There it is.”

 As always thank you for reading and following.  Share the sheep lesson with someone and please comment so I know how it turns out for you.

Photos provided by yours truly, sam-carter-11916, antoine – dautry -428776 and luke-stackpole-698661 on unsplash.com