StarFish by Catherine Wilson, B.A, C.Ht.
In a time and place not too distant from here, a gentle man walked along the shore. He enjoyed his walks and felt the freedom of the waves as they whooshed back and forth over the carpet of slippery, sandy beach. One day, he looked down and noticed that the sea had washed in many starfish. He picked one up, looked at, and realized it was drying up on the beach; so, he flung the starfish way out in the sea.
He bent down, picked up another and flung it, too, out to the sea.
He continued throwing out as many starfish back to the sea as he had energy to toss.
Another person walked along the shore. Having watched the man throwing the starfish, commented to the man, “I’ve been watching you. You know, there are thousands of starfish along the shore. What difference can it make what you are doing?” The gentle man just picked up another starfish, and flung it into the sea and says, “It made a difference to that one.”
I love that story. Have you ever noticed someone doing something and thought, “The right way to do that is…” You could make a difference to that one.
Seven years ago, I shared a story of my life with a perfect stranger. You know… the kind of meeting with someone for a split moment, where you tell your deepest secrets though you don’t even know them, then they disappear forever. What I shared with that stranger was my struggle to overcome my fear of public speaking. While I explained, I noticed a continual flow of energy, a joy inside, and spirit of happiness in having overcome something really, really scary for me.
What I didn’t know was that the person with whom I was speaking was a witness to a desire being born within me. As I sizzled with fascination, relaying the trials and joys of overcoming this old phobia, it dawned on me that bubbling up inside me was a hunger to find someone who had such a fear, so I could show them the path into the light of courage. Give them strength! Be strong like a stallion!!! It’s funny how we can sometimes talk about such things with a perfect stranger.
It was in passing a few days later that someone asked if I’d be interested in training a room full of about 30 kids concerning the fear of speaking. I was excited and scared at the same time: “Well, I’d like to, but I’m not a teacher. I have no teaching credentials.”
“That’s not a requirement,” he perked up. “Hey, aren’t you the woman who said she was very shy as a child and overcame a fear of speaking?”
“Yes,” I replied, watching the magical recipe of people soup bubble (who told him?).
“You don’t look shy now, “ he smiled. “Think about it.”
“OK,” I agreed and floated off, wondering, “Could I really do THAT?”
The person who spoke to me was a member of a speakers club. This club offered a program for high school students that they wanted me to present. Though fascinated by the prospect, I really had to think the offer over carefully.
I was employed at an electronics company in Beaverton, and my Customer Service Manager and supervisor were very authoritarian, and definitely not open to extracurriculars in the middle of the day. My supervisor, a short, stocky insecure woman with dark hair was younger than me. She was power-hungry and aggressive and appeared to take pleasure in demonstrating the fear she could induce while making people do what she wanted. Conjuring up my courage, I met with her and explained the kind of community effort it would take to make a difference to some children. I enthusiastically appealed to her higher self, offering to come in to work early and stay late, so that I could take a 1-1/2 hour lunch. The desire was growing to teach this class one day a week for eight weeks.
She strongly discouraged the activity, and that was that.
But I really believed in this project, and searched to find a person to go to bat for me. A “higher up” manager cleared it. My supervisor suggested to me that she’d thought it over and it was OK now—but I better not be late, and it better not interfere with work. I realized that my time would have to be carefully managed so as not to upset the delicate balance. My stress level was like a volcano threatening to flow.
At the same time, I had just returned to college, taking one night class per week, adding even more stress on my already busy schedule as a single, self-supporting mother of three children. With so many barriers—a pressure cooker job, college and now a run to a school where I’d have to get up early, work a long day, and probably miss lunch, and endure sensitive egos, I began to wonder, was I nuts to take this on?
I began despite the pressure. My class was made up of 11-year-old kids, not the 15-18-year old group for which the materials were originally written. Feeling my way through the material, I adjusted training so it better suited the 5th grade students. I added fun activities, metaphors, stories, and enlisted the help of the incredible Mrs. Kathleen Leahy. This exceptional teacher was open to anything that added to her students. Ms. Leahy helped in working out a schedule to fit my lunch, and, though I often ran late due to work demands, she was patient and flowed with it.
Each week, I arrived in the classroom filled with colorful creativity and imagination, and faced all those bright, creative, shy little eyes. Excitement welled up within my heart. I presented each day as though that was the most important thing in the world! When it came time for speeches, I encouraged the children to think of things that they liked—no LOVED to do, and to focus only on the fun and joy. Encouraging them to see their own specialness was deeply important to me. Every week I came loaded with surprises—Koosh balls, kites, gift certificates for local ice cream parlors—and we celebrated every time a child stood up to speak, no matter how long, by clapping and cheering them on. (Imagine people doing that for you!) Every child was encouraged. I paid for the presents out of my personal funds, and every purchase brought up a picture in my mind of a future adult giving a major speech, filling with confidence at the thought of an old Koosh ball in their hand. My fantasy of their success ran wild. My pocket was empty, my heart was overfilling.
All along the children were encouraged to support each other with constructive ideas. Each speaker had a buddy whose job it was to critique their speech, giving at least two positive points about the way the person spoke, gestured, showed their stuff… and one comment for how they could make it even better. The rest of the kids had the job of doing lots and lots of clapping when a speaker walked up and finished. Applause was considered a major job for everyone.
Miracles happened. In the process of getting up and speaking, and supporting one another, I noticed something. Kids weren’t teasing other kids. Instead they were sharing how scary it “use to be,” and laughing together about the mistakes. Every class, there they were, eagerly looking forward to another high impact experience.
And here’s another joy I discovered. No matter how many negatives I faced with the supervisor at work, I was smiling inside. A magic shield of happiness coated me with an armor that resisted the negative forces that would otherwise have moved me to the fight or flight reptilian part of my brain. Full of happiness and excitement, I shared with my co-workers where I went and what happened. They were curious and encouraged me to “keep making sunshine.”
At the end of the eight weeks, I collaborated with a group of friends who did a local cable access TV show. We arranged for a very special day to put the kids on TV, and planned it out with the teacher and parents to include as many kids as possible. It was a lot of work, but it never felt like work.
The day arrived. Seventy people packed the small studio at Tualatin Valley Cable Access (now Tualatin Valley Television). Each child got up in turn, spoke their story to the support and cheers of their 11year-old classmates, then proudly took their seat so the next person could speak (each patting them on the back saying they’d do fine).
My heart was stuffed like a pillow with fluffy feelings. It was indescribably fulfilling to see kids who had been shy or withdrawn come out with speeches of their choosing. I listened to stories told by kids who wanted to be basketball stars, doctors, writers, cooks, artists, and one who wanted to be the president of America. They told imaginative, colorful tales, mythical stories about unicorns and magic, mysteries, and tales of a not-too-perfect vacation. Some kids were hosts and took on friendly, outgoing personas. Kids acted alone in some shows, in pairs, and in one show six children teamed up as show hosts!
When the speakers were done, the evaluators got up one, at a time, and gave their supportive and encouraging advice. All were supported by applause. The feelings of joy, excitement, imagination, happiness, and success filled the studio like a rainbow of colors and the time flew by like a breeze.
Ice cream was ladled out after the taping, and kids, parents, brothers and sisters, friends, and studio crew celebrated. In the coming days, the taped show would be broadcast on cable four or five different times and days.
But excitement was up! Some kids couldn’t wait to see the tape of the show on TV, or their family didn’t have cable. No problem! We just brought the taped show to the classroom, where parents and teachers celebrated while the kids watched and listened to their stories on TV. Each had presence. It was hilarious to see their response as they watched themselves talking confidently on a TV show, with their name displayed by the television character generator. Parents commented to the teacher on the “difference” in their child. If the power in that room could have been canned we would have solved the energy crisis!
Other kids in the school community began coming up to these children, telling them how they saw them on TV! Wow! They were stars! The kids had learned a valuable new skill, overcome a fear, and publicly demonstrated their new ability, giving them confidence for future endeavors. These children were now changed forever—and so were others, the witnesses to their success, as was I. They were kids seen as people who had something to say. This “being seen” was an important fact in contributing to their self-esteem and confidence.
I had learned a few things too. Despite the environment that surrounds me, it is perspective that sets up the way I view things—and I can control that perspective, my view of life. In this case I chose to paint it “happiness.” Others are responsible for their own mind set and that’s OK, because there’s always room for variation. The important thing is to get it that “you can be what brings you the highest and best experience,” even in difficult circumstances.
Last year was my 9th year teaching public speaking to children. I’ve redesigned and rewritten the program, using all the experience from past classes, and learning what works even better for this age group. And in this process of helping these kids discover something beautiful, I “graduated.” I no longer work for the corporation and now help others to see the light through fear, trauma, panic attacks, and life in general. I smile when I think how, through the years, I have helped illuminate to others a path beyond fear, into courage, and to their own personal power.
Not long ago a little boy, all pumped up and excited, ran to me, pulling his father and mother along. This was a kid who had been quiet and withdrawn at the outset of the class we shared. I had noticed that he had really “opened up” after one of the exercises (African Greeting) that we practiced several times in class.
“Cat! Cat! This is my mom and dad!”
“Hello,” I said, smiling at them.
He turned to his father, looking him in the eye, and began the “African Greeting.” “I see you,” he said.
“I am here. I see you,” his father replied.
“I am here. It is good to be seen!” When the boy spun around, I saw the sparkle of delight in his eyes.
Seen! Yes! He knew that he was absolutely seen … seen for the miracle that he is by his parents! And how did that happen? The little boy taught his parents. We get what we give from our hearts; from there we bloom, and then drop seeds for others.
There are lots of precious starfish, washed up on the beach by waves of possibilities in the ocean of learning. Some are young kids and some are older kids, and they are waiting, hoping to be seen, hoping to be picked up.
“Yes, it sounds well and fine,” you say, “but I am only one person… and I have a busy life… yeah, I can teach a few people a few things about this or that, but there’s just no time.”
Yes, I see you out there, just one solitary person standing at the edge of a frothing blue and gold sea of life. Yet… the story has now reached you. Look around. Notice. You, too, can make a difference. Grab a starfish and pitch!
Catherine Wilson is the winner of the NLP World Community Education Award, (to be given in Montreal, Canada in April, 2005). This distinguished award recognizes “projects and programs that: make learnable what had previously seemed unlearnable; empower the people of a given community with the life skills they need; make education relevant and meaningful, while enriching the students’ experiences of their own capabilities, worth and value.” Visit www.apositivechange.com for photographs of children in her program.
Cat Wilson is a partner of A Positive Change, a counseling and training center in Portland, Oregon, where she coaches, trains, and teaches hypnosis and NLP. Cat Wilson can be reached at 503.525.0595. www.apositivechange.com