Saturday, November 14, 2009

Making a Difference

I was putting some books back into one of my bookshelves today and came across a little story that made me think about a sadness someone told me recently.

I was told by an intelligent, gifted teacher who is passionate about her work, about a boy who she had once taught. The boy had had all the help in the world at school because of his learning problems, fell into the wrong company after leaving school and ended up in prison. In prison the boy was helped again and it was thought that he had been thoroughly rehabilitated - and he was for many years - but in the end he went back to his old friends, his old ways, his old activities involving drug dealing and was killed in tragic circumstances.
The question posed was - "Are we wasting our time investing in all this interventionist education in schools, all this rehabilitation of prisoners when so many of them fail themselves, their families and society - is there a genetic disposition that predetermines their recidivism?
The story that made me think of all of the above is called "One At A Time" and it goes like this:
"A friend of ours was walking down a deserted Mexican beach at sunset. As he walked along, he began to see another man in the distance. As he grew nearer, he noticed that a local man kept leaning down, picking something up and throwing it out into the water. Time and again he kept hurling things out into the ocean.
As our friend approached even closer, he noticed that the man was picking up starfish that had been washed up on the beach and, one at a time, he was throwing them back into the water.
Our friend was puzzled. He approached the man and said. "Good evening friend. I was wondering what you are doing."
"I'm throwing these starfish back into the ocean. You see. it's low tide right now and all of these starfish have been washed up onto the shore. If I don't throw them back into the sea, they'll die up here from lack of oxygen."
"I understand", my friend replied. " but there must be thousands of starfish on this beach. You can't possibly get to all of them. There are simply too many. And don't you realise this is probably happening on hundreds of beaches all up and down this coast. Can't you see that you can't possibly make a difference?"
The man smiled, bent down and picked up yet another starfish. and as he threw it back into the sea, he replied. "Made a difference to that one! "
CODA: Now, the difference between starfish and the eddies and currents that influence their destiny and troubled children who become prison inmates is the possibility of making a choice, of swimming against the prevailing current - 'Exercising Free Will' - This possibility of having some control over our destiny is what separates us from the animal kingdom. Despite the legacy of genetics, our upbringing and other social determinates, we still have the possibility of making choices. And there are some inspiring stories of many who beat these odds and don't fall into recidivism. Recidivism rates are often high but they would be even higher without trying to implement the ideal of rehabilitation and giving targeted help where required.
The thing we must not do as teachers (I have been teaching and helping children for over 35 years) is to think that what we do, we do in vain. We must intervene, teach, help, coach and keep the faith - and always remember that those that we help are always better off and further along the road than if we hadn't lent a helping hand ----- As to whether after all of that help the people in question choose to cast themselves back like dark stars on a criminal shore is something we cannot control, and within limits is their choice. It is a bitter pill to swallow if you have been personally involved with one of these failures, but complete identification with, or feelings of responsibility for, would be a great mistake.
As a teacher myself, as I look back over the years, and taking into account the total number of children taught, I am sure that both for myself and for my colleague who posed this question in the first place there are many for whom we can claim that we, "Made a difference to that one"


Dan Gurney said...

Well said, and I agree, we must keep the faith. If I may add one thought:

When we show someone compassion there are two immediate beneficiaries of that compassion: the person who received the act of kindness and the person bestowed it.

The guy on the beach is going to feel better for having made an effort on behalf of the starfish he tossed back.

Had he succumbed to despair and walked on without making any effort, he'd have to deal with his conscience which would register (consciously or unconsciously) his despair and feelings of futility, both of which are lousy feelings.

So yes, we must act to benefit the life that surrounds us because doing so will benefit us simultaneously.

Alden Smith said...

I couldn't agree more Dan. Loving somebody and yourself and involving yourself in human acts of compassion are the biggest contributions to human health and well being around - love is a spiritual law not unlike the physical law of gravity - without gravity planets wouldn't form, without love there is no humanity.

Janice said...

Alden, this post made me want to cry, because I taught many adults who needed help as children, and didn't get it, but they had survived anyway. Those who work with children have a sacred trust, and many do not fulfill that trust, either not knowing, or caring, what a little love and attention can do for a child. Largely it is children who live in poverty who are most at risk of becoming "criminals", (and I wonder sometimes who the real criminals are in our capitalist society), qnd these cheldren can hardly be blamed for learning survival skills that land them in trouble with our uncaring, unsharing societies. So thanks for this post, I think it is a very important topic, and I like your stance on it. I think you must have been a tremeandous teacher, and that there's many a child that will remember how you affected their lives.

Alden Smith said...

Janice, you make some good points -when we do the social / political analysis we often find the reason why people behave the way they do -the reasons are not often 'black or white' much is relative and contextual.

renee said...

Beautiful story, that can illustrate what to do in a lot of situations.
I agree with you that especially teachers for children play an important role.
Myself, I can remember all the teachers in grade school but not all I had in university.
One at a time can apply to many things when problems seem to be too big. Improve the world and start (at) yourself. Set small targets that are realistic as part of a bigger plan. Are not overwhelmed by the distance to travel, set the first step etc.
I use my wife's Google account now,

Alden Smith said...

Ben, I couldn't agree more with the fact that to improve the world we start in our own backyard with ourselves - this is old and very good wisdom.
The idea of setting small goals which lead to the overall goal is also wise and sensible - too often we can get overawed by the magnitude of the big goal, but when broken down into small steps, taken one at a time it all doesn't seem so formidable.

Kathryn said...

The starfish story is a good one, Pal. We can always make a difference and there is always hope, in every situation. What a sad world it would be if no-one ever tried to make a difference? I'm sure for every failure there must be at least one success? And probably more.
Its not the end result that is always the most important, it is the journey.