Starfish and the Wooden Woodpecker

This 1400 word essay is a reflection on a week course I attended a few months ago. I explore what changes inside me during that time, and how I felt about it. Hopefully you enjoy it and a shout out to Anne Shaw for being awesome.


1. Starfish and the Wooden Woodpecker

    When my mother first said she’d booked my sister and I on a week long residential with fifty other gifted teenagers, I instantly thought: I’m not going. I wasn’t afraid of being without my parents for a week, or even losing seven days of my summer holidays to an educational course, but of the people. I spent little time with other kids those days, being home educated, and feared that this week would be awkward, over stimulating, and generally unpleasant (I’d instantly assumed they’d all be hostile, and we’d get no sleep). Despite expressing these apprehensions, my mother held out, and though I did warm to the idea, I still felt uneasy about it.

    After five hours on the motorway, we arrived at a large country house in rural Northamptonshire, and said our goodbyes. We were shown to our dorms, as well as to the common room. I sat on my bunk for a while after, making my bed, unpacking a bit, generally avoiding going to the com room. Twenty minutes later my sister walked into my room, room 14.

    “You’re coming with me, to meet the others. Come on.” Reluctantly I complied and was subsequently introduced to the other early comers. At that point the room was quiet and awkward, punctuated by the odd nervous laugh and half-hearted conversation starter. A week of this, what will I do? I asked myself. Though I felt a strong urge to return to my room I stayed, thinking of what my mother had said. Soon others started to arrive and the room was slowly filled with ‘How are you!’s and ‘It’s been too long!’s and ‘Gosh, you’ve dyed your hair!’s. One of my fears had been that they’d all know each other, and have formed tight social circles that teens in large gatherings often do, in my experience. That afternoon was one of being relaxed (on the outside) and uneasy (on the inside) as the room filled with attendees from past years. I lasted there until we reached the safety of a name learning exercise, which put me more at ease, as I was given topics and people to talk to.

    The next day the courses started. During breaks, and in every gap that presented itself, games of snap sprung up on the com room tables. These games created the perfect social situation: you could join any game you wanted, whenever (even half way through); you had something to talk about (what was happening in the game); and people to talk to (the other players). In this way the room began to fill with the laughter of someone forgetting to slam, the excited chatter of a tense round, and the happiness of victory. These break-time games gave me the confidence to stay in the com room and talk to others. They also proved me wrong: these people were open to meeting and including us first-timers, not just clinging to those they already knew. In this open environment I was able to find out those like-minded to me, and make friends of them. In this fashion I managed to find a group of four others that I could really connect with, and company I could enjoy.

    We talked openly about our thoughts on various things; shared opinions about our experiences being gifted; debated the topics of our courses that day: feminism, the Mary Celeste, Victorian culture, music. At this point (around 3 days in) I was only in my room when it was night, and at any other point was a waste of precious time: I only have a week with these people, now 4 days.  When we played snap we started adding extra rules; this reflected our growing friendships, in some sense.

    On Thursday evening (the fifth day of the week) was the much talked about ‘Talent show’. This was a relaxed affair where anyone could do anything, and would definitely get a clap, and a friendly laugh. Organised completely by the older kids, we had rapping, piano playing, jokes, book readings, dancing. I was sat with my group in the second row, all covered by a huge blanket, laughing and cheering and clapping. Eventually it came to the end, which was the time for the performances they called ‘the traditions’.

   This trio of performances were staples of the Talent Show, and each year were passed down from one person to another. This to me mirrored the gift of friendship that was passed from teen to teen ever year in this old rural mansion. The first was the Starfish story, which I will tell to you in brief.


    ‘One night a raging storm hit a small seaside village. Everyone stayed huddled in their homes, frightened to go outside. The next morning, though it had somewhat abated, rain still fell, and the people stayed huddled inside. One brave runner decided to go out for a morning jog, for he didn’t mind the rain. On the wet beach he saw the silhouette of a man. This man was amongst thousands of starfish that’d been washed up onto the sand. One by one, the man threw them back into the sea.

    “You know you can’t save them all,” said the runner.

    “Yes, I know,” the man said solemnly as he continued to throw the starfish, “but I can save this one, and this one, and this one.”

    Ten minutes later, another runner braved the rain and set off from their home. As they ran along the beach they saw thousands of starfish on the sand. And two men, throwing them, one by one, back into the sea.’


    Though this story is simple, to me it was profound. The starfish were other people, the storm socialisation, the those huddling inside my natural instinct. I was, that week, the runner, braving the storm, and the want to stay inside. I was the runner, realising that beyond the fear of rain there was others, starfish, that I could help, and in turn could help me. The man represented happiness, love, kindness, empathy, friendship. And together with him and the starfish, I, the runner, could do good, do well. This second runner was my future self, or you could say me now, finding my past helping and being helped. This simple tale told me that I must brave the rain so that I can help, be helped, by the starfish, by the silhouette of human compassion, unlike those who stayed inside; and benefit from that in the future.

    These thoughts were greatly strengthened by the second of these traditions: a poem about the course; about what can be achieved in 7 days, 168 hours; how many starfish can be helped in that time, if you brave the rain. Though I can’t remember it well, I know it was beautiful, poetic, true.

    Now very emotional, the natural result of prophecy and poetry, came the third of these acts. As they seemed to be continuously out-doing themselves, the prospect of a third worried me, for I did not want to cry. This final piece was by far the weirdest of them all. As forewarned by the performer: ‘what you are about to see is more of a cultish ritual than anything else.’ It was in fact him wearing a worn through straw hat, and releasing a wooden woodpecker down it’s pole (you know that silly little toy?) two times. Much like the starfish story, this was simple and seemingly insignificant. Yet to my mind and heart this was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. To give you the words of artist Keith Tyson, ‘something normal becomes emotionally charged’. This isn’t too profound, but applies perfectly in the situation. These two items had been annually used by so many great minds. Year after year, another will tie themselves and their future to these simple items. The story, emotional energy, of that cultish ritual blew me away. The power of the starfish story, the beauty of the poem and the history of the wooden woodpecker cracked me open. This boy who’d started (only 5 days ago) hiding in a dorm room, was now weeping in front of 50 people, most of which he’d not even talked to. You know the best part? The pinnacle of that evening?

    It was okay.

    I wasn’t embarrassed, nor I didn’t hide it with sudden toilet trips or long sniffs. I was accepted into the arms of comfort and words of warmth by strangers, by those I once feared would be horrible. I cried, thinking of starfish and wooden woodpeckers, prophecy and poetry, hiding in rooms and games of snap.

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