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.


2. Starfish and the Wooden Woodpecker (A revision)

N.B. this is a revision of chapter one, so the majority of the text is the same. The course with I'm on, and writing these essays for, told me the one that I submitted to them ('starfish and the wooden woodpecker') was 'too happy' for the assignment brief, so I had to re-purpose the essay to fit a different assignment brief, and have to produce new essay for the other assignment. Hope you enjoy.


    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 was home educated at the time, and like most home educated kids, spent little time with people. I thought I didn’t need people, that friends were a distraction. My previous experiences with kids - schools, football teams - left me believing I’d be best off alone, that I thrived by myself. Why would these teenagers be any different?

    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, procrastinating. 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, knowing I’d have to eventually, 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. They really are no different, I thought to myself. Despite feeling a strong urge to return to my room, I stayed, thinking of what my mother had said to me: Jack, at least give these people a chance. Soon, others started to arrive and the room was slowly filled with ‘How are you!’s and ‘It’s been too long!’s and ‘Oh, do you remember last year when...!’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. I was used seeing this from the outside, always being the only kid who didn’t go this school or that at every gathering. That afternoon was one of being relaxed (on the outside) and uneasy (on the inside) as the room filled with attendees from past years, and I started to realise that I knew not how to start a conversation, nor withhold one started for me. I lasted there until we reached the safety of a name learning exercise, which put me more at ease as I was given topics to talk about, and people to talk to.

    The following morning, the first courses started. During the 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 started to experience a feeling I’d never felt before. A deep happiness, a deep satisfaction. It felt better than doing well in a test, or winning a competition, or anything else. That night I lay in my bed trying to comprehend this new emotion, this happiness that I’d ever felt before. It was, I found, the feeling of true human connection, bonding.

    I made many friends during those games of snap. 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, this golden feeling, now 4 days! When we played snap we started adding extra rules; this reflected our growing friendships, in some sense.

    On Thursday evening was the much talked about ‘Talent show’. This was a relaxed affair where anyone could do anything, and would definitely get a clap, or a friendly laugh. Organised completely by the older kids, we had rapping, piano playing, jokes, book readings, dancing. I was sat next to my new friends, all covered by a huge blanket, laughing and cheering and clapping. When all the acts were finished, it was announced to be 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 town. 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 beach. One by one, the man was throwing 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, facing the storm, and the desire to stay inside. I was the runner, realising that the storm has a silver lining, and beyond it there are friends and happiness, starfish, that I could find and help, and in turn could help me. The man was that deep emotion I’d felt: there with the starfish, not huddled inside. And together with him and the starfish, I, the runner, could be happy, find meaning. This second runner was my future self, or you could say me now, seeing my past and realising there is true happiness amongst the starfish. This simple tale told me that I must face my natural instinct so that I can find friends, happiness, that golden feeling, unlike those who stayed inside, and benefit from that in the future.

    These thoughts were strengthened in my mind by the second tradition: a poem about the course; about what can be achieved in 7 days, 168 hours; how much can be found in that time, if you brave the rain. Though I cannot 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. To me they seemed to be continuously out-doing themselves, and the prospect of a third unsettled me, for I was afraid I’d start crying in front of all those people. 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 comprised of 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 disregarded the importance of human contact, who 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 as I thought I’d be, nor I didn’t hide it with sudden toilet trips or long sniffs. I was accepted into the arms and words of comfort by strangers, by those I once feared would be horrible. I cried, thinking of starfish and wooden woodpeckers, prophecy and poetry, friends and that golden feeling.

    That week completely rewrote my previous perceptions of the importance of friendship and social agility. I realised that success spawned from connections, and making connections; that being able to talk to others trumps being good at maths, or anything else; and most of all, that being with others is better than being alone. I learnt that friends are infinitely more valuable than all else.

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