© Kate Dudding
After agreeing to tell stories at a ten-year-old’s birthday party, I asked her mother, “What things is your daughter interested in?”
“She loves everything about the sea, especially starfish.”
“Oh, I’ve heard a story about a starfish. I’ll be sure to tell it at the party.”
At that time, I had never read the original starfish story, The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley. I had only heard very short versions such as:
A man is walking on a beach and comes across a little girl tossing stranded starfish back into the water. Seeing the multitudes of other starfish, he asks,
“Does that really make a difference?”
“It does to this one,” says the little girl, and another starfish sails over the waves.
(from The Huffington Post)
I had remembered this story because I love the idea of taking on a monumental task and doing what you can. Telling stories to adults is like that, since most people don’t even recognize storytelling as an art form, let alone an art form for adults. I’ve been producing storytelling events for adults for 20 years, trying to expand the recognition of storytelling as an art form for adults, at least in my area. This story validates my efforts of taking on a huge task and making small differences over and over again.
When preparing for the birthday party, I felt the story was really too short for children, so I decided to adapt it and make it longer.
Since my story was for a 10 year-old-girl, I decided to make a 10 year-old-girl the main character. The late storyteller Barbara Lipke had offered that advice in a workshop I had taken – make the main character the same age as your listeners.
I gave the mother an active part so that adults listening could relate to her, as well as to the daughter based on their own childhoods.
I thought of this as a simple story and didn’t want add unnecessary details. I didn’t add a father since another person wasn’t needed in this story. I didn’t explain why they had time to spontaneously spend the whole morning at the beach. I didn’t give them names so the story has the feel of a folktale.
I filled out the story with bits and pieces from my life as well as some things that I imagined or deduced logically.
1. I remember being woken up early by my young son. He would pull the window shade away from the window to show the daylight and announce, “It’s DAY!” He was eager to begin the day, me not so much.
2. His pockets were always filled with “treasures” he found. Luckily his fascination with discarded bottle caps didn’t last long…
3. Since I grew up in a town on Long Island Sound (the part of the Atlantic Ocean between Connecticut and Long Island, New York), I knew about summer storms, how they could break a heat wave and leave lots of “treasures” (to my eyes), debris (to my mother’s), on the beach. We went to the beach every sunny day, so I knew there were people who came to swim and others who came to walk the water line. My mother waged a constant war against sand invading her beach bag, the car and the house.
4. However, I didn’t like the throwing of the starfish. I figured that that might damage the starfish. So I decided the starfish should be handled gently. I choose the word “scoop” since I could add a scooping gesture and a releasing gesture when telling, and invite my listeners to do the gestures also – thus adding a little participation to the story.
5. I imagined people walking the beach would notice the daughter and mother scooping up the starfish and that some would comment on it. I decided to make some of them helpful people who really listened to the daughter and decided to scoop up some starfish too.
6. I figured if I had spent a whole morning scooping up starfish with my mom and a bunch of strangers, that I’d remember it the rest of my life.
So here’s my adaptation of Loren Eiseley’s story.
Doing What They Could
Shortly after dawn on a summer morning, the daughter woke up. She thought, “Why am I cold? When I went to sleep, it was so hot. It’s been really hot for days. Oh, I remember, the big storm last night must have cooled everything off.”
She looked outside her window and saw some tree branches on the ground.
She thought, “The storm! I wonder what treasures the storm left on the beach!” She ran to her mother, who was still asleep in her bed. “Mommy, Mommy, wake up! Let’s go to the beach and see what treasures the storm brought!” The mother opened one eye and saw her daughter’s excited face only inches away. “Good morning, sweetie. Ah, what did you just say?”
The daughter replied, “Mommy, A Mommy, wake up! Let’s go to the beach and see what the treasures storm brought!”
The mother turned her head and looked out the window. She saw that it was a beautiful morning. She remembered her own excitement as a child to see what storms had brought her way. She remembered the shelf which had held her treasures from the beach. She remembered her daughter’s shelf of treasures too. She looked longingly at her pillow, then back as her daughter’s excited face. The mother smiled as she swung her feet to the floor. “Alright, let’s gobble up some breakfast and go to the beach.”
They ate and dressed quickly, then filled a canvas bag with their beach things and walked the few blocks to the beach. As they got close to the beach, they smelled the salt in the air. They could almost taste it on their tongues. When they got to the beach, the gritty sand was cool on their feet, for a change. The daughter tossed her flip-flops into the canvas bag and started running toward the water, calling over her shoulder, “I’m going to see what the storm brought us.”
The mother took her time, clapping her flip-flops together to get the sand off of them, wigging her feet into the cool sand. Suddenly she heard her daughter call out in horror, “Mommy, LOOK!” The mother dropped everything and ran to her daughter’s side. The mother looked where her daughter was pointing. The mother sighed and said, “Oh, NO.”
In front of them on the sand, above the normal high tide line, were thousands of starfish. Some of the starfish were slowly making their way back to the ocean. The daughter carefully scooped up one of the moving starfish, took it to the edge of the water, and gently released it in the water. She watched as it moved into deeper water. Then she went back and scooped up a second starfish. The mother said, “Are you trying to save all these starfish? Sweetie, that’s
The daughter looked up at her mother. “I know it’s impossible to save all of them. But I can save some.” She gently released that second starfish in the water and turned to get another one.
The mother looked stunned, and then said, ‘You’re right. Let’s save however many we can.” So they both started scooping up starfish, carrying them to the ocean, and gently releasing them in the water.
All that morning, people passed them. Most of the people asked, “What are you doing?”
“We’re saving the starfish,” the daughter always answered with a smile,
“Are you trying to save ALL the starfish?” the people replied scornfully. “That’s impossible.”
“I know it’s impossible to save all of them, “ the daughter always replied, looking
up at them. “But we can save some,” as she gently released yet another starfish in the water.
Most of the people stopped and helped, some for just a few minutes, some for the rest of the morning. Together they saved many, many starfish.
For the rest of their lives, the daughter and the mother remembered the starfish. Whenever they were faced with new, seemingly impossible tasks, they found as many people as they could to help, they all worked hard together, and they did what they could.
The story was well received at the birthday party. I’ve told it to other family and school audiences as well as to adults. Recently, because of the fragmented state of the U.S., I’ve been telling a number of programs titled “The Kindness of Strangers.” I often end those programs with this story.
I’ve never told this story for a pre-school or K-2 audience. If I were going to, I’d probably start with finding the starfish on the beach to get into the main action of the story as soon as possible. And I’d have additional participation. I’d have three people ask, “What are you doing?” and invite my listeners to say the daughter’s two simplified lines “We’re saving the starfish” and “I know, but we can save some.” And, of course, I’d simplify some of the language, such as replacing “releasing the starfish in the water” to “putting the starfish in the water.”
Kate Dudding of Clifton Park, NY, specializes in true stories about people who made a difference. She has told stories at many venues in the Northeastern US. She has been commissioned to create stories by The New-York Historical Society, New York City; The Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site, Albany; The Empire State Aerosciences Museum, Schenectady; and Easton Library.Each of her first four CDS has received a national award. Her fifth CD, ”Learning About Muslims,” was released in March 2017. In 2010, she won the story slam (competition) at the National Storytelling Conference in Los Angeles. (518) 383-4620