The Story of Starfish

By Bao Lee

We leave campus, drive over the Mississippi and arrive at St. Benedict’s Senior Community Center in less than five minutes. The entrance doors are wide and swing open for us. A woman sits behind a round welcome desk and she points us to our right. As I walk in the appointed direction, I see our Hall Director, Garrett, standing by a table just inside another room. He is dressed less formally than students normally see him, decked out in khakis and a green shirt. Beyond Garrett, the room is strung with long fake grass, beach balls up front by the sound system, with beach umbrellas. Just past the dance floor are tables that hold paper pineapples and little palm trees as center pieces. Garrett offers us leis. I grab a handful, take a deep breath, and head over to the tables that are occupied with senior citizens, our intended dance partners for the evening’s Senior Prom.

Senior Prom is not quite the same as high school prom, and by quite, I mean not at all. This event is an opportunity for college students to mingle and dance with senior residents from St. Benedict’s Senior Community Center. There is no obsessive dress shopping, or worries about tickets or corsages, or trying to match a bow tie with the color of high heels, or sweaty hands while asking a girl to be prom date. But there are other reasons the Shoemaker Hall students might be nervous.

“I didn’t imagine as many wheelchairs were going to be there,” said Alex in response to my question about her expectations of Senior Prom. I too was initially puzzled by how we should best dance with the seniors who needed their wheelchairs.

Alex is Vice President and Philanthropy Chair for the Shoemaker Hall Community Council. She is one of the most enthusiastic and dependable residents of my hall. She worked diligently with Ann, Hall Director of Benton, and Garrett in planning Senior Prom.

Alex added, “I imagined it kind of being awkward like it was at first but I knew at some point people would dance more. And I just tried to go into it with an open mind.”

*

When I reach the tables, I’m relieved to see a smile from one of the women there. Like pretty much all the other women, she has her gray hair styled short. I ask her if she wants a lei and she asks for red. I go around the table with the same question. The elderly people are not as enthusiastic as I had imagined, but then again, what’s exciting about a plastic necklace? One woman sits in a wheelchair and I ask her three times if she’d like a lei necklace, but she doesn’t seem interested, or able to hear too well. My smile tightens and I shrug, moving on to the other tables. Once I’ve done my rounds, my mind breathes a sigh of relief; especially as I see more students from campus arriving to liven up the party. A few have gathered in the back corner, which is not an encouraging sight.

Refusing to be a wallflower for the evening, I step back towards the table closest to the dance floor and ask one woman what her name is.

“Jean,” she says. She asks me where I’m from.

“I’m from Wisconsin.”

“And where do you go to school?”

“Here in St. Cloud,” I say, and she smiles in approval. I ask her about how she’s feeling and whether she is excited to dance.

“Oh no, I didn’t bring my dance shoes,” she replies, gesturing to her gray slippers. “They should put chairs around the edge, or else we won’t be able to see.” The dance floor takes up the majority of the room, while tables have been concentrated on the side opposite the door, near the window.

“Should I tell them to set chairs around the dance floor then?” I ask. She and her friend tell me, yes, and I motion for the Shoemaker residents to help set up chairs. More students arrive and more St. Benedict’s residents as well. Some seniors are in wheelchairs. Some have walkers. One man is wearing his Navy uniform, hat and all.

A middle-aged man in black pants and a plain black shirt gets up in front of the beach balls and fake palm trees, announcing he would begin playing. He hooks up his guitar. “Some of you younger ones won’t know this song.” He begins playing, and the senior citizens start singing along. Alex is the first to push an elderly woman onto the dance floor. She flashes an extra wide smile at us in encouragement to join, but I’m still feeling too shy, so I watch her slowly weave a pattern on the dance floor while the woman in the wheelchair claps along with the music.

As the next song plays and a few more people start dancing, I motion to my co-worker, Chris, to ask some of the elderly women on the side to dance. He’s also dressed for the occasion in a Hawaiian hibiscus-print shirt, but like many of us, his enthusiasm is curbed by hesitation. His sheepish smile probably mirrors mine. After half a second, I march over to a line of sitting ladies and ask, “Would any of you like to dance?”

The ladies all shake their head or say no, but finally, I reach one woman who has an oxygen tank assisting her breathing. She wears a blue shirt with stripes and a stain on it. She looks up at me with watery blue eyes and lifts her hands toward me. I clasp them in mine and they are smooth, soft. Her name is Sally. Sally’s friend urges her to stand, but I’m not sure that would be such a good idea. I’m afraid I won’t be able to support Sally.

*

“There was one woman who was probably ninety years old who danced her pants right off,” Ann said, laughing. Ann was the Hall Director in charge of Shoemaker when Senior Prom first began. We had just warmed up after getting inside from the April snow shower. I was digging into the history of the tradition of Senior Prom as we sat in her small office. Crafts supplies and decorations from last weeks’ Drag Show were piled on the opposite side of the office and her desk was smeared with papers, as only a ten-year Hall Director’s desk could be. “She got out of her wheelchair and danced with one of the students when her pants fell off and you could just see on his face he didn’t know what to do, because you want to help but you don’t know if you’re allowed to. He was holding her up because she needed support standing and he was panicking. So I saw her and went over and safety-pinned her pants on. That lady was the talk of St. Ben’s for a year after. They talk about Prom for weeks.” Anecdotes such as this sound funny after the fact, but I imagined the student in the story and my heart went out to him.

Service learning grew into an integral part of Residential Life at SCSU and students on campus share volunteer opportunities every semester. This year was the ninth year of Senior Prom at St. Ben’s. Ann credits the students for making this event happen year after year. When I asked if she had intended for Senior Prom to become a tradition, Ann replied, “Not necessarily, because you never assume something will happen since these programs are for the students and supported by the students.” There has to be interest and students are in charge of realizing the benefits they and the community reap.

“Even the elders who were non-communicative, you could still see their happiness, like the one that was clapping and smiling while on the dance floor. There was one Senior Prom we held at Talahi Senior Center and the same guy won Prom King each year for two years. He was one of the non-communicative ones due to his illness but both of his crowns were displayed in his room after he passed away, so it shows that these events possibly made his year, not just his day.”

*

“Sally, just stand up,” her friend says.

Ann says, “Maybe she should just remain sitting. Here, I’ll push the chair.” I got to hold Sally’s hand while Ann pushed the chair back and forth in an imitative waltz. Sally’s face is lit up with a smile.

We dance through this song and then Sally is returned to her spot on the sidelines. I bring cups of lemonade to some of the ladies and then I push another woman in her wheelchair for two songs. The Hokey Pokey is one dance that let us all loosen up. I hand off my dance partner to Jimena, one of my Shoemaker residents, and take a break. Leaning up against a table, sipping lemonade, I watch the occupants of the dance floor form a circle. Round and round they go.

When I return to the sidelines after going to the restroom, one of my residents, Brandie, tells me the woman she’s sitting with hasn’t let her leave the table. “When I got up to get juice, she said, ‘you’re coming back, right?’” She speaks with amusement and affection about her bondage with her new friend.

A care-taker took Sally out for a while and when Sally returns, I see her at the door and go up to her right away. She is touching the blank name tags at the front table.

“Sally, do you want to dance?” I ask.

She smiles and rasps out a happy, “Yeah!”

She’s able to use her feet to move herself around in her wheelchair while I hold her hands. We are the one of the few couples that faces each other while dancing and I enjoy it all the more. Once, I accidentally step on her slipper but thankfully I didn’t catch any of her toes. At one point, she tries to tell me something.

“Would you like something to drink?” I ask. She shakes her head and says something. “Do you want a root beer float?” I’m wrong. I can’t figure out what she wants. A caretaker stops by to say hi and tries to decipher Sally’s words. I lean in close and try again, but in the end, the music starts up and Sally and I continue dancing. The musician has Sally and other seniors giggling during a song about a woman who wants nothing to do with a man if it means she has to be tied down. I know very few of the songs he plays, but I am able to sing along for “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”

Sally points again at me and I remember she was at the door earlier, reaching for the name tags. “Do you want a name tag?” She nods. I speed walk to the table and nab the last blank name tag along with the Sharpie. I mess up on  the ‘y’ in her name and freak out for half a minute, but then darken her name to make the mistake less noticeable. I return to the dance floor and to Sally, and stick the tag on her shirt. She takes it off. I’m confused. She sticks her tag on my shirt and takes my name tag, replacing it on her shirt.

“You want my name tag?” I’m smiling. I’m touched. She nods. My hand presses over the ‘Sally’ on my shirt, making sure it doesn’t fall off. We don’t stop dancing until the last song.

*

I never attended prom in high school. I couldn’t get excited about prom culture and the amounts of money that high school students must have saved up since childhood to spend on this one night. High school prom would have made a huge dent in my wallet if I aimed for the luxuries that many of my friends planned for. Senior Prom was my first prom. Having experienced it, if Senior Prom had been offered as an alternative in high school to the traditional prom, I would have signed up without hesitation.

I heard students say they had a lot of fun and wanted to attend Senior Prom next year. I spent the majority of Senior Prom dancing with a woman who I couldn’t clearly communicate with, one who struggled to verbalize her desires and questions. Afterwards, I felt guilty for feeling like I gained more from Senior Prom than I had contributed. I thought about the residence hall I live in, about my student residents and the senior residents. From Ann, I learned about the numerous activities that senior citizens enjoy, games and music they look forward to, and gossip that livens up their conversations—so many parallels with college students. Life doesn’t always begin and peak when one enters college, free to do whatever she wants. And life doesn’t seem to end just because a person needs a wheelchair.

*

Towards the end of Prom, our Community Council Vice-President and President, Alex and Brian, announce that we are going to draw names for Prom King and Queen. Two senior residents are named Prom Queen and King. Queen turns out to be Sally’s friend who declined all of my dance offers. I was secretly rooting for Sally, but I could hold no grudges seeing her friend sit up front, smiling with the King.

Ann is talking to her mom, who is also a citizen of St. Benedict’s. Then she stands up and announces, “I want to thank all of the Saint Cloud students for putting on this dance and for giving up their Fridays to come spend time here. This is a tradition of Shoemaker Hall. It’s our ninth year of Senior Prom and it was wonderful having you all here.”

I assist Sally in putting on her sweatshirt, and then I stand near her and her friend, Prom Queen. Prom Queen sees that Sally is tired and she assures her that they’re going home soon. A few minutes have passed since the students huddled for a photo and the musician finished packing up his equipment. I linger near Sally as she grows distant, sleepy. I was reluctant for prom to end, rarely having met a person clearly expressing so much joy at my presence. I don’t think Sally needs me forever, but for one evening, we needed each other. I wonder if she’ll remember me tomorrow and I promise to remember her.

*

Ann is surprised when she learns that I’d never heard the starfish story before.

“So the story is that there’s a beach that is covered with starfish. There’s a man walking on the beach and he sees another man throwing starfish into the ocean. He asks the other man why he’s working so hard, since there’s no way he can save all the starfish, there’s just too many of them and it won’t make a difference. But because starfish die without water, the other man picks up another starfish and throws it into the water and says, ‘It makes a difference to that one.’ So it tells about how you can’t change the world but you can make a difference. You can google it and read it online. It will probably tell the story different or more clearly than I did.”

But I don’t think so.

Bao Lee is a Wisconsin native who loves summer and chocolate ice cream. She is currently working on her graduate studies in the program of College Counseling and Student Development.

Photograph courtesy of huffpost.com

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