My daughter and I walked close to the “Life on the Edge Exhibit” in the Seattle Aquarium located along the Puget Sound miles away from our home in Chicago, Illinois.
“Don’t be afraid to touch the starfish,” I said to my daughter who hesitantly approached the exhibit.
The exhibit allows visitors to touch sea stars and other inhabitants of Puget Sound. I was ecstatic to have my daughter have this close encounter with marine life because sea stars have long held great significance to me.
As a little girl, my father would write to me on various birthday cards “Don’t be afraid to touch the starfish.” This message rooted from an experience I had at an aquarium when I visited my father in England where he had been living for a year. The aquarium had an exhibit similar to the Seattle Aquarium where visitors could touch sea stars. And no matter how hard my father tried to urge me touch the sea star, I wouldn’t. Years following that event, he wrote this message to me, reminding me, “Don’t be afraid to touch the starfish.”
I did not know it at the time, but to my father, the sea star represented access and the ability of people to step out of their comfort zones to achieve beyond their own expectations. It is a dream that I believe my father has for all of his children.
My father had grown up poor, growing up his entire childhood up into adulthood in Chicago’s K-Town neighborhood. He became many “firsts” in his family, including getting a bachelor’s and master’s degree, excelling to the top of his field and other accomplishments that were not expected of a black boy coming from K-Town. And in that moment, in an aquarium in England, he had hoped that my unwillingness to touch the sea star wasn’t an indicator of my success in the future.
I had been living in two worlds at the time. My mother lived on the West side of Chicago in a neighborhood similar to my dad’s upbringing. My neighborhood was a community where access and people reaching their full potential was lessened by several environmental factors. Lead poisoning, violence, drug use, and high incarceration rates plagued my community in Chicago. It was a reality that was juxtaposed with my life through my dad in middle-class neighborhoods because my parents had shared custody of me when I was a child.
He worked hard so that I would never have to live in an environment like his and his constant reminder to me, “Don’t be afraid to touch the starfish,” showed his worry that I would succumb to my environment in my Chicago neighborhood. Over the years, I wasn’t sure whether I had learned the lesson he was trying to teach me or what significance it would play in who I would become.
As I stood urging my daughter to reach into the exhibit, I realized how ingrained the lesson was within me. I realized that my decision to pursue an MA Ed in Urban Environmental Education thousands of miles away from home meant I was no longer afraid. I realized that my passion to help extend environmental educational access and opportunities for people still living in communities like my Chicago neighborhood was sparked by that lesson. And as my daughter extended her hand bravely toward the sea star, I knew I had passed on that lesson to my daughter. She touched the sea star.
“Never be afraid to touch the starfish,” I said. “I am proud of you.”
Rasheena Fountain is an alumni of the Urban Environmental Education program.