When she holds the small aqua-green turtle dish, Barbara Pearson is taken back to the warm, blue waters of Hawaii. She feels peaceful, relaxed, centered. It takes her back to a trip five years ago she took with her sister, a trip about family, rebirth and renewal.
"The turtle holds great symbolism for me," Pearson said. "It reminds me of peace, patience, steadfastness and tranquility."
These are qualities she tries to incorporate not only into her life, but impart to others as a counselor to K-State students with mental health issues.
In her relaxed, low-lit office in the English/Counseling Services Building, Pearson has more than a dozen different turtles, among them a trio of small, brightly colored turtles from Mexico; an aqua and silver-colored turtle bracelet made by a student; a clear, glass turtle-shaped candleholder from Pearson's secret Santa; an earthy-colored turtle magnet stuck to her desk; and many, many other ceramic renditions of the iconic reptile.
"The placement of the turtles in my office brings me tranquility and peace as I go through the day," Pearson said. "Many students notice the turtles and bring their own stories and significance about them. Often they say the turtles are a comfort to them when they are here."
Pearson said that the turtle is a popular symbol in many cultures. In Native American mythology, she said it's linked to stories of creation. Numerous folk stories, like the Tortoise and the Hare, represent the turtle as steadfast and patient. In Hawaii, the turtle stands for family, which is something Pearson says is very dear to her. It seems fitting, then, that her collection began with that "sisters trip" to Hawaii.
Little did she know when she returned to work with that single dish that she was about to become a collector. People she knew from all walks of life just started bringing them in.
Today, most of Pearson's collection is on the small coffee table in her office. She says that her clients, co-workers and students alike are drawn to the turtles, feeling a need to pick them up and hold them. And, as a counselor, that works to her advantage.
"They give people something to commune with and talk about and have something in common," Pearson said. "Everyone can create their own significance for the turtles."
The purpose of therapy, Pearson says, is to find a different way to be in the world. The turtle, which is known for its resilience and adaptability, can be symbolic of that journey.
Photos: (Top) Barbara Pearson, assistant director of counseling services at K-State, holds one of the larger members of her turtle collection. (Above, left) Pearson's coffee table is where to find a majority of her campus turtle collection. (Above, middle) This is the turtle from Hawaii that started it all. (Above, right) This turtle pin is attached to a decorative box and is a piece Pearson picked up from a Kansas artist.