Sunday, June 26, 2016

Big Wave Surfing

Peff Surfing Tavarua at age 70
My uncle Jeff is that person who everyone goes to for sage advice. He is a lifelong surfer, he flew helicopters in a war long forgotten by too many; when he strums the guitar it lights up a room; and he surfed big waves before big waves were co-opted by ESPN and the X Games. He is that guy that no matter what the stakes or how bad the odds, he never sweats, he always plays it cool. When Jeff was a kid, his older brother nick-named him Jeff-the-Peff and it stuck. Now in his 70’s, people young and old turn to him for one of his famous “Peff-talks.” If you have 15 minutes and you need some inspiration, a Peff-Talk is exactly what you need. Peff once gave me a piece of advice that may have saved me more times on land than in the ocean where it was intended to be used.

When you are surfing big waves, there is this terrifying moment affectionately known as living through the spin cycle. Paddling for shore as hard as you can, a wave lifts your feet directly to the sun and when you pop to a standing position, the world disappears below you and just then there is a moment of free fall. Next, if all goes well, you are cruising at top speed, down the line, the wave collapsing behind you like a massive fluid dinosaur rolling down a hill. Then it happens: maybe you take your eyes off the horizon, maybe you just glance down and something wobbles - the wave has got your board, you launch superman-style off the front of the stick in a diving position praying that you will punch through the wall of water in front of you and emerge out the other side as the wave rolls onward toward the shore.


No such luck. The human body is over 60% water. The wave is 100% in control. You enter the wave and become the wave. As it topples and crashes, you go with it. Right side up is now upside down and no effort you could possibly make has any bearing on the direction your limbs are being pulled. Surfers call it the spin cycle and it is a terrifying place to exist for any amount of time.


Peff asked me one day: “Can you hold your breath and count to ten?” He said no matter how big the wave, when you are being pushed or pulled, dragged across the reef or spun in the spin cycle, all you can do is relax and count to ten. If you know you can hold your breath for 10 seconds, then there is no reason to panic. You can't fight against the wave. So, go with it, stay relaxed, allow the machine to complete its cycle and all the while just count to ten. Jeff said, “You’ll always make it to the surface by ten, if not, you can panic then.”
In my nearly 20 years of working as an educator, I can think back to more than a few big wave wipeouts. The worst happen when I have just glanced down or maybe stared too hard at a problem that only got bigger because of the attention I had given it. It seems the unspoken lesson may be, that in an effort to avoid the wipeout in the first place, it is best to keep your eyes up and your focus on the direction you are headed.

Regardless, there are those times when, without fail, we all wipeout: an angry parent, or a whole room of angry parents; a news crew at the curb because a student made a horrible decision; a news crew at the curb because a teacher made a horrible decision; almost any news crew; the fire alarm during the homecoming dance; 20 kids fighting in the intersection; that first moment you walk onto campus in the morning to find the entire school has been tagged with gang graffiti overnight; senselessly losing a student; losing a beloved teacher; the phone call in the middle of the night and that moment before you answer knowing it can't be good; the list could go on and on. The truth is, no matter where you are in your career, whether you are in the classroom, and your list is filled with big-wave wipeouts in front of students, parents and administration or you are the principal and you get stuck in the spin cycle at a staff meeting, just relax, hold your breath and count to ten.

I have been lucky enough to coach some amazing people during my career. I have watched new administrators get grilled sitting across the table from advocates with a blood lust. I have sat with teachers in parent meetings so tense you could strum the room like a harp. Each time I have the opportunity to work with anyone in this industry, who may meet a force moving full speed ahead like a wall of water, I give them the same advice. You can’t shout back at a roaring wave and you can’t change its course. Relax, count slowly inside your head, stay poised, allow the force in motion to roll past you, without expending too much of your own energy, then you can get back on your board and paddle again. It is one of the hardest things to do, but staying calm, resisting the urge to meet force with force, always pays off. I have found that regardless of position or title, the person who stays relaxed, and fights the least, is always looked to as the leader during a crisis.

Every terrifying moment passes. Each of them go more smoothly when you are able to use Peff’s technique and avoid panic. A large intake of oxygen just before the point of impact, then counting to 10, will get you through almost anything.