When I was a teenager, my parents took me to Ocean City, Maryland a couple of times. But in the two decades or so between then and recent years, I did not have much of an opportunity to go in the ocean. Last year, I took a life-changing trip to Brigantine, NJ with a dear friend who lives out east and goes to the shore regularly. While I was there last year, she taught me a “game” that she plays with her daughter to help her manage the breaking waves. She calls it “Under/over.” This year, I was again intimidated by the breakers--this in spite of the fact that I could see children employing the under/over strategy and living to battle the next wave--so Sara helped me play the under/over game again.
The game is simply this: most of the time, if you’re standing in the right spot, you can bob over a wave, riding up one side and down the other. But every now and then, when a big wave is going to break right on you, you take a deep breath, shut your eyes, and dive into the wave, emerging on the other side and missing the worst of the downward power of the break. Diving under a wave is still an intense experience for a Midwestern lap-swimmer like me--the water is salty and sandy; the power of the wave is still present and a bit awe-inspiring; and some waves are wider than others--but the game effectively prevented me from getting knocked down and tossed about. The wisdom of the game that Sara had to coach me on is to wait until the wave is very close to decide if it’s one you can ride or one that will likely take you down. I’d see a big wave coming fifty or more yards away and start to panic; I’d call out, “that one’s an under!” Calmly, Sara would respond, “No, wait and see. Sometimes something happens before it gets to you and you can go over.” She was right. Often, a wave that looked from a distance like it could easily destroy me would instead just lift me off the ground and deposit me back to it several seconds later. Those waves are fun, really. They are why we even bother getting into the surf in the first place rather than sitting on the beach or, worse, staying in Illinois and swimming laps in a pool with lane lines. There is joy in the lift, thrill in the ride.
As I try to plan for my teaching year, which begins in a few days, I am reliving the panic I felt in my chest as I watched a huge wave approach. The last few years in my department and school have had some periods of really rough surf. I’ve felt knocked down and tossed around a few times. This year I’m facing down teaching three preps—two of them new to me. Every year teaching English means an overwhelming quantity of responding to student work. Also, I’m just the type of teacher who, whether it’s worth it or not, revises everything. So even the prep I’ve taught three times already is, in many ways, new because I choose to make it better as I learn and grow as a teacher. I feel like I am standing in the ocean watching an enormous wave start to curl at the top, about to pound me into the ground.
In a fit of angst, I texted my friend Sara to tell her that once again I am afraid of what is coming toward me. She reminded me that I know what I’m doing and that I’m good at it. It may be that I’ll just jump up and bob over the top of this wave and that I’ll have a really good time doing so. I’ve learned from Sara and the ocean that sometimes danger looks worse at a distance. But I’ve also learned from Sara that even if this is as big and scary and as it looks, I can dive into it and come out on the other side. For right now, I just need the courage to stay in the water and a good friend to coach me through the waves.