With and Against the Waves

[Another from the archives…
I wrote this piece for the last page of the Winter 2009 Hawken Review. This feature, always appearing under the heading “Fair Play,” is is a standing article in the Review “by or about individuals in the Hawken community who capture in deed the spirit of Fair Play. … The School’s motto of “Fair Play” emphasizes the importance of integrity, respect and accountability.”]

During each summer when I was a kid, I spent some days in the heavy push- me pull-me surf of Sandbridge Beach, Virginia. Whenever the waves were strong enough, we were in the water, learning to time our jump into and with the wave of our choice, and when we were good and lucky, we could stay with that wave all the way to shore, perhaps until the sand at last was close enough to scratch our boy skinny chests.

On days when the waves were too small to carry our weight, we really didn’t know what to do with ourselves— sandcastles were for little kids, the fun of Virginia Beach was for people with driver’s licenses. There was one game, however, that provided some entertainment on the slow sunny days—maybe you’ve played it. It’s the one where you stand in the ocean up to just below your collar-bone or so and try to keep your feet in one place as the waves move by you…whoever moves first loses. Given that competition was the currency of my childhood friendships, this game had elements that compelled us to spend more time than a level head would predict. At first the task would seem too simple, so we might edge out deeper, and then a bit deeper, to make the test more challenging. We usually found that we would have been smarter to stay put, for the games never really lasted long before one of us would lose footing with the salt water muffling the expletives of our defeat.

Hawken is a long way from Sandbridge, but the way a child interacts with waves in an ocean is similar to the outcome we desire of a great education, one based on ideas as sublime as “Fair Play.” In the waves one is forever trying to do one of two things –attempting to go with a wave or attempting to maintain a position against one. A great education gives students the tools to do these two things well in the lives they will lead far from the seaside.

What waves should I catch? And, against what waves should I stand firm? These questions pertain to discovering the convictions upon which a student should learn to base answers to big questions in his or her life. I believe a Hawken education should strive to be one where students discover the decision making protocol that will stay with them for their adult lives. And I have some thoughts about what should center that protocol: I want graduates who are focused not simply on what they are going to be or what they are going to do for a living, but on who they are going to be. This requires the strength of one’s convictions.

In order to meet the demands of “Fair Play,” Hawken must work, however deliberately and at times imperfectly, to help students discover not only their convictions, but also the strength to make them live and breath in the decisions they will make as leaders in the world that awaits them. Here we come upon a second pair of questions: How am I going to catch the wave? And, how am I to maintain my stance in the face of a powerful wave? This pair of questions pertains to discovering the means within a student’s power to live by his or her convictions in moments of opportunity or of challenge. Hawken is rife with experiences that lend themselves to a discovery of these means. Every time students seek and find help from a teacher during Conference Period or assert and defend a minority view in Public Opinion class they are discovering these means. Every time students push beyond their known limits of strength and endurance to help the Hawks win a game they are discovering these means. And, most importantly, every time students make difficult, but correct, decisions in order to meet Hawken’s expectations regarding character and integrity, they are discovering these means.

In the moments before I would fall asleep in a cottage where the sound of window fans competed with the not too distant sound of waves on the beach, I could still feel the ocean pushing and pulling me. Certainly it was largely a result of the salt water in my ears that had scrambled my equilibrium, but maybe it was something more existential as well. My time in the ocean stayed with me because it had become a part of me. As a parent and faculty member in this school, I believe the Hawken experience, which at its core asks students to enrich the community in order to be enriched by it, can work the same way in the lives of our children. It will stay with them because it will become a part of them.

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