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When I was 15-years old, I had the privilege of spending four weeks in the Caribbean at a summer sailing camp for teens. It was 1982, and windsurfing was slowly emerging from obscurity to the mainstream culture of water sports. Standing on the pristine beach of St. Barts, I imagined what a thrill it must be to harness the wind and move at such a velocity. I decided right then and there that I was going to learn how to windsurf.
I must admit that my initial attempts were anything but a success. However, everything changed when I met Peter Hart, a professional athlete in his early 20's—one of few people in the world who at the time could call himself a world champion of the sport. Much to my great fortune, Pete happened to be around preparing for an upcoming competition. And because I showed so much enthusiasm, he generously offered to teach me how to windsurf.
Joining Pete in the water, I expected him to demo some of the basics that I would later try to emulate. However, I was surprised when he got on his windsurfer and signaled for me to swim out and get on his board with him. Within a few seconds, he caught the wind in the sail and we began streaming forward. We continued to gain momentum until we reached a speed that seemed almost impossible without a motor. He was very much in control. And I can recall feeling as if I intuitively knew what he was doing—as if I too knew how to windsurf.
It was a priceless moment, a rare lesson of my life: being taught how to windsurf directly on the board of Pete Hart, world windsurfing champion. That experience alone might have been enough. However, Pete was just getting started. “Now it's your turn to drive,” he said as he directed me to get up and stand between him and the sail. But despite being directed by such an able guru, my profound lack of balance caused us to capsize, dumping both of us in the water. Not once, but twice. I felt like a complete idiot.
On my third attempt, however, something happened. As I gripped the boom tightly the sail began to billow and the board started to quiver. This time I was in control! All I can remember was this marvelous sensation of being connected—my body, the board, the wind, the water…it was as if everything in life was in sync. By the end of the four weeks, I was an accomplished windsurfer—perhaps not ready to compete, but capable enough to push my skills to the limit and truly enjoy the sport.
Years later as an educator, I find myself reflecting on my windsurfing experience. I do so as I see children struggling in their studies, helplessly drifting in open waters with little direction. While parents, in their confusion and inability to provide sufficient help, try all sorts of strategies to get their kids into academic flow. Some dangle rewards in front of them, or frighten them with dire consequences if they fail. Others send their kids to tuition classes. And when all else fails, there is the ultimate threat of sending them to boarding school.
I believe that what most parents fail to recognize is that every domain has a flow—whether it is academic subjects like chemistry, maths or language or an extra-curricular area such as art, music, dance or acting. And that the concepts can easily be unlocked by those who are masters of their field. You might recall such teachers you encountered in your own life—the ones with a real passion for their subject.
Unfortunately, many teachers I have met qualify as teachers by title only. They are not masters of their subjects, nor do they show much genuine interest in their field. They might have selected the teaching line because it was an easy job with lots of free time and holidays. That being so, how can parents expect such teachers will lead their children to achieve their potential?
A majority of the time, people owe it to their kismet when they encounter an enlightened mentor who dramatically shapes their lives. But listen closely, because here is your opportunity to cheat fate and to help your children get a leg up in life. My simple advice to parents is this: Do not wait for chance to randomly bring experts across your children's paths. Make deliberate attempts to find champions and expose your kids to them.
The next time your children display signs of apathy toward their studies, remember that even a single session with a genuine guru can open doors much wider and much faster than the promise of a new video game, the warning of suspending pocket money or holing them up after school every day in a cram class that bores them to tears. For once they have savored the taste of flow, they will hanker to sample that flavour again and again. There is no need to tempt them with chocolate to improve their maths or English scores, all they require is someone who can tickle their brain buds and turn on their natural appetite for learning.
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