Teaching someone how to do something is one of the most important, most difficult, and most human tasks we perform. We often take it for granted, indicated by how we compensate the people we actually call teachers, but teaching is a foundation of civilization. When I was learning to surf, I had a good teacher and a bad one. The first one liked me and wanted me to learn and the second didn’t give a damn, and he made all the difference.
A common misconception about the art of imparting knowledge is that good instructors care about their students. Eh, not always. The stranger who taught me to surf harbored a noticeable amount of contempt for me. Who could blame him really? I was a doughy, 28-year old man — pale as death, slathered in sun cream, hopelessly inept, and woefully out of shape. At best I was an obstacle to paddle around and at worst I was a topwater lure attracting hungry sharks with my flailing.
Back up a bit — I was born and raised on the landlocked, dusty plains of West Texas where the ground was flat enough to see for miles, the only trees that grew were low-lying chaparral, and there wasn’t a body of water bigger than the local pond, which was really just a large puddle. However, in 1991 I went to the movie theater and saw Point Break and was convinced one day I would be a surfer. A long, winding path separated that kid mesmerized by Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves from the water-logged kook bobbing up and down off Venice Beach in 2002.
My first week in California I went to the surf shop on Main Street Santa Monica and bought a 9-foot 6-inch Dewey Weber, single-fin in cornflower blue. I christened her Priscilla and went to work immediately trying to learn to surf.
The day I met my surf guru was a bad surf day. There weren’t waves as much malformed mush. My board was almost pristine save for the first layer of sweet smelling surf wax building up on the deck. She still felt awkward between my legs, at times almost willfully tossing me into the water, like a mustang tossing a hapless cowboy. Each time I fell off my board, I rushed back to it, limbs frantically akimbo. I was convinced the carnivorous fishies lurking below were working out their timing, ensuring the necessary 30 minutes between eating and swimming, which was the only reason I was still alive .
I made several attempts to catch waves I deemed surfable in my limited experience but each time they passed me with oceanic indifference. I was staring out at the horizon with a hangdog face when I noticed someone paddling toward me. There were only two surfers out there with me that day. The first had seen me struggle and moved further up the break, closer to the point. The other guy didn’t seem to notice me. He was lean and graceful on the water with water dripping off his shaven head as he effortlessly dropped into any approaching wave. I watched him carve ride after ride while all I achieved was a mild sunburn, which in shark parlance is medium-rare. While I was in a full wetsuit on a hot day, he was only wearing board shorts. Tattoos covered his torso, mostly words in Spanish and English. There were also two large revolvers tattooed below his chest with a broken heart between. Twice he caught me enviously staring at him skim across the water, trying to discern what he was doing that I wasn’t, besides surfing.
And now he was paddling right at me.
“Hey, dude. What are you staring at?”
I looked at him and then over my shoulder, out to the ends of the Pacific, to confirm he was speaking to me. We were forty feet from the shore with no one else near us but still, I double-checked.
“I’m talking to you, dude. There is nobody else out here because there is no fucking surf.”
“Oh yeah, it’s really terrible today.” I tried to play it off as I was aware the surf was bad and as if I would, of course, like to see more surf. I even gave it an emphatic what-can-you-do shrug.
He stared me down for a bit, determining whether I was worth the trouble. Then he motioned to the shore. “Come with me.”
I wasn’t certain what was happening but my brain appended his request with “…if you want to live.”
He glided onto the sand as I tumbled into the white water of what I felt was a particularly duplicitous wave. I went over the nose of my board about 15-feet from the shore, sucking in a mouthful of brine in the process. I popped up and waved to him to let him know I was okay. Amazingly, he was still on the beach waiting when I slogged onto terra firma.
His board was on the sand as I approached and he pointed next to it and instructed me to lay my board down. I extended my hand, “Hi, I’m Brian.”
“I don’t fucking care. What I do care about is you’re a hazard. I don’t really fucking care if you kill yourself but if you do it while I am surfing, they will shut down the break and that will ruin my day. Understand, homie?”
My hand was still extended toward him the entire time he was letting me know his indifference to my being alive.
“Dude, you are terrible. Why don’t you people ever take lessons?”
I dropped my hand and was going to retort that I had indeed taken a lesson from my good friend, Jackson, who was a great surfer. I was going to namedrop in front of my new mentor, possible new friend, to let him know I learned from another local.
A quick word about Jackson. He surfs as if he were born on the water. Also, I could give a master class on how not to teach somebody something and all I would have to do is tell stories about the various times Jackson “taught me to surf.” My lessons, the full malfeasance of which I wouldn’t comprehend until I actually learned to surf, would begin by finding where the surf was breaking based on the surf report. We, ‘he’ being the correct operative pronoun, wanted something at least chest-high but preferably head-high. In other words, we were looking to learn in waves that had a trough of at least four feet. We wanted something that would break fast and preferably something with a point, a fixed spot at which we could join the lineup. Jackson would surf on his shortboard, which was appropriate for fast breaking waves like the ones we wanted. I, on the other hand, would use my massive longboard designed for slower, gentler waves.
On our first day, Jackson took me into the shallows to explain the mechanics of surfing. The following is a precise repetition of that first surfing lesson.
You’ll see a wave coming and then you’ll pivot and turn to the shore before it gets to you. Your board is bigger so you’ll need to turn earlier. And then you paddle like hell. You paddle, paddle, paddle and then you’ll feel the board begin to move. Then you pop up. So, you turn, paddle-paddle-paddle, and surf. Piece of cake, bro.
I was never able to execute the paddle-paddle-paddle-surf technique but I did manage to chip my board, cut my foot, swallow umpteen gallons of ocean water, and receive a hard slap from a surly surfer who I had inadvertently bumped into during my paddle, paddle, paddling.
I was about to tell my new mentor about my previous lesson but upon seeing my lips start to move he held up his hand.
“Look, homie, I don’t know why I am doing this but I am going to teach you a few things right now. Put your board on the sand and lay down on it.”
As I did, he lay down on his board and told me to imitate his form. He held his chest up, like the cobra position in yoga, with his hands firmly planted next to his rib cage. He instructed me to move back on my board more and not crowd the nose. He spent roughly ten minutes on the shore telling me to paddle (note only the one ‘paddle’) with my chest up and then look over my shoulder for the wave. He described to me how the board would pick up speed once I had caught the wave. We reenacted this process several times and then he showed me how to pop up. I had to stop lumbering upright like Frankenstein’s monster on a beach holiday. I needed to leverage my squishy core while pushing up in an explosive movement that would land me on my feet, knees bent, ready to surf. We practiced popping up and he corrected my missteps then he wrapped up my lesson.
“Okay, dude, you are starting to get the hang of it. You got to practice at home, here at the beach — just ignore everyone and put your board on the sand and practice this. And then days like today, when the surf is shitty, come out here and go past the break, so you don’t mess anybody up. Just paddle back and forth parallel to the shore. You have to get stronger, homie, because your paddle is weak as shit.”
I must have been smiling like the big hayseed I was that day on Venice Beach, beaming with happiness at some modicum of progress.
“Ah, thanks, man. I will practice. This has been a huge help.”
He wasn’t done.
“A couple rules, too. First, if there are waves here those waves are not for you. If you see a group of guys like me here at the point, you don’t surf here. You go way over there and surf. Those waves will be shitty but that’s what you do until you learn. Right?”
I started to say ‘right’ but then he jumped into the next rule. I felt I should be taking notes.
“Second, this is my home break. If you see me here or on the boardwalk don’t act like you know me. You understand? We ain’t friends, dude. If you see me, just walk on by because I don’t fucking know you.”
That was it. He shook my hand at the end but we never exchanged names. We weren’t going to be friends. He walked back up the beach toward the boardwalk and I lay down on my board again to practice everything he had just taught me.
In the ensuing weeks, I took his advice as gospel. I practiced. I paddled out on bad days to build my strength while doing laps parallel to the shore, convinced more than ever that the sharks would definitely eat me as I seemed to be taunting them. I practiced popping up on the board and I eventually learned to surf.
I was surfing one day with Jackson when he noted how much better I was getting. We were sitting in the line-up and when he said, “Dude, I taught you how to surf!”
I once managed to reign in a spit take with an elderly South African man on a Delta flight who began waxing nostalgic about apartheid as I sipped a gin and tonic, but I could not contain my shock that day in Malibu. I laughed hard, laying back on my board and putting my hands on my belly, not chuckles but a proper fit of laughter. Jackson looked over at me uncertainly and sort of joined in but obviously felt left out of the joke. He then turned and caught a wave.
I watched him cutting back and forth through the trough, hitting the lip of the wave before turning back to the sea. He was a great surfer but a lousy instructor.
That’s the thing about teaching someone to someone to do something. If you’re going to take a floating disaster like me and turn them into a surfer, merely wanting them to succeed isn’t enough. Jackson cared about me and wanted me to learn but it took a guy who didn’t like me to have the patience and invest the time to show me how.
I saw that guy once later on with his friends on the boardwalk. We made eye contact for a second and then he looked away, but I felt like he recognized me. My hair was now sun-bleached and I had a slight tan on my face. Maybe he recognized that I had become a surfer? Perhaps he even cared, a little?
Nah, he didn’t care but he taught me to surf because he could and I needed it and that’s all that mattered. Eighteen years later I am still surfing, still untouched by sharks, and still convinced that teaching isn’t easy but if you take the time you can do magical things like show a hayseed how to catch a wave.