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Parenting and teaching are like enjoying swimming with sharks and avoiding dolphins

Relaxation bottle (shark, swimmer and dolphin) made by teacher at St. Peter the Apostle School

A few years ago, our son, then 14 and a recently certified diver was given the opportunity to scuba dive in an aquarium. As a teenager exploring his independence, he questioned me walking with him to the dive spot and as his mom, there was no question. I think we were all grateful that need to sign release forms became the perfect cover for my accompanying him.

Upon our arrival at the dive center, I noted that our son was the youngest diver-- by far. Looking back, I imagine the dive master could read my unspoken thoughts of panic as he approached me to inquire if I had questions. I asked perfunctory questions about safety concerns, procedure and the pickup time and then paused before observing “I see the tank has sharks in it and the one next to it has dolphins… So I wonder how will you ensure my son avoids the sharks? And is there any chance he can swim with those dolphins?” Our son is a fairly respectful guy who doesn’t often verbally express his annoyance with me but his silence was loud enough that it felt like he was screaming at me to be quiet and leave; the words seeming to flit across his forehead like the banners running along the bottom of a TV newscast.

The dive master met my questions with an expression of composure, shared his qualifications and his many years of diving experience. He went on to state ‘You should never allow your son to swim with dolphins in an enclosed tank’ and ‘you should always allow your son to swim with sharks in a tank’. It was at this point, I dismissed every bit of his formerly impressive experience and all of the qualifications thinking ‘This guy has NO idea what he is talking about!’ I immediately beginning considerings ways to get my son out of there with as little upset as possible. I felt justified in my thoughts and my arrogance allowed me to be amazed that with all of his expertise he didn’t know that dolphins are cute and…. sharks like to eat people.

The dive master went on to explain ‘Dolphins are largely muscular, they swim at high rates of speed, even when in small places, and they are very curious about people. Dolphins will smash your son against the clear glass windows out of curiosity and because of their speed and weight, they can crush his sternum.’ He paused before continuing ‘Sharks are largely skeletal; they swim in a more fluid motion, at very low speed. They are not curious about people unless they are hungry and confuse fingers for food, but we keep them well fed and advise all divers to keep their fingers flat by their bodies just in case; if your son stays out the shark's way, they will stay out of his way.’

I was stumped. I thought for a minute, my concerns beginning to fade, and I could almost hear our son’s unspoken plea ‘NOW are you going to let me dive?’ Realizing I could only trust in him and the diver’s experience, I kissed our son goodbye, hoped I was right, and headed off to meet the rest of my family.

On my walk, I thought about my misperceptions about both sharks and dolphins and how easily I was able to dismiss the expertise of the dive master because of the misperceptions when even in the face of facts, I felt were right. As an equity and inclusion consultant for schools, these kinds of assumptions are frequently at play in my workshops. It is not uncommon for my comments to be challenged, even if only with the nonverbal cues that seem to flit across the minds of my participants. As a parent, I must remember that I have to be open to my children’s experiences teaching me. As both a parent and an equity/inclusion advocate, I need to trust the expertise of my students (my own and others) to recognize when I have no choice but to let go of those misperceptions and be open to a new frame of reference. I frequently reflect on this experience - asking myself (and others) “What are your sharks?” And “How are you going to prepare for those dolphins?"

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