Today I had an encounter that has me thinking about how we treat people and how it relates to the teen yoga classroom. It was a classic day for longboarding– sunny and beautiful with waist-high gentle waves and very little wind. (Longboarding is a style of surfing with a board that measures somewhere between eight and eleven feet in length that has more stability than shorter boards and is best for waves that are not too steep.)
The waves were coming in sets and the conditions were calm. I found myself next to a jolly guy who kept sliding off his board and floating alongside it. It looked like he was having fun and I felt like being friendly. Because we had wetsuits on and it was a fairly warm day, I asked, “Are you hot?” With a laugh he said, “I know I’m hot! And yes, I am a little warm as well. I spent too long on the base being cold so I’d rather be warm.” I laughed, too, and our surf session continued.
He and his friend talked about the military and made small talk. I asked whether he lived on the base and we talked about John Basilone, the famous war hero from WWII who lost his life in battle. His friend caught a wave and smiled the whole ride.
I bid them farewell as I paddled north where the waves were breaking better so I could catch one in to the beach. As I was paddling by this fellow and he was once again pushing himself off his board for a dip, I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before: this man had no legs.
I looked once again to be sure and paddled off with a different feeling in my gut and a shift in my thinking as I reconsidered this fellow’s perspective. I thoughtfully considered how I had treated him and was at peace.
At some level, I wonder if it was a relief for my friend in the water to be laying on his stomach like everyone else, with no differences called to attention. When I teach teenagers I take them at face value for that time and that place. In teaching at a youth shelter where teens are recovering from attempted suicide, I marvel afterwards that these same adolescents with whom I had just enjoyed the tranquility of a yoga class were also greatly troubled in the recent past.
When we make no assumptions about our students (or anyone else, for that matter), it translates to them being treated respectfully. Just as famous people tire of being recognized in public, individuals tire of conclusions being drawn about them. Young adults are particularly sensitive to how they are treated.
Remain curious of new students and friends and we give them dignity to have their own experiences without judgement. I now say a prayer for my long-boarding friend and hope that I see him again in the water!