I wake early, I mean really early, like 4A, this mid-July morning. Light peeks around the window shades in our bedroom. I just can’t wait for the day ahead. As a volunteer, I am going to drive the van to shuttle swimmers, escort kayakers, and spectators around the York Beach area for the Nubble Light Challenge, a fund raiser for NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). It’s a swimming race of 2.4 miles from Long Sands Beach, past the Nubble Lighthouse, to Short Sands Beach.
But back to me! Why so thrilled at this predawn hour? It’s because I am a part of a York team to make the Nubble Light Challenge a success. As a first time volunteer, I have been made to feel that what I do matters by Bob, the race director. It’s really quite simple. And yet, so profound. In talking about my role of shuttling folks around, I feel appreciated and acknowledged by him for my modest contribution. On occasion in the past as a volunteer, I have had times where I was “invisible.” Not checked in with; not acknowledged; not thanked even just briefly; not even nodded to with a simple unspoken appreciation. By doing these simple things, Bob makes me feel like I am an important part of the team. Now that’s leadership!
This belief about effective leadership dovetails with what I think about effective teachers. Excellent teachers build relationships with students and know them as individuals. Make them feel valued. Students with a voice and a choice in the classroom blossom and grow. We don’t need to make them standardized versions of each other. But I digress.
Arriving as dawn breaks at First Parish Church in York to pick up the church van, I climb up and into the monstrous fifteen-seater, often used for the mission work of the church. Tooling through the empty streets of our summer beach town, I pull into the York High School parking lot just after 6A to find a swimmer from North Conway, NH already in need of me to take him to the bath house on Long Sands Beach where the race will start three hours later. He says he wants to get used to the ocean for this “open water” swim. I turn onto Webber Road, then left at Long Beach Avenue to the bath house a half mile away. Though the NLC has overall and age group winners, for each swimmer the race is truly an individual, personal challenge to finish. Not just anyone can swim in the NLC; to qualify swimmers need to swim a mile in 35 minutes.
I loop back to York High and wait for my next contingent of swimmers, who turn out to be three women who swim such distance races throughout the Northeast, including the Peaks to Portland Swim in Portland Harbor the following week. Dropping them off I already see vacationers putting out rows of beach chairs to stake their claim to this section of the town’s sandy beach. The rest of my loop is to head down Long Sands Beach through downtown York Beach by the Goldenrod and Fun-O-Rama to the Freeman parking lot to pick up kayakers who previously have dropped off their kayaks at the bath house.
Kayakers and stand up paddle boarders play an important role in the race as escorts for the swimmers. Out on the open water, there are also boats to rescue swimmers who might be overwhelmed by fatigue or the cold. The ocean temperature is 62F. If you don’t know what that feels like, come to York in the summer. The water is literally bone chilling. It takes your breath away. When we locals see people in the Atlantic Ocean, we think they are either kids or Canadians. Later I would learn that there were pockets of cold water of 54F near the lighthouse.
As I shuttle folks around, to a person, be they swimmers, kayakers, or spectators, they thank me for the ride. Clearly they get that a major key to their happiness is being grateful. It’s a busy beach morning along Long Sands on a humid day that will reach well into the 80s. As I drop another group off at the bath house, a woman hands me a $20 bill that she found on the floor of the van. She jokes, Here’s your tip. I take it as a challenge to find the rightful owner, but first I step out to see the start of the race.
Swimmers are ready; most in wetsuits, though a few men and women in just swimming suits! Their kayak support is already out on the water. (Click on this link for the course map.) The 150 swimmers are grouped in four waves to avoid a mad rush at the start as groups leave in two minute intervals. There’s a buzz as swimmers listen to the count down and dive into the Atlantic Ocean just 30 minutes after high tide. I almost wish I was racing today, but that thing about getting into the cold ocean water is still a slight impediment.
The swimmers swim and part two of my job begins.
I have spectators to ferry to the Nubble so they can see their swimmers go through the “gut” (that area between the mainland and the rocky island where the light house sits).” It’s a party atmosphere as I pack the van to the gills with families with lots of little kids. Sometimes, they are supporting Mom, the swimmer, and other times it’s Dad. I ask about the $20 but no one claims it.
From there I shuttle them to the finish line at Short Sands beach. It’s inspiring to see swimmers sprint for the finish line after an hour or two in the ocean.
As I watch the swimmers climb out of the water, I hear that four swimmers have already been pulled from the ocean. That means my next stop is Town Dock #2.
Arriving at the dock, I soon see them in their swimming suits as they plod up the gangplank to my waiting van. I smile; they smile back in that I-didn’t-think-today-would-end-in-this-way look. They trained, and trained some more and today they just didn’t get to Short Sands Beach. One said it was the 54F that got her. One jokes, At least you didn’t make us walk back. Another chimes, Or swim back. Laughter briefly fills the van, but then it’s quiet. It’s a quiet three mile ride to the ball field as they settle into their thoughts. Another jokes, Now we’ve got to do the walk of shame. Ouch. And then as I pull by the ball field to let them off, I’m surprised, as, to a person, they look me in the eye and say thank you for the ride. I think, they have started to mend. Yes! It’s far easier to do what’s expected than face the unexpected.
After dropping the five that didn’t complete the race at the ball field, I pull my van into a parking spot for lunch. The barbecue of pulled pork, vegetarian chili, coleslaw, and noodle salad awaits. Having not eaten since my oatmeal at 530A, I’m hungry and ready to hang with the other volunteers. Immediately I see two from the swim walking purposefully to my van. It is so clear they want a ride back to the high school, two miles away, and now is what they have in mind. How do I explain that I am just going to get a quick bite and could they just wait ten minutes? Well, I can’t. I suck it up, smile, and say, Where you going? They jump in without a thought about my stomach, and why would they? We head back to the high school. I am clearly no hero for doing this. As Dr. Kent Keith says I think it’s between me and God anyway. Well, now it’s between me and God and you all. But I’ll explain my thinking for telling you in a minute.
I’m still wondering about the $20. Throughout the morning I ask folks who’ve been on the van before if they lost $20. No one has. So as my day of driving the van ends, I still have the $20. And then I think, why not put it in the collection plate tomorrow at church? I’ll label the envelope with the money Amigos, for the program my church participates in to send food and clothing to children in Honduras. No one will know where the money came from. That’s right. It’s between me and God, and … well, again of you all.
Prior to these revelations, you have probably formed your opinions of me, good guy or a little full of himself. Self-promoter or moderately humble dude. This seemingly recent braggadocio of my “good doing” notwithstanding. I truly wish you didn’t know. But I think it important to be models for our children to explain why we, as parents and grandparents, do what we do. If we don’t know tell our kids/students or show them, how will they know they have choices, in this case, other than pocketing the $20? So I tell this story for our children: Molly and Tip, Robyn, and Will, and any parents or grandparents who are still reading this posting.
I encourage you to be explicit in your explanations of why you do what you do and why you live as you live. It’s not always obvious. So that’s why I told you. Make sense?