Taking the plunge, in both senses

My son bravely emerges from high school – and submerges in the ocean.

David Loh/Reuters
Divers swim past table corals off the Malaysian Island of Sipadan.

I recently took my teenage son with me on a trip to the island of Tortola, where I had scheduled some scuba dives to update my certification. I asked Anton if he would like to make an exploratory dive with one of the instructors. He immediately demurred. Instead, he opted for snorkeling around the boat.

How quickly things change. When Anton saw me surface – unscathed and smiling – from my first dive, his interest was piqued. The diving instructor was wonderful: He showed Anton the basics, explained a handful of guidelines, and got him suited up. I watched from the water as the instructor, his hand on my son’s tank, escorted him to the rear platform of the boat. “Nice and easy,” he encouraged. “Hand on mask, hand on weight belt, and ... now ... a ... giant step.”

Anton stretched out one fin as far as he could and – splash! – was in the water and soon bobbing contentedly. All three of us made our languid descents and I watched as my son’s initial anxiety and unease peeled away. He turned out to have a natural gift for scuba diving and glided among the fish and corals as if born to the undersea environment.

The adventure was a pleasant preamble to Anton’s approaching high school graduation. He had never been a stellar student, but he was certainly capable and managed to hold his own gradewise. And yet, as graduation approached, he confided that he did not want to leave high school. In fact, he became teary over it. He had been in the same boat with the same friends since kindergarten – 13 years! – and now he was facing an environment in which he would never see most of them again.

Transitions tend to be unsettling. What all of them have in common is the threat of the unknown. For example, I am a traveler, but before I set off on one of my adventures, I am always beset, to some extent, by pre-trip anxiety. I have never quite mastered the knack of discounting all the things that could go wrong: What if the flight is canceled? What if I miss a connection? What if something happens back home while I’m away? The trick, for me, is to acknowledge all of these potential events as beyond my control, and then take the giant step of getting on that plane and leaving my apprehensions behind.

I saw this intuitively as I watched Anton, clad from head to toe in his scuba gear, perched improbably on the stern of the dive boat. As he rose and fell under the influence of gentle swells, I realized that he was hovering precisely at the boundary between the known and comfortable (the boat) and the unknown and threatening (the sea below). So what compelled him to take that giant step forward? Aside from the prodding of the instructor, perhaps it was the realization that our eyes are in front of our heads for a reason: They show us that we have little choice in life but to move forward. And so, at some level, it was not conceivable for my son to look back. The only option was the giant step, and bundled with it was the faintly perceived hope that all would be well.

Graduation arrived, as it had to. “Here we go,” I remarked to Anton as I helped him straighten his cap and gown before leaving the house. Then I turned him toward the door. By now he was committed, and as he stepped through the door I realized that he no longer needed my encouragement. That evening, I watched from my seat in the auditorium as he strode across the stage to receive his diploma. I closed my eyes momentarily, hoping to somehow make the image linger. But instead another picture came to mind: my son, standing at the edge of that boat, stepping out over the water, about to see what a new and unexplored world had in store for him.

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