Friday, June 24, 2011


I had the opportunity, responsibility and pleasure of accompanying 30 sixth graders (half of them from my class) to Catalina Island for 4 days of Marine Science Camp aboard the American Pride, a three masted schooner docked in Long Beach, California. The ship, in conjunction with the Children's Maritime Foundation, offers these school-year adventures to schools across California. (They also offer summer camps as well.)

On Monday, we sailed from Long Beach, for the 4 hour crossing to the island. As many of the students hadn't sailed before, they got sick. It was very primitive, as the ship is a replica of the Pligrim, which Richard Henry Dana sailed in along the California Coast from 1834-1836. Dana Point in California is named for him. Sleeping arrangements were tight, no adult privacy, and no hot water for bathing. But, that was how sailors lived back then. (Fortunately, we had much better food!)

We arrived in White's Landing, in between Avalon and Two Harbors, and anchored off-shore. The students were given brief instructions in kayaking and then kayaked to shore, while the adults were ferried in a small motorboat, along with those children who really didn't want to kayak at this time. Once we were all ashore, the students were given various activities to do and played games. Half of the group went out to play with the kayaks and the other half stayed on the shore and after about an hour or so, the groups switched.

I laid out in the sun for a while, a headache was creeping in as I had had two hours' sleep the night before due to the anxiety of "What did I get myself into?" as well as the magnitude of the responsibility I had with all these students, and the hurriedness of getting to school, and checking in all the students. Plus, the normal anxiety of any school trip. (This was the first time we had undertaken this trip so it was a big unknown for us at the school.) I sat there on the beach watching the students and my colleague, and headache notwithstanding, wondered why I wasn't living to my potential; why I wasn't happy. And it hit me.

The kids would ask me, "Mr. Ballam, are you going in the water?" "No," I would reply, "I have a headache." or "I don't feel like getting wet." The truth was I was struggling with Responsibility vs. Fun. How can I be the responsible adult, the teacher-in-charge and still have fun? They seemed to be like oil and water, they just didn't mix.

I think that in my last two relationships, well, my only relationships, I took on the role of the parent, the responsible one, the caretaker and didn't learn how, or better yet, wouldn't let myself have fun. And this in turn led to my depression. One of us had to be responsible. One of us had to make sure everything was going okay.

The second day on the ship I was watching these kids fearlessly jump anywhere from 15'-25' off the ship into 80' deep cold sea water. I must admit here I have never liked swimming in water where I couldn't see what was around my feet. I had stepped on a mossy rock as a child and freaked out. And once, I had also brushed my ankle against the bedspread at night while getting up to go to the bathroom, and felt the monster-under-the-bed reach out with his (or her) razor sharp claws slashing at my foot. (I have always had an active imagination. I still do, and it still gets me in trouble, though not with monsters.) Watching these kids and their fearlessness, I knew I had to do something, because I didn't want to let my fear of squishy stuff under my feet, along with my irrational fear of being eaten by sharks to keep me from truly having fun. There were other responsible adults around. The captain called "Closing Swim call in 15 minutes." It was now or never. I missed out on the kayaks (for now), so I drew my breath, stepped to the rail, steadied myself and encouraged by the chants of "Mr. Ballam! Mr. Ballam!", took a step and jumped 12 feet down into the Catalina Channel. I surfaced and began to tread water, which I was never good at, kept bobbing up and down, when I felt the cold water beginning to compress my lungs, making it harder to breathe. I swam to the inflatable boat waited my turn to get out, and climbed the ladder to the deck. I felt exhilarated, I had conquered a fear, I had pushed myself beyond my limits. I began to dry off.

One of my students whom I had taught for three years, came up to me a few minutes later and asked why I wasn't going back in. "I'm dry."

"But, you're still a little wet."

"I don't feel like getting wet again, I want to dry off."

"But you can dry off after."

My colleague was going through similar fears of her own. And she screwed up her courage and actually jumped from one of the rattlings, the ladder-like steps in the lines going from the railing of the ship to the top of each of the masts. If these kids can do it, and if she can do it, then I can do it. So, I climbed up on the rattlings, adding about another 5' to my previous personal record and.....

The exhilaration of having done this second jump has opened my eyes to the necessity of not giving in to fear. And whether that is a fear of jumping into an ocean, stepping up a ladder, handling a snake, or approaching a new relationship, fear is all around us. And always will be.

This entire experience has also opened my eyes to the possibility of exploring new adventures, providing the budget can support it. (I am, after all, a newly single person on one paycheck managing what used to be a two paycheck household.) And while I may not be ready to conquer the Antarctic, or go scuba diving along the Great Barrier Reef, I might be ready to conquer camping in Yosemite or eventually snorkeling in the Catalina Channel. Hey, it's a first step.

But, what I think I learned most of all, is that I can be a teacher in charge and relax and have fun with the students, or a husband and jointly share the responsibilities and have fun. The balance is knowing when to move between the two.
And let's face it, when I meet the Man Across the Bridge, that could be the biggest adventure of all.


  1. Way to go! Kudos - I am so impressed with your courage and fortitude! One step at a time in our growth - sounds like you had a great time and got to be responsible and have fun and stretch as a person. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Yes, Sunny, I did. I am looking forward to next year. It just won't be the last week of school! (It will be the week before!)

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. A beautiful expression of truth and courage to tell your story, Jeff. You were open to being of our greatest fears, and yet in that vulnerability lies exhilarating freedom. To be known completely and expose our perceived "imperfections," is what actually opens us to being loved fully...perhaps the scariest, yet sweetest risk of all.

    You ARE transcending so beautifully to a new and more enriching way of being. Yes, even when it least feels like it for you. Learning to re-connect to our worthiness is a process, but it's really and simply your journey HOME...your journey to re-connecting to your true self that knows for certain that you deserve love and a life of living in joy and freedom.

    I just wonder if perhaps for now, the "man across the bridge" is YOU? Could you be longing to find the love and deservedness within yourself first? Wanting to cross the bridge and discover your true self and what you really want?

    All relationships can be mirrors to reflect parts of us that we can't seem to see. For a moment, let me be a mirror to reflect the YOU who I see so clearly....

    Jeff, you are an amazing man with so much to share. Beautiful inside and out. Your desire to explore new and uncharted territories, including being vulnerable and imperfect, makes you even more lovable, attractive, and confident. Yes, you can have fun AND be responsible. How about being responsible first to your amazing self, for discovering what brings you happiness and enjoyment? As it is said, you can only fully give to others when you've nurtured your own needs. It's the most giving thing we can do.

    Thank you for sharing the gift of you with us!

  4. Thank you, Evie, for being there to assist me in my growth. And for these very kind words.

    Interestingly, you are not the first to suggest that the Man Across the Bridge is ME. I have to admit it is a deep thought, though I am not convinced. That doesn't mean it might not be, but while I couldn't see his face clearly, what I could see, wasn't me. That said, the figure could simply be symbolic of either the loving relationship waiting for me, or my true self. Time will indeed tell.

  5. Jeff, great! I was with you all the way in this jump, hoping for the students you encourage, would encourage you. I'm so glad you got up there and took the second leap. I'm glad someone got it on film too. Keep on leaping, you've got a lot of friends to pick up if you fall.

    I also argee with Evie, the previous comment. I read these entries out of order and when you referred to "the man across the bridge" I thought you were referring to you! You are in the process of reuniting, reinventing, and recreating yourself. Just keep moving forward and taking the leap.

  6. Kim,

    Thank you. Time will indeed tell if the Man Across the Bridge is indeed the relationship waiting for me, or the new me welcoming me to my new self. Leaps are never easy, but this one has given me the courage to be open to more.