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Undertows: Who’s Watching Your Back?

Colleen Drisner |
November 1, 2021

I grew up spending summers on the shores of spectacular Lake Huron in Ontario, Canada. When the weekend came my family would pack up the station wagon and head to the cottage. We would all heave a collective sigh when we spotted the legendary “Sauble Beach” sign. It was glorious. As a kid it felt like we practically lived in the water. Summers in the 70s were jelly shoes and swimsuits all the way.

I loved when the lake had just enough wind to make the waves dive-able. We would spend countless hours running back and forth, diving in and under.

I also remember times when the waves rose higher and faster than my seven-year-old self could take in. Just when I thought the waves had subsided, another one would come along and knock me under. I’d come up gasping, sputtering and asking for more. I would return home at the end of a day with a belly full of lake water.

It was at Sauble Beach that I first learned the word undertow. One minute I would be playing in the water in front of my parents sprawled out on their lawn chairs, and the next I would look up and my folks had disappeared. Gone. Nowhere to be seen. The current had wisped me down the shoreline. And just about the time that panic was setting in, I would hear a familiar voice holler, “Colleen, get back over here. You’re too far away.”  I didn’t know it at the time, but somebody was always watching my back.

Danger: Strong currents and undertows. Do Not Swim
Danger: Strong currents and undertows. Do Not Swim

Fast forward 25 years to another day at the beach. This time it was in Phuket, Thailand. I was there on a business trip and a group of us had gone on a boat ride after work. By now I was a strong, independent swimmer. I had been a lifeguard and swim instructor for many years – I knew how to swim. But, here’s the thing: even an experienced swimming instructor can stray far from shore. I got caught in a current that started taking me further and further away and I was scared. Thankfully, I was not swimming alone and I called out for help. One of my colleagues grabbed hold of my arm and we swam back to safety. This brief, easily forgotten, moment on my timeline could have turned out much differently.

Recently in an online faculty meeting, our Head of Student Support and Well-being opened the session with a “strong start” question to get us talking. Her question was this: “What is a great piece of advice you have been given?” My mind travelled back to those days at Sauble Beach when my parents drilled into my head three simple, yet profound, words: Never swim alone.

The past 20 months have felt like spiralling undertows and enormous waves (and that’s just COVID). The waves have kept coming and the undertow has taken us far away from family and friends. And, we are all tired. Really tired. We might be strong, experienced swimmers, but this is unfamiliar water and we need somebody watching our backs. For me, I’ve come to realize there’s COVID and then there’s COVID+ (all the things that normally happen in life, but look somehow incredibly different in this current landscape).

If the undertows and waves are taking you far from safety, ask for help and whatever you do, never swim alone.
If the undertows and waves are taking you far from safety, ask for help and whatever you do, never swim alone.

My big plus factor came soon after I started a new role as a principal of a large international school. Just a few short weeks into the school year our family home in British Columbia, Canada was threatened by enormous wildfires and I was on the other side of the world. Our neighbourhood was engulfed in flames and our daughter who lives there was forced to evacuate. Here I was, a leader endeavouring to start a new COVID year with energy and enthusiasm while fighting fires thousands of miles away. I had a choice: to keep swimming on my own or bring this new team into my circle. I fought the urge to let people in but I chose the latter and this team became my team.

As leaders, we don’t have to go it alone. In fact, it’s dangerous to even try that. Find someone who will watch your back. If the undertows and waves are taking you far from safety, ask for help and whatever you do, never swim alone.

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Colleen Drisner
Colleen was born and raised in Ontario, Canada and has spent the majority of her career as an international school educator. Colleen, who holds a Doctorate in Educational Leadership focussing on well-being, has spent 16 years in China and is now entering her fourth year in Singapore where she serves as Primary School Principal at a large international school. Colleen and her husband, Ron, have 3 children.

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