OCEAN CITY – Rich Brueckner spends his days working as the Assistant State’s Attorney in Salisbury heading up the gang and narcotics prosecution unit.
Yet, juxtaposed with his day job is a lifelong love of surfing and the intense spirituality that being in the water provides him.
This week, Brueckner and a team of instructors and volunteers from the OC Surf Club were praised for spearheading a forward thinking nine-week after-school program called “Surfing Into Integrity” at Stephen Decatur Middle School that taught students life lessons and surfing through the inspirational best-selling book, “Surfer’s Code: 12 Simple Lessons For Business and Life” by former world champion surfer Shaun Tomson.
“This is the first time the book has ever been used in the classroom,” said Brueckner. “I used to live in San Diego and became an acquaintance of Tomson. The book had such an impact on my life, and I thought it would be a great way to teach kids the important lessons about life that can’t be taught in the classroom.”
In addition to weekly classroom sessions at Stephen Decatur Middle School, the students were paired with OC Surf Club volunteers and instructors on Sunday mornings for surfing sessions on Assateague Island.
“We would all get in a circle and talk about what we read in the book that week and how it applied to something that we were doing in our lives,” said Brueckner. “I think the best part for me is not only how well the kids liked it, but also how much the parents wanted to get involved and be a part of the circle on Sunday mornings, too.”
Theresa Torpey, who is the assistant principal at SDMS, was blown away by the program.
“I’ve known these kids for quite some time, and I have to say that who they are today is vastly different than who they were when this program started,” said Torpey to a crowded room of parents and friends at the class graduation this week. “The phenomenal success of this program is because of these amazing volunteers.”
K-Coast Surf Shop donated surf boards and wetsuits for the kids to use during the Sunday sessions, but even though surfing was the conduit through which important life lessons were taught, Brueckner says it was more of a spiritual journey.
“I’m so sick of prosecuting high school kids for doing adult crimes, and these kids are at an age where they will have to make decisions about drugs, crime, and joining a gang,” he said, “so we thought this book and the program we built around the book could offer kids something positive as a way to intervene at the perfect time in their lives.”
In the book, Tomson, a South African surfer who was named one of the ‘Top 10 Greatest Surfers of All Time’ by Surfing Magazine (2004), analogizes surfing scenarios with life lessons. These ideals have helped Tomson become not just a world class surfer, but also an acclaimed filmmaker, environmentalist, and business mogul.
For instance, Tomson teaches empathy in the book by explaining how all surfers are joined by one ocean, preaches the mantra of sharing your “stoke” with others and and stresses self-esteem by teaching the importance of riding a wave all the way into the shore rather than paddling back to the shoreline in defeat.
Brueckner says the class was much more “Socratic” than a traditional after-school program, and the kids were treated as though they were adults.
“If we asked how their day was and they said ‘fine,’ we pushed and said, ‘well, what does fine mean to you?,’” said Brueckner. “We referred to each of them as if they were grown-ups by calling them Mr. and Ms., which I think they appreciated very much.”
The approach was right in line with the local surfing community’s “give respect, get respect” mantra, and the messages were not lost on the youths.
During the graduation ceremony, each student was asked to explain what chapter in the book made the most profound impact, and to explain what “integrity” meant to them.
“My favorite chapter was ‘Take the Drop with Commitment’ because it taught me that you have to finish what you start,” said one student, “and I also learned that you have to take risks even if you know something bad could happen.”
Brueckner says the program will be back next fall at Stephen Decatur Middle School and admits that the results have exceeded his expectations.
He plans to travel to California and share the experience and many stories and pictures with Tomson personally.
Anytime you have kids at this age saying things like “’we are all judged by how we are to each other and how we act’ in front of a crowd of people, that’s a win in my book, especially with all that’s going on in the world right now”, said Brueckner, “I’m just so stoked with how this all turned out.”