The Wonder Years

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“I need the sea because it teaches me,
I don’t know if I learn music or awareness,
if it’s a single wave or its vast existence,
or only its harsh voice or its shining
suggestion of fishes and ships.
The fact is that until I fall asleep,
in some magnetic way I move in
the university of the waves.”
~Pablo Neruda, “The Sea”

I don’t remember a time when I did not have this curious love for sharks.

What I do remember is Saturday mornings tucked into my Dad’s side watching nature specials on the couch. I remember paging through his college science books, with illustrations of great white sharks (comically/tragically) labeled as “Maneater.” I remember visiting The Living Seas restaurant at Disney World when I was six, staring rapt at the glass and the creatures gliding by like aliens from another planet, feeling deliciously terrified and besotted all at once.

Right through adolescence, any poster of Leonardo DiCaprio circa 1997 had to compete for wall space with my “World’s Most Dangerous Sharks” chart. My friends thought it was super weird. I really didn’t care.

Now that I’m a mother, and raising a child who is fortunate enough to live a block from the ocean, I realize how important it is to me to pass along to my son this love of the sea, and respect for all of its inhabitants and the delicate but vital role each creature plays in the great drama of the ocean’s ecosystem.

I brought home my sweet new baby to a nursery decked out in an ocean theme: happy orange fish curtains, a reproduction London Aquarium poster from the 1930s, and books, books, books about the marine world.

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And we’ve gone on from there. My son loves to walk to the beach at the end of the street and tell me which shells belong to mussels, and which to the razor clams. He loves to talk about whale sharks and basking sharks and which one is his favorite that day and why. He loves episodes of “Blue Planet” and reading Bob Shea’s “I’m a Shark!” and examining the shark dissection chart I have framed in our bathroom.

He wants nothing more than to share in this passion with me.

And that’s heady stuff. I feel the power and responsibility of that every day. I have so much influence on him; more than any media, or peer, or even teacher could ever hope to have. I try to take that seriously. For a very brief window of his life, I am all-knowing and wise. If I teach him that sharks are beautiful and mysterious, to be respected and protected instead of feared, he will believe me.

So we take trips to the aquarium, and get down on our knees to peer into tidal pools, and get our sleeves very wet in either scenario. I am savoring this shared interest of ours, and storing it in my memory for when he’s fifteen and I’m so annoying he can’t even stand it.

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Now I don’t want to dictate my child’s interests anymore than I want anyone else to try and dictate my own. There will be no crazed ichthyology-themed stage parenting in our house. If my enthusiasm for sharks becomes cringe-inducing for him at some point (as most things beloved of parents are for their children) well, then I’ll take it down a notch when his friends come over.

Unless he’s rude about it. Then I’m totally trotting out the baby photos where he’s wearing nothing but a shark hat and a smile.

He doesn’t have to don scuba gear and plan for Woods Hole for me to be proud of him. I can’t wait to see what will excite him as he ages. What will light him up, and put that sparkle in his eye. I don’t care what gets his motor running, as long as it runs—loud and strong and takes him somewhere fantastic.

But what I do want, desperately and without agenda, is to instill in him a sense of awe at this amazing planet, to encourage and prolong that sense of wonder at the world that is such an essential part of childhood. A wonder that I still feel at age thirty one, whenever I stand before a salty body of water.

I want him to look out at the sea and the fin in the water and marvel at its majesty.

I want there to be fins left to marvel at.

And I want to marvel with him.

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