Shaun Tomson shares his code with KZN schools
Surfing legend Shaun Tomson has turned a personal tragedy into a campaign to help young people make the right choices in life. LINDA LONGHURST spoke to him
MANY teenagers in the eighties would have had a poster of a young Durban surfer on their bedroom walls and the name Shaun Tomson would have been synonymous with sunbleached hair, bronzed bodies and waxed surf boards.
Born in 1955, Tomson began surfing at the age of 10, trained by his father. At the age of 12, he won the boys’ division of the South African National Championships. He dominated the South African surfing scene and in 1973, he won the first of six consecutive titles in the Gunston 500, held in Durban.
His win in the 1975 Pipeline Masters on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, was remarkable in that he influenced and changed the style of surfing from then on. In 1977, he won the coveted IPS World Championship and has been listed as one of the 25 most influential surfers of the century and one of the 10 greatest surfers of all time.
A graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal and founder of the Instinct clothing line, Tomson now lives in Santa Barbara, California, with his wife Carla and young son, Luke. But that’s not where his story ends. Tomson, influenced by an unspeakable tragedy, his background and his environment, was recently in South Africa for his #livethecode tour.
During this tour, he spoke to school pupils about the power of “I will”, supported by a tool called The Code, which is also the title of his book, on which his tour is based and during which it was launched.
“The goal of this tour is to create a positive wave across the country. This means giving pupils a perspective of my life that’s been lived with passion and purpose,” Tomson said. He hopes that the pupils he speaks to will find some resonance in what he has to say.
“I give them as much of my spirit as I can, because I know that there’s going to be one child who needs it and if I can activate some personal power in one pupil then my mission is fulfilled.”
To activate this, Tomson gives them a tool called The Code. This is a simple exercise that is ideally done in a group setting and consists of 12 lines. Every line begins with “I will …” to be filled in. These are 12 promises that you make yourself; a code that you live by.
“So far every school I’ve been to is doing it in various ways. Every single pupil will write his or her code in 30 minutes. In a group setting, each pupil will stand up and share his or her code with peers and friends. The group chooses one line from each person that is particularly resonant with all of them. That goes up on a board, which represents the collective consciousness and the will of the group,” Tomson said.
“I tell kids that will is the rocket fuel that takes us from our dreams to reality.” The concept of The Code started in 2000 on a beach in Santa Barbara, California, which was facing a severe environmental crisis. A surfing friend was holding an event to encourage homeowners along the beach to update their ageing septic tank systems, which were contaminating the water with sewage during the winter rains. He asked Tomson to present each child at the event with a keepsake to encourage them to be more environmentally aware. “I had a budget of $120,” Tomson said.
Tomson wrote out the 12 most important lessons that surfing had taught him about life, each one beginning with “I will”. He titled the lessons “The Surfer’s Code” and had them printed on 100 palmsize cards that he laminated and handed out to the children at the event. The cards proved so popular, that people started asking him for more and he was asked to give talks at various schools and gatherings about the life lessons surfing had taught him. The cards’ reach increased when they started putting them in the pockets of the board shorts of their clothing line, Solitude.
Tomson’s first book, Surfer’s Code, was the culmination of these talks. His second book, The Code, was inspired by a group of pupils at a school in Santa Barbara. They were the first group of pupils he encouraged to write their own code.
“The pupils from this school sent me their lines of code — 80 pupils, 960 lines — and I was blown away.” The first one he got back said: “I will always be myself”, which is the heading of the first chapter of his book. Tomson said that this particular line of code was particularly resonant with him in his quest to create a positive wave, on which people can influence each other in a positive way.
“I lost my beautiful boy at 15 to a bad decision. He was influenced by someone [to behave recklessly]. That’s why this concept ‘I’ll be myself ’ is super potent for me. I want to empower kids to help themselves. I tell kids that we all have this super powerful internal force which they can use for good or bad — it’s a choice.”
Made up of 12 chapters, each titled by a line of code from a pupil, Tomson said that The Code is specifically aimed at teenagers because they are at critical age in making those decisions. He said that in the U.S., 45 000 teenagers die a year, and 30 000 of those deaths are from poor choices in the form of preventable accidents. Poor choice is the single biggest killer in the U.S., including bad diet, lack of exercise, alcohol, drugs, gang activity and drunken driving.
“Ultimately, it’s a choice. This code empowers positive choice.”
When he speaks to a group of youngsters, Tomson tells them that “a choice made in a second can be life or death. What if your mom or dad are not there, you may be with a friend who’s not really a friend and you have to think quick, make that decision that could be life or death?” In response, he makes them shout: “Think twice, think twice!”
Tomson said: “I never want another parent to get the phone call I did.
“I want kids to write down their code,” Tomson said. “I can go and talk at a school, but once I leave, what I’ve said is just blown away in the wind.” He feels that if they have to spend some time being introspective, writing down what is important to them, it has a better chance of guiding them to make positive decisions.
Pupils from all over the U.S. where he’s spoken send Tomson Tshirts and posters that have been designed using lines of code. There are websites where young people can post their thoughts and where they can find instructions on how to formulate their code, which they can do via writing, video or art work “any way they want. It’s a way for them to interact and be inspired by others, which is the whole goal”, he said.
During his tour of South Africa, Tomson reached 20 000 pupils, speaking at up to four schools a day. In the Midlands he spoke at Michaelhouse, Hilton College and Maritzburg College.
Tomson was inspired by the principals and teachers he met across the school spectrum — from underprivileged schools to the most affluent. “The teachers and principals are inspired, selfless and empowered; they just need more resources.”
Tomson is convinced that education is the future of this country.
“Forget about nuclear power plants,” he said. “Put that money into the kids, pump education to the maximum, because they will create amazing things. The kids will make South Africa amazing.”
While Tomson has spoken many times at individual schools in the U.S., as well as at large corporations, his tour of South African schools is the first time that it’s been an orchestrated national movement. He has been inspired by how he was received here by teachers, principals and school children, and hopes that his tour of South Africa will be a platform from which he can create a positive wave that he can spread wherever he goes. Tomson hopes the schools will commit to his concept of creating a code and that they will continue to encourage their pupils to create their codes, display them and share them on social media.
“I still carry my own card,” he said, taking it out of his wallet and showing it to me. “People come up to me and show me that original code that I wrote 17 years ago. I tell them to write their own code.”
Former Durban surfer Shaun Tomson spoke at Maritzburg College recently, among other schools in the Midlands and around South Africa.
Shaun Tomson, the world champion surfer.