Author: Jonathan Kathrein
Illustrations by: Robert Singler Jr.
In August of 1998, when he was 16, Jonathan Kathrein was boogie-boarding at Stinson Beach, north of San Francisco, when a great white shark chomped down on his right thigh and started to drag him out to sea. Instinctively, he grabbed the big fish by the gills and squeezed, and it let him go. A competitive swimmer, Kathrein was able to make it to shore and eventually to surgery, where he spent seven hours on the table getting sewn back together with over 400 stitches.
After the attack, the memory lingered on. He avoided Stinson Beach, but his story attracted some media attention, and he found himself recounting the event over and over again. “It became easier and easier to go there,” he says. “It was like therapy, and I was able to convert the fear of the attack into a positive force.”
Kathrein realized the shark had taught him a lesson: “What I thought of as being eaten alive, it probably thought of as just another taste test in a lifetime of survival. I didn’t need to seek retribution for something that was at best an accident and at worst an animal doing what nature intended it to do.”
Extrapolating this into more general human experience, Kathrein began to understand the downward spiral of revenge. “We don’t need to fear sharks; we need to understand them. The best place to start is by teaching, and better yet, teaching children.”
The result is a slim volume, titled Don’t Fear the Shark (illustrated by long-time friend Robert Singler Jr.), which he hopes will help kids think about their own actions before attacking someone else for theirs. Kathrein has also founded an organization called Future Leaders for Peace, aiming to bring keys to leadership and conflict resolution to young people. “Kids get it,” he says. “They know what it’s like to be targeted or picked on. What they need to learn is how to react respectfully.” So, don’t fear the shark, he counsels. “Be prepared for it. Understand it. Don’t live with hate and fear.”
Kathrein had a chance to put his learning into practice last year when the coffee shop in which he worked was held up by two armed men. “I thought about the lessons I’ve been teaching kids, such as looking at a situation through someone else’s point of view. I also thought about the lessons I’ve learned from surfing, especially surfing big winter waves. You have to remain calm and relaxed in order to think clearly. When this guy walked down the stairs and put a gun in my face, I kept my calm and thought about how he probably just wanted to buy some Christmas presents. They needed money. They didn’t want to hurt me. As if I were preparing for a long hold-down, I stayed calm, and as I focused on staying calm, it actually seemed to keep the two guys calm. They never raised their voices. They took their money and left. I was able to put a few of my lessons to the test and they passed.