A Class That Trades Gym Shorts for Wetsuits


The surf is raging, the wind blowing offshore and any teenage surfer in tune with the rhythms of the sea is scheming to cut class.

Not this crew at Palisades Charter High School. No need. First period is surf class.

While other students huff and puff their way around the track in PE class, these wetsuit-clad teenagers hoot and howl as they snag a few wind-sculpted waves.

Adam Bertolet grabs their attention as he glides his longboard across the face of a wave, which begins to wrap around him like a barrel--the leading edge cresting over his head. Then another student attempts to get "barreled." Then another.

Suddenly, the 25 students realize they are sitting way too close to shore. Arms paddling furiously, they scratch their way up the face of an 8-foot wave as it threatens to crash on them and drill sand up their noses.

"I don't need to cut class," says Melody Overstreet, one of five girls in the class. "This is my motivation to go to school. This starts my day off on a beautiful note."

Pali High is one of a handful of high schools in Southern California that offer surfing as physical education class. Other schools sponsor surf teams that paddle out before or after school, but Pali High is one of the few that gives PE credit for surfing.

Location, of course, plays a role. It's easier to offer a surf class if the high school is in Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach or Huntington Beach than, say, Eagle Rock.

The Pali High surf class meets at Will Rogers State Beach about a half mile from campus.

Class schedule helps too. Pali High adopted a "block" schedule three years ago, ditching the traditional hourlong classes for two-hour classes every other day. That's enough time for surfing as well as for driving back and forth to the beach and changing into and out of clingy wetsuits.

Ray Millette, a marine biology teacher and lifelong surfer, says other PE teachers at Pali High were thrilled when he launched the surf class three years ago.

As they see it, he took on a number of free spirits who "don't always dress [for gym] or follow the rules."

Although surf class would seem like a perk of living near the beach, students come from all over Los Angeles to attend Pali High, a charter and magnet school.

Any of them can attend the class providing they can arrange transportation to the beach and supply their own boards.

Millette helps beginners get on their feet and coaches them during the year, offering tips on how to improve their form. Skill tests are held every five weeks. On days when the surf is flat, students run on the beach or lie on their boards and paddle a half-mile course around a buoy tethered offshore.

Millette hopes to field a surf team soon that will compete with schools from the South Bay and Orange County. For now, class mostly means time for students to have fun in the surf.

"Here," he says, wriggling into his wetsuit in the beach parking lot, "we let them express themselves in their own athletic way."

The first student to arrive is Matt Brown, a 16-year-old with a newly issued driver's license.

It's shortly after 7 a.m. Monday. The morning chill lingers. Fog shrouds the coast and drizzle wets the pavement. The surf has dropped off overnight, so Matt huddles in his Ford Explorer, heater and Walkman cranked up to maximum levels.

Then Ted Smith rolls up in his bright green 1969 Camaro, coming to a stop at an odd angle.

Craig Spalding noses his 20-year-old Ford Bronco right between their cars. It's coated with mud from some obvious off-roading.

"Dude, where've you been?" Ted asks, examining the mud-caked hood. Craig shoots him a mischievous grin.

Pretty soon the parking lot fills with assorted vehicles, pointing every which way--most of them ignoring the neat lines painted on the blacktop. Rock blares from one car's stereo.

"What did you do this weekend?" Ted asks. His fists are shoved deep in the pockets of his oversized cargo shorts.

"Surf," Matt says.

Ted: "Where?"

Matt: "Zeros. El Porto. Zuma, Little Dume. How about you?

Ted: "I kept going north and wanted to see if Supertubes was going off. You could make it, but only on the sets. It was so heavy."

Millette appears out of nowhere and orders them to suit up.

One by one, the students take the plunge into the chilly Pacific. A few hang back, citing injuries, suspected colds, or, in one case, a newly dinged surfboard in need of repair.

"I heard stories that high school wasn't fun," says Greg Bebout, a Billy Idol blond who rides a knee board. "But Pali is fun."

Millette joins the students in the water, catching the waves with as much enthusiasm as the students a third his age. "Of all of my friends," he says, "I'm the only one who gets paid to surf. I guess that makes me a pro."

A few hardy students paddle for a buoy about a quarter-mile offshore, going the distance for the exercise.

Others jockey for position in the lineup of surfers, hopping on the small waves breaking close to shore, pulling out quickly before being catapulted onto the dry sand.

An hour passes quickly and Millette reminds the class that it's time to go. On this day, with barely ridable surf, the students put up little resistance to ending their session.

"There's just one thing as important to teenagers as surfing," Millette says. Eating. Back on campus, cookies, bagels and other snacks await them during the 20-minute break before the next class begins.

The last student still in the water, skinny 15-year-old Dane Anderson, with shaved head and a horseshoe earring, holds up an index finger to signal: just one more.

"Ten more would be good," Dane says. "But one more will have to do."

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