The best advice Griffin Bolan received when starting out in his teaching career was that to be a good teacher he shouldn’t study education. Instead, he should study life.
“I was told that the best way to be a good teacher was to be a good student,” said Bolan, who now teaches tenth grade and coaches cross country at Wai’anae High School. “And all I had to do to be a good student was to learn what I loved.”
A talented water polo player, Bolan made the Division I team at Stanford, where he took classes in everything from computer science to meditation.
Now as a teacher, he wants to give his students and athletes the same experience he had, both in the classroom and at cross country practice. His hope is that they can cultivate both the discipline and self-respect necessary to discover what they love and pursue their passions.
“The biggest goal I have is getting our kids to connect,” he said. “A lot of times in the classroom, they ask, ‘When am I going to use this?’ I want them to understand that reading and writing isn’t about reading and writing. It’s about thinking. You combine the ability to think critically about the world with a solid work ethic, and doors start to open.”
Bolan has a similar philosophy as a coach. He is impressed by his runners, their work ethic, their talent, and their grit.
“The kids I coach are tough in a way many people on this island can’t even comprehend,” he said. “They face incredible challenges on a daily basis. I owe a great deal to the Waiʻanae community. Iʻve learned far more from my students then theyʻve learned from me.”
Bolan believes running can be a powerful driver of change. He cites self-discipline and self-esteem as some of the benefits in addition to fitness.
“It’s a sport you can do anywhere,” he said. “You don’t need a lot of money. And it teaches you good habits because if you put the work in, you are going to see results. If you work hard, you get faster.”
While the cross country program at Wai’anae High School is relatively young, this year, the team qualified five runners for the state meet, which is up from one the year before.
“It takes everyone in the community to make a team," said Bolan. "The combined efforts of the coaching staff, the Wai'anae Athletic Program, and the school community make it happen. It's their belief in our athletes that drives the team forward."
One of those kids is Russel, a junior, who wants to be a doctor and is already pursuing his career goals. In addition to running cross-country, Russel participates in HOSA: Future Health Professionals, which is a nationwide, student-led organization endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education. He is also a member of his school’s Student Union and is already taking college credits.
“Running cross country has really improved my life,” said Russel, who chooses his words thoughtfully. “It’s taught me respect,” he adds and then says that no, maybe that isn’t the proper word. “Actually yes,” he says, more emphatically. “It’s taught me respect.”
For Russel, the word respect has deep roots, similar to the Hawaiian word, ho’ihi. It’s clear that for Russel, his definition includes a reverence for both himself and his teammates as well as a desire to show up and interact with integrity. Russel says that running also provides him with a sense of belonging, both to his teammates as well as to his history, which includes Chinese and Filipino traditions.
“History and tradition are big in Wai’anae,” he says. “We have programs that allow us to connect with the ‘aina. We try to take care of the earth and learn from our ancestors how they took care of the land. There’s a connection between our past and our future. When I run through all of the green here, I can feel that.”
Additionally, running has enabled Russel to connect to a sense of ease that can sometimes get lost in the stress of school and preparing for his future in medicine.
“Do you feel free when you run?” he asks. “That’s what I feel. Like you can let everything go. I can just put everything behind me and I don’t have to worry about anything.”
Last year, Bolan – also known as Coach B. - ran the 21K at the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship at Kualoa Ranch. This year he is taking about ten of the kids on his cross country team to run the 10K.
“I couldn’t dream of a more beautiful course,” he said. He is excited to share the experience with his student-athletes, who as a team, have formed something of an 'ohana.
“Some people think cross-country isn’t a team sport, but you can’t get through these practices without support, just like a family,” he says. “And when you run for something bigger than yourself, you'll run harder and faster than you ever dreamed was possible. When you live for something bigger than yourself, that's how you make the world a better place.”
Russel also feels part of his team’s 'ohana. And his goals for the race on December 2nd?
“I want all of us to do our best and to just know that when the cannon sounds, all we have to do is finish,” he says. “Knowing that we did our best is really important on our team.”
Learn more about the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship.