Twilight over Tioga Lake

Sunday, January 2, 2011

How I Never Learned to Swim

It is every parent's duty to teach their child how to swim. Why? Because their child’s life may depend upon it. --Babylonian Talmud

“Ppppplease! Please Elissa!” the five year old boy stammered. “Call my mom and ask her if I can just watch swimming today!”

Dylan was in my preschool class last year. On this particular Tuesday he stood on our Morning Meeting rug in a t-shirt and underwear, body trembling and teeth chattering. His camoflage swimming trunks and goggles laid at his feet.

I sighed, and mustered my well-practiced patient yet firm Teacher Voice. “Dylan, your mom has told me that you are going to swimming today. And she also told me you are doing well and have fun once you get in the water! I know you can do this. Here, I’ll help you change.” I handed him his goggles and swimsuit.

“Noooo!” Dylan erupted into tears, dropped the items and pushed them away with his foot. “I won’t go in the water. I’ll just watch.” Dylan eventually succumbed to changing for swimming, but continued to shake and whimper until he is brought down to the pool. This episode happened every Tuesday, the day he had swimming lessons after school.

What is it about swimming that brings about such extreme reactions in young people? Our preschool offers all sorts of enrichment activities for the youngsters, such as clay class, karate, dance, and sports like basketball as well as swimming. Even if a child would rather go home instead of to his or her after school class, there is simply no parallel for the drama that ensues when a child doesn’t want to go swimming.

Maybe the secret of this distress lies in the "duty" of swimming lessons. One is unlikely to find themselves in a life or death scenario involving T-ball or arts and crafts. But being in water is another story. The children who look forward to swimming lessons may think they are there by choice. To them it is simply a fun time in the pool. Only the ones who are terrified seem to know they have to go. I can certainly empathize with the reluctant ones, as I was one of them. While I certainly agree with the Talmud's statement about learning to swim, as did my parents--I never really learned how.

My brother and sister and I were born as fortunate naturally athletic individuals, which made the swimming debacle all the more mysterious. We poured our whole selves and our selfless parent’s paychecks into our chosen fields of interest, which all involved high physical activity: horse back riding, ice skating, and gymnastics. Since we lived in Plymouth, Massachusetts and spent summers on Cape Cod, my mother dutifully insisted on swimming lessons in addition to our already busy schedules. My sister Emilie, while she does not pursue swimming as a sport, is now a skilled diver and a certified scuba diver. She somehow did not receive the curse of swim lesson failure like my brother Danny and I did.

The first attempt happened while my mother was still pregnant with Emilie, and I was only 5. She took Danny and me to Morton Pond, one of the 360 ponds that Plymouth boasts. I remember nothing of this, probably because we only went once and came down with hand, foot, and mouth disease. I picture children in soggy diapers wading in blackish water, steeping in 85 degree heat and 90% humidity. So much for Morton Pond.

The second try was at Plymouth Beach, a couple years later. Plymouth Beach was and still is the main beach in Plymouth. It is nice enough, with calm water and not too much seaweed. The water isn’t the Caribbean, but it wasn’t freezing. Except for this early summer day.

I stood looking at the brownish blue water, digging my feet in the sand. “Why, mom? Why do I have to take swimming lessons?” I whined.

“So you don’t drown someday! Go on, you can do it.” I was doubtful that I could. It was windy out, and the water somehow even looked colder than usual. The instructor was barking orders at a group of kids in the water. He didn’t look particularly nice. He was also quite fat, and therefore insulated against frigid water. I looked over at Danny. His skinny body was already shivering. Quaking, actually.

“We have lots of towels to warm you up when you get out!” said my dad cheerfully, always the positive one.

Finally Danny and I stepped forward towards the water. We started edging our way in. But instead of the usual playful friend the ocean was to me, the Atlantic had turned into a freezing, brackish, slime-weed infested nightmare. “It’s too coooolllld!” Danny and I yelled back to mom and dad, tears not far below the surface. Dad smiled encouragingly. Then Fat Guy yelled, “You two! Come on over and join the group. Let’s see your doggy paddle!”

We tried to oblige, we really did. I gasped while paddling, and swallowed a juice box of sea water. Seaweed, which normally didn’t bother me, kept winding around my legs and interfering with my weak attempts at a straight leg kick. When Fat Guy told us to put our heads under water, I balked. Why the heck should I do that? Not wanting to look like a baby in front of the other kids, I did, and the salt water painfully shot up to my sinuses. I couldn’t hold it in anymore and started bawling. Crying is catching, and when my brother saw me he started his own deluge of tears. My parents couldn’t take it either and finally got us out. Maybe we weren’t exaggerating the cold, because Danny had turned purple. We spent the rest of our lesson wrapped in towels, recovering from hypothermic trauma. Danny and I never finished the lesson and never went back to Plymouth Beach for a swimming lesson. The rest of the summer was spent in the sea weed free safety of our two feet deep pool. Our amazing (to some insane) parents poured bucketfuls of hot water into it every time we went swimming. In terms of swimming lessons, we were already 0 for 2.

It would be a couple years until we made the attempt again. By this time Danny and I were 8 and 10 years old, too old to get away without knowing the basics of swimming. Many of my classmates could be heard bragging about being on the swim team, and here I could barely doggy paddle. Thinking a more contained environment may offer a chance at success, my mother signed us up for swimming lessons at the local YMCA. By this time, my sister Emilie was in the picture and she would be in her own little kids' class. I still didn't want to go, and tried to beg off by being too "busy." Well, a ten year old during summer vacation just wasn't too busy for swimming lessons.

I was dubious about going to swim in a big swimming pool. We had a succession of above ground pools that grew larger and deeper every year, and had no need to partake in a public pool. My mom said there was a smaller "kiddie" pool at the Y, and a bigger, Olympic size pool. Please let me be in the kiddie pool, please!! I pleaded to whatever higher power might hear. On the way over for our first lesson, I let that sentiment slip out. "Well, I'll probably be in the kiddie pool since I am beginner, right?"

"Oh, Lissa!" sighed my mom. "You are ten years old! The kiddie pool is for babies and toddlers. You'll be fine in the big pool!"

"Is it heated?" I asked.

"Honest to goodness, Lissa, our own pool isn't heated!" I tried to feel confident about this latest effort, but the butterflies were already hatching. I started shivering before we even pulled into the parking lot.

The YMCA was your typical big, busy, family centered pool. Instructors shouting, kids yelling, and a fog of chlorine filled my ears and nose. Indeed the kiddie pool was very diminutive and shallow, filled with very small children and no doubt a good deal of urine. It would be the big pool for me.

Things went fairly well at the Y for most of the summer. The pool was cold, so that sucked. Having no choice in the matter, I learned to deal with it. The other children in the class were fine, and I even made a casual friend with one of the girls. Our teacher was a no nonsense young woman with a spiky haircut. Christine was firm, but not mean. I remember the constant temptation to go into a doggie paddle instead of the stroke I was supposed to be practicing. Whenever she caught me or one of the other kids lapsing, she would yell out, "No doggy, no doggy! You're here to learn how to really swim, now show me that stroke!" I still did the doggy on the sly. Perhaps that cheating on my part is one reason I was not progressing much. Everyone managed to phase the paddle out but me. I did not have the desire to get better at swimming like I did at horse back riding or playing the clarinet. What was wrong with the doggy paddle, anyway?

Any progress I did make came to a standstill one terrible day towards the end of summer. What's ironic is that I felt quite confident that day. My group was the "Polliwogs" and the "Guppies--"older children who were beginners. I sat with my fellow novices outside the pool, chatting about Nintendo and other hot topics among preteens in the late 80's. Maybe Christine won't be here today and class will be canceled! I secretly thought, like I did every time. And also like every time, she came out in her red swim suit and spiked hair. Sigh. We lowered ourselves into the cold, chemical water.

"Into the pool, Pollies and Guppies!" she commanded. "Today we work on the elementary backstroke. And you all need to work on it. I want to see straight lines, people!" Damn it, I inwardly growled. This "swim in a straight line" thing was just not working for me. For the stroke, we were supposed to open our eyes every few strokes and make sure we even with the dark line at the bottom of the pool. Well, the over-chlorinated water burned your eyes. And for the backstroke, that was pretty much impossible unless there happened to be a jet contrail right above you that day. Most of the time, I was queen of the zig zag.

Sometimes there were pool dividers to make up lanes; on this unlucky backstroke day there were not. Soon it was my turn to do the backstroke. I turned over on my back, breathed, and began the movements. Arms up, legs up and in, and then push down, arms up, legs up and in, push down and in, repeat. I found myself in a good rhythm. With the water in my ears, the communal noise muffled to near silence. The sky above was a pleasant blue. It was a sluggishly hot day, and the water felt nice for once, almost refreshing. I pictured the opposite end of the pool behind me, pulling me towards it. I felt almost peaceful, and for the first time thought maybe, just maybe, I could be decent at this swimming thing.

"LISSA!" Even through saturated ears I hear my nickname, which only my family use. Then again, "LISSA!" and someone tapped my shoulder. Why would my parents be at my group's end of the pool? They usually sat in the rest area on the opposite side.

I sat up abruptly, unpleasant noise and commotion barreling into my ears after the quiet. I looked around. What the hell? Where was I? My class and Christine were no where in sight. I looked up and saw my dad's face. "You're on the wrong side, honey." The poor man looked guilty, as if he was the one who had messed up. Oh shit. My heart plummeted into my spleen as I realized my mistake. That brilliant backstroke had not brought me straight across the pool. I had swam a perfect diagonal to the opposite corner!

Now I'm sure my memory has exaggerated this, but I recall the entire pool population staring at me and at least half of them laughing. And to think I had thought I was doing well! I exploded into angry, embarrassed tears and could not be consoled for the rest of the day.

My parents took pity on me and let me sit out the rest of the day, but insisted I finish the lessons for the summer. Just like when you fall off a horse, you get back on. Somehow for me, falling off a horse was loads less traumatic than botching the backstroke. I did the last few lessons without incident, but the humiliation was not to end. Our last lesson was the test, and then we would receive a card saying if we passed and could move on to the next level. That would either be "Guppy" for the Polliwogs, or "Flying Fish." Even during the test in which I was constantly watched, I still managed to slip into the doggy paddle a few times. Almost everyone in the group got into Flying Fish. My new friend graduated from Polliwog to Guppy. I already knew the answer before I opened the envelope. The card showed the Polliwog symbol, a child riding on the back of a small fish. "Did not pass. Repeat Polliwog" was the message. "Just keep practicing, kid," said Christine, patting me on the head with her knuckles. I appreciated that she did not put me down, and my parents of course said not to be discouraged. But I could not ignore the writing on the card. I failed. I was still a pathetic Polliwog.

Sometimes, failure brings the possibility of freedom. Or so I had hoped that would be the case with swimming lessons. The backstroke incident had been horribly embarrassing, but I had survived it without anyone in school knowing about it. I would be starting that particularly hellish stint of education, middle school. Sucking at swimming was the last thing I needed, now that popularity was a priority.

But oh no. Mom had other plans. She informed my brother and sister and I that all three of us that we would be starting swimming lessons at the Plymouth Athletic Club in a couple weeks. Not summer anymore? No problem. The PAC had an indoor, heated swimming pool. Why, we could swim there all year! Whoever my mom talked to assured her that their instructors were nice and the classes were small. This set up seemed to specifically cater to the hesitant, the fearful, or in our case the damn near hopeless. How could we possibly fail this time?

The PAC swimming experience was certainly the least traumatic out of all them. My brother and I were in a class together this time, and there were only four of us total. The teachers were friendly and encouraged us rather than barked orders. They even got in the water with us and demonstrated techniques, a first in my experience. My only main concern was that the recent perm I had acquired would get ruined. After 10 weeks we took the test, showcasing our back float, stroke, and elementary backstroke. I sat on the side of the pool with Danny, yanking off the uncomfortable swim cap that was shielding my new puff--doo from harm.

"So, you both completed the test and you did a great job," explained our instructor. Okay, and? "You really have made a lot of progress, especially in your confidence. Just think back to how hesitant you both were when you first came here!" That’s great lady, just tell us the damn test results! "Buuuuut....I'm afraid you both didn't pass. Danny, for you it was the stroke. Elissa, your backstroke needs improvement. Please don't be discouraged. After one more session, I am positive you will both pass with flying colors!"

Seriously? We didn't pass again? This time however, I really didn't care. Actually, I remember Danny and I both laughing a little. There was a young man with Down Syndrome in our class, who I recall was a pretty good swimmer. I can't say for sure, but let's be honest here-- I'm sure he passed. So did my sister from her own group, and she did not let that one go for a while. Danny and I were that bad. At this point it was just funny.

My long suffering mom finally gave up. I don't think she thought we were entirely hopeless. She probably couldn't stand to see us be put through this again. And we could keep ourselves afloat at this point. Hell, we had learned at least that much. Now we were fully involved in our various pursuits, and really did not need the added pressure of a futile swim class. Just as we began our swim career with a sickness, we ended it likewise, this time with swimmers’ ear infections. But we were free at last.

Like swimming, math was never my strong suit. I needed tutoring all through high school and never made it to calculus. When I passed the required math class at my liberal arts college with a C, I rejoiced. I would never have to take math again, ever! For a very long time I thought the same about swimming. Hell if I was ever going to give that a try again. I surprised myself when I did just that in my late 20's.

My place of employment is part of a larger community center that offers all sorts of recreation for adults as well as children. Our building was under renovation for a couple years, and when it opened up in 2003 there was a state of the art pool facility. I wanted to start an exercise program, and thought, why not swimming? It is supposed to be a great low impact workout. Who knows, maybe after all these years I would not be as horrendous at it.

I signed up for an adult beginner class. There were only three of us, and the instructor was great--funny, understanding, and a good teacher. Best of all, there was no test to take, so I didn’t have to worry about failing again. I did learn quite a bit in that class. We got to use all these fun tools like floating barbells to help refine our stroke and flippers for our kick. After the class was over, I tried to keep up swimming. But I just could not get into it. Quite honestly, I found swimming boring. And I just did not have the stamina in the water that I had for things like biking. I started doing spin class and cardio kick boxing instead. At least I could say I tried swimming one last time and did not fail. I can also say honestly that I have more confidence in the water when my friends go rafting or I play in the waves at a beach.

It must have been hard for my parents to see their children not succeed at something, especially something as important as learning to swim. No one was going to tell us we were failures at life because of our incompetence in the water, but like the Talmud says, our life may depend upon it.

Dealing with Dylan’s strong aversion to swimming was a particularly challenging case. We mentioned how upset he got every Tuesday to his parents, but they insisted he calmed down by the time he got down to the pool and that he continue with his lessons. One teacher, a parent herself, was increasingly agitated about Dylan’s weekly dread. “This just doesn’t seem right!” she said to me one day. “I know it is important for him to do this, but is it worth it if he gets this upset? How is he even getting anything out of it?” I could understand her point of view. Dylan’s reactions to swimming were so extreme it made us teachers feel like we were torturing him! I personally could empathize with him. I knew what it felt like to loathe something so much and yet be told you have to do it. I also remember my mom continually pushing me to do this crucial activity over and over. Sure it was not fun for me, but nor did it permanently traumatize me.

The teachers could not come to an agreement on how to deal with the situation, so our director suggested we call Dylan’s parents in for a meeting. His mother explained something that would have been helpful to have known earlier--Dylan fell into a pool the previous summer and almost drowned. So there is the reason for his extreme fear. Four years of life flashed before your eyes is pitifully short. I wouldn’t want to get near the water again either. That is also the exact reason why he absolutely must learn how to swim now. His parents again said he was going to continue the lessons, and felt with time he would overcome his anxiety. Our director agreed. The teachers would be consistently encouraging and firm with him concerning swim lessons.

We teachers are fortunate in that we often get to see tangible growth in another human being. Eventually, Dylan stopped shaking and crying at lunch. Soon, he even became excited to go swimming. He talked animatedly about putting his head underwater and jumping in by himself. When he graduated from his beginner “Frogs” class and was cleared to move on to the next level, we all shared in his joy. And we were all content in knowing we had made the right move by supporting the parent’s decision to keep him in swimming. Not only did Dylan face a significant fear and get over it, he was on his way to being secure and skilled in the water. He would gain tools that would help him in a potential scary situation. And his parents were fulfilling their responsibility of teaching their child a significant skill.

Growing can be uncomfortable. Being put in a situation that does not come naturally is not necessarily fun or easy. But sometimes, it is necessary. In my more self-assured area of horseback riding, I still had some dubious and fearful moments. The first place I learned to ride was run by a vivacious woman who had some unconventional teaching methods, such as threatening to stab our ponies in the butt with a knife if we didn’t keep them trotting. But I do give her credit for not allowing us young ones to get away with any uncalled for fears. One day I was happily riding the white pony I loved, Annie. Another young girl was riding a pony called Symmetry. I was very afraid of Symmetry because one day I saw her make the calculated move to try and remove her rider by trotting under some very low branches. Ponies could be conniving that way. I made the mistake that day by confiding to a friend that “I never want to ride Symmetry!” Well, that instructor must have heard me because I was whisked off Annie and put on Symmetry before I could open my mouth. I knew protesting was futile. Symmetry turned out to be perfectly fine and I learned to never complain again there. I also learned that I wouldn’t die if I had to do something I wasn’t comfortable with.

The quotation at the beginning is from the Babylonian Talmud, a collection of very old Rabbinic writing. My mother did not know of the Talmud or that saying. My guess is that many people have not heard that quotation. Yet many dutiful parents obey it by sending their happy and excited, slightly timid or bored, or terrified and protesting children to swimming lessons. I am truly grateful my mother really tried to find a way for us to succeed. But did we actually fail? I don’t believe so. True, I am not a strong swimmer. But nor am I afraid of a challenge. Neither are my brother and sister. My mother and the many other parents out there are doing their children a favor by keeping them in swimming, especially the fearful ones. They are showing the children that not only will you live when you have to do something hard, but that someday you may become good at it. What was the doggy paddle in the kiddie pool becomes the backstroke in the deep end.

The “learning to swim” metaphor can be applied to many aspects of life. It gets tricky in adulthood because, like the children who enjoyed swimming, we think we choose the life we lead. While we do have more choices that children, the reality is we still have to plunge in to uncomfortable situations that are necessary for our continued growth. Many of us find ourselves in patterns that are unhealthy and know they need changing, but are afraid to start the transformation. Perhaps these patterns won’t enable us to drown, but they could seriously hold us back. As adults we may not have our parents or teachers to prod us towards success. Hopefully we have enough insight by now to understand when it is time to jump into a proverbial pool and learn a new skill or behavior--or unlearn an old one.

I trust that all the parents out there will fulfill their duty to teach their child to swim, even if the child would choose not to. I also trust all us grown children take a refresher course now and then, whether it is swimming or something else critical. I leave you with another quote, this one by George Eliot: “It is never too late to become what you might have been.”












1 comment:

Dan said...

"Many of us find ourselves in patterns that are unhealthy and know they need changing, but are afraid to start the transformation."

I can relate to that...

About Me

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San Francisco, CA
Elissa is an east coast transplant making her way through life by way of San Francisco. This amazing city provides lots of fodder for writers of all types. I find inspiration for writing through life's little and bizarre events, such as grocery shopping for dog treats, salamander hunting, and insomnia. I am a preschool teacher in "real life."