Every summer hordes of sweaty children crammed into cars and headed into downtown Dayton, Ohio, where the nearest public pool was located in order to participate in lessons. Suits and frilly caps were donned, and then swimmers, dragging towels, paraded onto the deck. Blue-suited instructors sorted the swimmers by skill level, with the least talented in the shallow end, the more competent ones down by the diving board and all the in-between ones in groups along the deck. The smallest kids generally fell into the first group, while the taller ones stood proudly in the second.
When I was nine years old my mother decided that it was time for me to learn to swim. She was tired of my floundering around whenever we went to Indian Lake and so had decided that only a proper instructor could teach me. After purchasing a proper one-piece suit and gathering needed supplies, the day arrived when our family joined the others heading into town. I was extremely nervous. Terrified, really.
Now you have to understand that I was fat. There is no kind way to phrase it, for my legs were puffy pouches even at that tender age and my belly jiggled like Santa’s when I walked. Putting on a suit that showed every bodily flaw was not my idea of fun.
On top of that, I was deathly afraid of the water. Not all water, mind you. I could happily sit in my neighbor’s baby pool and splash in the six inches of water for hours at a time. I could even walk around the edges of a lake or river, feeling the gentle pull of the water against my ankles. When forced to go into deeper water, I could float on my back for the briefest of moments, until I felt some imaginary “thing” brush against my tense body and then I would flounder from panic. But I could not swim and so the thought of getting into that large pool filled me with fear.
After demonstrating my total lack of skill when asked to tread water or swim the crawl stroke, I was assigned the “baby” group for my two weeks of lessons. I was the oldest and the fattest student in the group. Because of these two conditions, I believed that the instructor hated me. I was the antithesis of everything she stood for: fitness, image, skill, and self-confidence. She was young, slim and oozed a certain degree of arrogance. In my mind, she was going to pick on me, humiliate me, and cause me to do things that I would never have done on my own.
But I had no choice. My mother had paid for the lessons. She had given me firm instructions to pass the first level so that I could progress to the next. And so when told to get into the water, I complied. I clung to the side of the pool with a death grip and only let go when held by the instructor.
Day after day we blew bubbles, bobbed our heads under water, floated on our backs with the aide of the teacher, and learned a rudimentary form of crawl stroke. Being a relatively intelligent child, I quickly mastered blowing and bobbing, keeping my eyes tightly closed the whole time. Floating was the one skill that I could demonstrate with some prowess, and so I willingly flaunted my ability whenever the opportunity arose. Coordinating arms, legs, and rhythmic breathing however, was not even in my vocabulary and so the crawl stroke was out of the question.
Nevertheless, every day I put on a determined face and gave it my best shot. My teacher was encouraging for the most part, although she sometimes lost patience with me, especially when the tiny kids mastered skills that I still could not. Surprisingly enough I did show slight improvement over time despite my continuing fear of the water. Some days I could swim a few feet before panic set in and I flipped onto my back to float.
Most days I could put together about eight strokes before I began to sink. Even at my best, the distance from wall to wall was as insurmountable as climbing Mt. Everest.
The last day of lessons everyone had to demonstrate their skills, and if they passed, they earned a coveted certificate that allowed them to go on to the next level. In order to advance, I had to dive in the deep water and swim the width of the pool and back. There is no way in God’s watery world that I stood a chance of passing this test. In fact, I was convinced that I would drown.
One other thing that you need to know; I was a master at excuses. I could drum up the crème de la crème of stories in seconds, without much thought required. Give me a scenario, and my creative little mind went to work. So it should come as no surprise that on test day, I came up with a list and plied them all.
Before lining up to take the test, before putting on my suit and cap, even before we parked in the lot, I began to plead in earnest. I told my mother that I was feverish and had the chills. She rolled up the windows of the car, creating a stifling situation for the entire family. Then I told her I was going to throw up; she rolled the windows down and told me to stick my head out. As the air rushed by, it stole my breath away. My hair flicked into my eyes, so I cried in pain, declaring that my eyes had been injured, so I couldn’t swim as the chlorine would seep into the cuts and blind me. My mother said that chlorine is a disinfectant, and so it would kill any germs that might have blown in with the wind.
When we arrived at the pool, I suddenly remembered that my suit was still at home. “No worry,” my mom said as she pulled it out of a large bag in the trunk. “Now get in the locker room and get dressed.”
Off I went sulking. While in the dressing room, my intestines did a mighty jump, sending me rushing into the bathroom where I sat as everything I had eaten for days gushed out. Convinced that I really did have the flu, I stayed close to the toilet, waiting for the next attack. Unfortunately, my mother appeared and unsympathetically dragged me to the poolside, towing me like a tugboat pulling a recalcitrant ocean liner.
After depositing me with my teacher, my mother joined the expectant parents in the bleachers. I sat on the deck, wrapped in my towel, nervously waiting my turn. I watched the all the little kids jump in and swim to the far wall and back. I saw the smiles and heard the applause, knowing all along that none of that praise would be for me.
My arms and legs morphed into molten rubber and my head pounded with the intensity of a jackhammer. I truly believed that I had lost the ability to stand, let alone walk to the edge of the pool and jump.
When I was the last one left, the instructor smiled. “It’s your turn,” she said.
“There isn’t enough time,” I offered. “I’ll try next session.”
“Move to the edge of the pool.” She smiled encouragingly as she pointed to the red tile border.
“I’ll do it next week.”
“There isn’t a next week,” she said. “Come on now. Everyone is watching.” Again she smiled, although this time her teeth did not show.
“I have to go to the bathroom really bad.” I stood and adeptly performed the ‘bathroom dance.’
“You’re wasting time. Get up there and do your test!” Her eyes narrowed and her lips formed a tight line.
“Please don’t make me! I’ll drown! I know I’ll drown!”
“No you won’t,” the instructor stated. “Put your toes on the edge, right there.” She pulled on my ankles until I had no choice but to step forward. “Good. Now bend over and jump.” I bent over, but did not jump. “I said, jump!” The instructor hit the back of my legs with her metal whistle.
I physically couldn’t do it, but the instructor didn’t know that. I was frozen in a bent over position, arms glued to the sides of my head and legs straight as rods. My eyes glazed over and my breathing became shallow. A cold sweat covered my entire body, and speckled spots appeared before my eyes. Not only did time stop, but also did sound and sensation.
I would have stood there forever if it weren’t for an unexpected push from behind. As I flew through the air, I broke out of my cement-like stature with the wide-eyed look of a startled hare. With arms and legs akimbo, I hit the surface of the water with the mightiest belly flop. Gasping for breath, I floundered like the breached whale that I resembled at the moment, my eyes searching for anyone empathetic enough to rescue me.
“I can’t swim,” I gasped. “I’m drowning!” Another gasp. “The water’s too deep!” Yet another strategically timed gasp accompanied my frantic thrashing of arms and legs.
“Quit whining and swim!” The instructor hollered from the safety of the wall.
“I can’t do it! I can’t!”
“I won’t let you get out until you swim to the other side! Now, go!” She pointed to the far wall with a sharp finger.
“Please! Please,” I pleaded as my arms and legs began to tire.
With tear-filled eyes and a rapidly beating heart, I turned toward the opposite wall, and began to swim. Because of a combination of exhaustion, fear and incompetence, my legs didn’t kick in a coordinated way and my arms barely skimmed the surface of the water. Breathing rhythmically was out of the question. I was at the point of sink or swim. Choosing swimming over sinking, I tried my best.
That’s all anyone can say about my effort. I’m sure that my mother was humiliated. After all, here was the oldest kid in the group performing like an injured baby whale, putting on one of the greatest whining shows ever seen. Instead of a coordinated crawl stroke, I floundered about, flinging my arms in a wild show of effort that barely kept me afloat.
As my arms grew ever more tired, I began to sink. Even as I felt myself going under, I continued to fight. I thrashed about, waving arms and kicking legs, all the while holding my breath. Unfortunately the fatigue that overwhelmed my body combined with my lack of skill added up to drowning.
You might have thought that panic would set in and give me the strength to rise to the surface. That was not to be. Despite all my efforts I slowly sank to the bottom of the pool. Sound became muted and my vision blurred. As I held my breath, suddenly all fear left. I was filled with an unexpected peace, so I quit moving my arms and legs and simply sat on the bottom of the pool. I looked around.
I wasn’t scared, even though I should have been. Time had no meaning, nor did drowning. Happiness grabbed hold of my heart and caressed me with a comforting gentleness. I was resigned to my fate, expecting nothing, receiving nothing in exchange.
It was then that I became aware of a presence: an “Other” who floated beside me, offering a gentleness that I had never known in real life. I was not afraid, for this was not a ghost but a mystical sense of well-being. I felt safe; that everything was going to be fine, and that there was no need to be afraid. This “Other” told me that she would take care of me as she wrapped her arms about me. I smiled, believing that all would be well.
I was not aware of being rescued, but I must have been, because when I awoke, I was on the deck of the pool surrounded by a group of concerned-looking faces.
“Why didn’t you swim? I told you to swim,” my instructor screamed as she shook my shoulders. Spittle sprayed my cheeks.
I watched helplessly as the other faces slowly moved away, leaving me alone with my torturer. I tried to speak, but water bubbled out of my mouth as coughs racked my body.
“It’s your fault,” my instructor screamed as she shook my shoulders. “You are an embarrassment.”
“I told you I couldn’t swim,” I coughed out.
“You have failed the course,” the teacher said as she slammed my shoulders onto the pool deck. “You are a danger to yourself. You can never come back for lessons again. Now go find your mother and tell her that you are finished.” She walked away, leaving me lying on the wet concrete.
That’s when I really began to panic. My mother had spent hard-earned dollars on my lessons and I had wasted them all. I knew that she would yell at me, probably even spank me, and her words and her hands could really hurt. Fearing that I might throw up in front of the crowd, I pushed off the deck and ran into the dressing room. Thanks goodness I made it to the toilet in time. I did not need further humiliation that day.
After my spectacular show of incompetence, and the temper tantrum that I had expected, my mother announced that swim lessons were a waste of money for me. From then on, for the next several years, I spent summers watching my older brother master the fine art of diving off the board and competently performing a variety of strokes as he flew across the pool. Eventually he mastered the program and earned a certificate with a gold star.
Even my sister learned to swim. You would have thought I would be embarrassed as my little sister, seven years younger, accomplished the smallest of tasks that I had been unable to do, all with a smile on her face. I was, but I didn’t let it show. Instead I thought of other things while she dived, swam, and floated on command.
As my siblings participated in this rite of summer year after year, I looked for unusual shapes in the clouds passing overhead. I read a lot of books and wrote my first stories with a pad of paper balanced on my knees. I wondered why birds had different cries and questioned the ability of fish to breathe underwater. Time passed without my learning how to swim, but anyone looking at my enraptured face would have thought I didn’t care.
They would have been wrong, for deep down inside, I really did want to learn. I just didn’t have the confidence to give it another try.