We signed up for beginner sessions at the pool a few weeks ago, and then the lessons began this past Monday. There we all stood, a bevy of parents, grandparents, and swimsuit-clad kids of all ages. The perky, tanned lifeguards called out names and got everyone into the proper groupings, and the guardians and younger siblings made their way to spots in the grass or shade, where we plunked down to observe the swimmers-in-training.
It's funny how you can bury a memory, and then years later it all comes back with unsettling clarity. It's the swimming lessons' fault. My kid hates them. He needs them, I know. It is essential that he learn to swim. Crucial. Absolutely a must. But it's not fun. Not yet, anyway.
I didn't fully recollect how much I, too, used to hate swimming lessons until the second day of this week, when my sweet son pleaded silently with me from the pool, his face distorted by the telltale pre-cry grimace. I spoke to him over the fence, as close as I was permitted to get. He had to be tough, I said; he just needed to do his best. It was okay if it wasn't perfect. It would get easier. Etc. Etc. In vain. He heard not a word through his misery. I gave up after a minute and returned, guilt-stricken, to my safe spot in the shade.
The next day, I stayed farther away. When he looked my way repeatedly, I looked down at the notebook in my hands, adding imaginary items to my grocery list so he knew without a doubt that I wouldn't save him and let him out of the lesson commitment. This morning, after he'd played the tears card in the car before the lesson began, I went farther; I sat behind a huge mountain of a man after my son entered the pool, thus totally obliterating the kid's view of me. He seemed to give up after a bit, according to a classmate's grandpa who was keeping watch as he sat next to me, and by the end of class my boy was actually trying to retrieve a ring from under water. This is big for us, believe me. Ring retrieval is an enormous step.
Now, we have a few days off from lessons, and I pray that his ring-seeking moment of bravery will not be forgotten over the long weekend. The point of this post, though, is not how my boy hates swimming; it's the fact that my vicarious suffering has brought back to me memories of my own early days at the "big pool." The sad truth is that I recognized that dripping, grimacing face of his, and it was my face. From many years back.
My teacher was not a cute, brown-skinned teenager. My teacher was Miss Betty. She was ancient to us kids, but old even by the standards of most adults. Her hair was frizzy and white, and when she instructed the older kids and was submerged, I'm pretty certain she wore an old rubbery swim-cap. Her requisite blue suit was stretched over her doughy flesh, and I don't recall that she was actually tanned even though she had reportedly life-guarded since birth; she must have been an advocate of sunscreen even back in the day. Or, her weary pigment had just given up.
Miss Betty had about as many soft, fuzzy edges as a box. Her voice was not an encouraging coo—it was more of a bark. She had no tolerance for fear, and she accepted no excuses. When she said blow bubbles, by God you blew bubbles. Even if you filled the pool with snot as you wept openly. There we stood, a row of horrified 6-year-olds, our blue lips quivering (the lessons always happened in the morning, early in the summer when the water was still barely 75 degrees), and Betty made us blow, and float, and kick until we could barely move our frozen limbs.
For many of us not raised near a ready supply of deep water, the idea of putting your face under water it not appealing. The very sensation of water rushing around one's head, up one's nose, into one's ears is pretty frightening. Doing this under duress while a crabby old lady hollers at your from above the water's surface or, worse yet, "helps" you to do these things, is pretty traumatizing. At several points my terrified, oxygen-deprived young brain was convinced that Betty would let me drown. She never did.
In fact, not only did she manage to pass me on to the next level, turtle-floating and bubble-blowing in adequate fashion, but she also delivered artificial respiration successfully to an infant a few years later, thus saving a baby from drowning. She may not have been heavy on charm, but she knew her stuff, that Betty.
So, I know there is hope for my boy. I can still side-stroke myself to safety these days thanks to her Betty's stubborn efforts, and I do go under the surface willingly, not just when forced to do so. But my heart breaks a little when I imagine the thoughts that must be going through my little guy's head. I keep reassuring him that the guards know what they're doing, that they all started out the same way that he is starting, the same way that I started. It does get easier. I can't assure him that it will ever be easy—that might be a lie. But easier? Yes.
Happily, I can still say with certainty that Dory was right: "Just keep swimming." I just wish we could skip this part of the learning experience.