Thursday, June 23, 2011

The perils of childhood summers

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.


Cari Skuse said...

We, too, went through swimming lessons last year. Sadly, this year the school pool was moth-balled due to budget constraints.
The boys did learn to swim, although the younger two were not as good a student as the oldest. They still need to be stronger swimmers... we had lots of that not wanting to put our faces under water and swimming in the deep section of the pool.
I remember my swimming lessons too. They were at the Y and I took them with my younger cousin. My mom was never there, my aunt always took us, so I had no one to cry to. We went for a couple of sessions and I became a pretty good swimmer.
As for Marcus, have you shared your recollections with him? It sometimes helps my kids if they hear that I was in the same situation and then learn that I overcame some of the same fears they have. It helps the commiserate!

Mel said...

Cari, glad to hear I'm not alone, and that your guys are coming along. I did share a slightly vanilla version of the story I told here, and reassured my son that I, too, was not a fan of putting the face and head under at first... but became one. He seems to be getting a bit more comfortable with the idea, if not the reality. It'll come. Thanks for encouragement!

Facie said...

Thanks for the reminder to keep swimming. I looked back at your old post and my comment, which mostly missed the point of your post. I did not know it then but I know now how important it is to keep swimming no matter what.

I hope it gets better for Marcus. I think it is like most anything else (potty-training, reading, riding a bike), it happens when it happens/when kids are ready. Nevertheless, swimming is so important. I am surprised when J and I go to the pool, and some teens can barely swim. Better to learn younger, but it is never too late!

chris h. said...

Oh geez...I am the one that should be taking Facie's "It's never too late" message to heart. I never did the swimming lessons, and therefore don't know how to swim! (My mom can't swim either, hence my dilemma, although most of my sibs managed to learn.) It's a skill I wish I had to this day. Good for you, Mel, for pushing Marcus to do the hard thing -- he'll be glad you did, one day.

Athelas63 said...

You'll be glad to know that Miss Betty was guarding at the indoor high school just a few years ago. NOTHING had changed, LOL.

I remember swimming lessons, too. My own and my kids. And I remember my dear friend, Jim Todd, US Navy Retired, certified diver, who was loud, obscene and bossy, all of it covering a heart of gold. My kids learned more swimming lessons in the private pool of Jim than all those years of lessons. I can still see them - kids tiny, pale and shivering on the edge, as Jim, in his late 50's by then, tread water and yelled "Jump in, dammit!" They did, he taught them basic strokes and floating, and it was a wondering day (yes, only one day) for all.

I can identify with Marcus. HATE water over my head. But you're right - gotta be done.