Tuesday, June 20, 2006
Learning to Swim
The mothers, fathers, and grandparents sit behind a latched gate to watch their kids in the swimming class – there are picnic tables beneath a lengthy canopy and covered bleachers. The sun doesn’t start to get hot until a half hour after nine which is why many pick the earlier swimming class. Ten to eleven is near unbearable once summer stretches into July. The shallow pool on the right is for level 1 and 2 learners. The deeper pool on the left is for the swimmers who are working on getting proficient. They can sort of swim but need practice and confidence. The teachers are all high school volunteers.
M is in the level 1 class. Putting her head underneath the water is the biggest challenge. She almost didn’t want to go to class. She’d come to my bed around 7:30 and said, “I don’t want to put my head under water. Tell the teacher I can’t put my head under the water.” I tried to assure her that the teacher already knew that and wouldn’t make her do something she didn’t want to do. But nothing I said relieved her of the worry.
She probably cannot stand the sensation of sinking, unable to take a breath, water stinging her eyes and getting up her nose and in her ears. I imagine she doesn’t take to total sensory deprivation – for the seconds she’s under water she does not know who’s behind her or next to her, she cannot see me or hear me, she cannot know what is happening in the world around her. For seconds earth and time stop…and she is at risk of losing everything. She shoots up and rubs her eyes fast and hard, looking around to see that nothing has changed. That is, when she dares to put more than her mouth into the water. Off she is now, hopping, holding hands with her classmates, singing, “Ring Around the Rosy.” When everyone else drops into the blue, she remains standing, smiling, tall and proud, determined not to go under.
Across the pool is a young, earthy-looking mother trying to convince her three-year-old to get into the water with the rest of his level 1 class. He grabs the cloth of his swimming trunks up into his tight fist and screams across the two pools. She bends down to him and offers treats and a juice and he sticks his lip out, digging in his feet, leaning against the gentle force of her pull at him, her easy push to get him to sit. She finally walks away as a teacher holds him and settles into the water. The boy cries loudly, hysterically, his call, short shocks of toddler terror. The other parents look sympathetic to the plight for a moment before pretending the boy isn’t screaming bloody murder. The mother hunches down on a bench, hoping that the father and son on the same bench block her from her son’s view. Maybe the loss of her will give him the courage he needs to swim with strangers, to face the water that the mother has warned him against his whole little life.
“Don’t go near the water!”
“Where are your floaties!?”
“Close the gate!”
“Don’t open the gate!”
“Stay away from the pool!”
“Stay out of the Jacuzzi!”
“Never get in the water without me or you’ll drown!”
The teacher gives up the fight and there they are, emerging from the pool, walking hand-in-hand back to Mom. The gate is unlatched and the boy is relieved and plops down on the concrete next to his mother. He plays with a toy while they wait for his brother to finish with his class, while the mom coos, “You’re supposed to be in the class. You can’t have your treats. Ready to try again?” The Superman figure in his hand flies over the table and he chases it down, sunk deep into his imagination.
In the meantime, M has shifted into lawyer mode – from here I see that she’s been given a green-colored “noodle”, a long flotation device, for her to hold onto as she practices her kicking. Green is unacceptable. She scoots over to a younger girl who has the pink one. M smiles and puts her hand out and seems to be chatting up the benefits of green. Suddenly the little girl smiles and they trade. M is satisfied with the deal and off she swims, kicking up a large spray of water, moving to the other side of the pool, pink…pink…pink.
As I sit there among the crowd of parents, as the sun pin-pricks my arm, I slowly lose my identity and become an anonymous parent. I am one of thousands across Southern California at this time of year whose children are getting “water-safe,” whose kids are participating in the custom of swimming classes. I think of cliché images – the duck with her chicks behind her, the birds being tossed out of nest, kids on two-wheeled bikes in parks, teens in cars for the first time in parking lots, the kindergarteners raising their hand on the first day of public school to tell their name, and many little hands grabbing onto strong legs, little beings wishing to hide from the inevitable flow of time and a future. We are part of something much bigger than us. We’re the current of a massive river, flowing over colored stones and plants and fish. If only things could stop right now…if only we didn’t have to learn to hold our breath and lose sight of all that matters to us…
I remember being ten and swimming in the Huntington Hotel’s wonderful swimming pool in Pasadena with its fancy tiles and raised rows of lounge chairs. My parents didn’t have a pool so they joined the summer club at the aged hotel. They’d drop us off at ten o'clock and pick us up at one. They’d leave us money so we could buy snacks and virgin Mai-Tai cocktails. Because the pool was so big, and because we were so “water-safe”, my mother had no problem just leaving us. This was before the days of abductions and Amber-alerts. On these fantastical days of summer, my sister and I loved to play “tea party”. We’d get as deep under the water as we could and try to sit cross-legged, opening our eyes and pretending to lift china tea cups to our lips. We’d never last, our giggling and bobbing getting the best of us. Down again we’d go. Sometimes I lasted longer than Sister did, and when she left, I’d look across the water, at the swimmers and colors and light. The noise from outside was muffled and everything was colored blue. I had learned to love that strange place that only existed for the briefest of moments.
The class nears the end and every child is tested for their learned abilities this hour. When it’s M’s turn, she dips her whole face into the water, hair loose today because I forgot the band, and she stays there through a count all the way to eleven. She pops up and wipes her eyes and smiles big.
With a crowd of other parents, I step through the gate, towel and sandals at the ready. M is in her own crowd, coming to me, her face serious. When she reaches me, she grins and puts the sandals on, letting me wrap the towel around her chilled body. She turns and says, “I put my head underwater, did you see me?”
“I did! You were so good!”
“I have class everyday?”
“Everyday for two weeks. Before long, you’ll be swimming. What a big girl.”
She walks with her Dora backpack and when we burst through the front doors, she runs across the grass, the world looking a little different to her now.