I have this memory of swimming lessons when I was a child. We were at the Blaisdell Y in Minneapolis. The floor surrounding the pool was made of small tiles fitted neatly together and patterned in bright, seventies colors – turquoise, orange, brown, yellow. The walls were painted cinderblock, slicked with the damp clouds of chlorine and water and ringing with the shouting of children. I remember trying to slide my arms into my swimming suit (pink, with red and green flower appliqués). I remember the sound of my chattering teeth, my short hair clinging to my face in inky clumps. I remember how slippery the floor was, and how worried I was that I would fall.
And I remember feeling utterly disconnected from the other kids plunging merrily into the weirdly blue-green water. I remember how terrified I was. I remember positioning myself on the top rung of the ladder, hooking each arm into its curved handles, hooking each leg under the sides, and hanging on like a vise.
And I remember screaming. A lot.
“YOU CAN’T MAKE ME GO IN THERE,” I howled. It has been suggested to me that I may have also yelled something about not wanting to die. I can’t say for sure whether it is true. I do remember that I screamed myself hoarse.
My mother, as I recall, was not amused.
I told this story today to a mother at the beach, as we fanned our faces and huddled under the shade, cupping our hands over our eyes as we watched our children at their last swimming lesson down by the lake. Her son, like me, refused to go into the water. And she was exasperated.
“Is it fear? Is he actually afraid? Or is it just that I want him to go, and he wants to oppose me on principle. I’m worried that’s it.”
“It might be fear,” I said. “But it might be his very real need for personal autonomy. Water is chaotic. The kids are chaotic. The instructors have to yell to make themselves heard. And in the midst of that, here’s this four year old kid engaged in actualized existentialism, but with no words for it. I am me, he says. I make decisions. And then he doesn’t know how to undo them. So he stands neither here nor there, unable to move. He doesn’t want to follow your decision and he doesn’t want to follow his teacher’s decision, but he doesn’t know what he has decided on his own. He’s stuck, poor baby.”
The boy stood at the shore, his toes only barely touching the water, his blonde head shimmering in the hot sun. A statue. A sentinel. A pillar of salt. I understood.
We live in Minnesota, and learning to swim is a statewide occupation. Parents take this very seriously. We have a lot of water around here, and drownings happen. My kids take swimming lessons at the local high school during the winter months, and out at the lake during the summer. (We could do it at the Y, but it is expensive, and I am cheap. And broke.) I don’t particularly care for pools – chlorine gives me a headache and the noise is crazy-making. But they learn stroke refinement at the pool, which is important. At the lake, they learn how to stay safe and move efficiently in chaotic conditions. This is important as well.
My daughters are born swimmers – long and lean with strong legs and broad shoulders. They move through the water in a long, quiet slice, like a canoe cutting across the surface. They go long distances without being winded and can keep their heads even in the wind and the waves. They go back and forth between the shore and the diving dock, and I watch the curve of their arms as they lift, extend and pull. I watch the furrow they leave on the water, and my breath catches. They are marvelous, my girls.
My son, on the other hand. Well. We’re getting there.
I took him to an outdoor pool a couple summers ago. He couldn’t swim at all. Unfortunately, his innate sense of high self-efficacy led him to believe that he was awesome at swimming. This was problematic. It was a hot day – 102, as I recall – and the pool was packed. And he was not even considering staying close to me.
It was, hands down, the most terrifying moment of my life.
I pushed through the crowd of slicked, soaking bodies, standing chest deep in overly-warm water as my son darted from shoulder to shoulder to shoulder. He would cling, curl and leap through the water, grabbing onto strangers as he slithered from one end of the pool to the other.
“GET BACK OVER HERE RIGHT NOW YOUNG MAN,” I bellowed.
“I’m swimming!” he called back delightedly as he slipped between groups.
“NO YOU ARE NOT!”
No one noticed him. He was a fish. A salamander. A water moccasin. He splashed and wriggled and was gone. And it would only take one second for him to go down. And no one would see him. (Even the life guards, god bless them, would have been useless. There were too many people. And Leo was short.)
I love swimming instructors. I think they all deserve a medal. And the key to the city. They are not just rescuing children, but they are giving kids the tools to rescue themselves. This is a powerful thing.
Lately, after class, he and I have been going into the water together, practicing endurance and troubleshooting. I swim right next to him as we go into deep water. We tread water, we swim toward objects, we lie on our backs to catch our breath. We practice what to do if water gets in our mouths and we start coughing. We make plans on how to get to safety if we need it. We talk about what to do if we see someone struggling in the water.
The water in the lake is dark green and slick. It smells of fish and algae. We can’t see our feet when we stand waist-deep. He knows that if he goes down, it would be unlikely that he would be found in time in that world of green. More reason to be strong, smart and efficient. More reason to be aware.
There is a giant fish that lives in the bottom of Lake Nokomis, did you know? Leo told me. And a race of frog men and women with catfish tails and water bugs the size of golden retrievers. You’d think this would make him hesitant to get in the water. It has not.
“I love this lake,” he said to me as we floated out by the far buoys. “It’s so mysterious. We watch the water and the water watches us.”
Doing my best not to be completely creeped out, I swam back to shore, matching his pace. Kick, breathe, reach, pull, breathe, float, breathe. I imagined the bug-eyed frog men standing below us, looking up. I imagined the the giant fish with eyes the size of tractor wheels sliding through the muck at the middle, peering upwards from time to time to see the wrinkled surface of the lake shirring the sky.
There is something amazing that happens in a kid when they first learn to swim. Or no. When they first learn to move with surety and grace through the capriciousness of water. When they first learn how to survive in a medium that would kill them if it could. That didn’t care if they lived or died.
The water is wide, the child understands. Rise above.
The water is cold, the child feels. Move.
The water is insistent, the child says. Redirect. Recalibrate. Bend.
It might be the first time they learn to rely on themselves for their own survival. It may be the first time that it is their bodies, and their bodies alone, that mark the edges of themselves. The skin is its own shoreline. The brain is its own sky. The lungs contain a weather system all their own. The body exists and it is separate from the watery world that surrounds it. It is complete, whole, and powerful. And fragile. And precious. It is all of these things at once.
“Nice job, kiddo,” I said, as we pushed through the water toward the sand.
“Thanks mom,” he said. “Let’s do it again.”