February 21st, 2013
My daughter, aged five, is learning to swim. She is the first-born, so her father and I have taken her to swimming pools since she was an infant. In an assortment of classes she has been a crabette, a crab, a turtle, a periwinkle, a minnow and a goldfish. I watch her now, learning to breathe side-to-side, and admire her form. The bony shoulder blades, the muscles that are working together to keep her moving, keep her afloat. She loves water; she is unfazed by fog in her goggles and slimy-tiled change rooms and unfamiliar limbs colliding with hers underwater. She leaps in with enthusiasm – no dipped toe and cringing at the cold – just a wild splash and then her goggled face surfacing, looking up and waiting for my smile.
My daughter would – I hope – swim to safety now if she fell into a body of water. That is the whole reason for lessons in the first place. It is why we started young. Other parents know this instinctively. When your child is born, every story about children dying in tragic accidents stays with you. It is like a dry set of clothes versus one that has been drenched. The stories before you are a parent are the dry set: slightly disturbing, like an itchy tag or an uncomfortable seam, but you put them on and forget them. They don’t hang from you, heavy. They don’t weigh you down.
I was a terrible swimmer as a child. I am not from a place of beaches or Olympic-sized pools, not from a generation that was taught water-safety from infancy. My father never learned to swim. My mother did, and she took my sister and me to classes at the local pool – I must have been five, my sister around six years old. It was an indoor pool in Arlington Virginia, a suburb outside of Washington DC. It was called Fun & Fitness. Here I am, thirty years later, shuddering at those words.
Fun & Fitness was, like all indoor pools, a cavernous building reeking of chlorine and a million decibels louder than I wished it would be. I wanted to be at home with a book, or riding my bike, lining up my stuffed animals and teaching them how to spell. Not in this deep water, flailing my limbs about, feeling the certainty of sinking every time I tried to stay afloat.
I don’t recall learning to swim there because I didn’t. That came years later, in summertime, at an outdoor pool where I figured out how to do something resembling a breaststroke. Here is what I do remember of Fun & Fitness: choking on water, a fear of being sucked into one of the massive underwater drains, the overpowering smell of baby powder and mould in the change room.
Here is what else I remember: after a number of lessons you were meant to show up without changing into your swimsuit. Standing at the deep end, fully clothed, you were told to jump in.
The point being, of course, that you don’t fall into bodies of water wearing your goggles and swimsuit. You are dressed; you have shoes on. I jumped. If you’ve never gone into water fully dressed, try it sometime. I was small. I couldn’t swim anyway, so naturally, I sank. I flailed my arms and legs to fight the downward pull – my shoes filling with water, the weight of a wet shirt and pants. I managed to surface for a single breath, then inhaled water, and wild with panic, sunk.
Someone pulled me out. Chlorine tastes worse coming back up. That is all that I remember of Fun & Fitness.
Just recently, with my daughter, we changed to swimming lessons at the local pool. The teachers are more casual than at our former inner-city pool, and this new pool is deep enough that my daughter can’t reach the bottom. The teacher, after telling my daughter to swim to the wall, let go of her and turned to chat to another teacher. I watched my daughter swim to the wall, then at the platform for some reason (maybe it seemed crowded with other kids?) turn around. She started swimming back to the teacher, saw the teacher wasn’t watching, and panicked. She flailed. She turned again, splashed wildly, inhaled some water and began to sink. I ran to the edge from where I was watching. I reached out an arm and hauled her in.
The teacher noticed what was happening. She came and gave my spluttering daughter a hug. I was ready to be angry, to accuse her of failing to watch my child, but she spoke to my daughter in a firm, gentle voice.
“You can swim,” the teacher said. “You are in this class because you can swim. You cannot panic, because you are a swimmer. Don’t panic. You can swim.”
I still think the teacher should have been watching, not gossiping, but my daughter was unfazed by the whole event. She finished her class, clambered out of the pool, and said, teeth chattering, “I’m so hungry. What do you have to eat?”
I had nothing, so we went to the kiosk. We bought hot chips and broke them apart, blowing on the steamy insides.
Licking the salt from my fingers, I could still feel the weight of those clothes, my shoes filling up and water dragging me down.
I reminded myself, don’t panic. My daughter and I can swim.