|My favorite swimsuit, a real Speedo|
When my mother noticed that I would not tie my own shoes, she attempted to teach me herself, and gave up when I went limp on the floor instead of watching her do it. At preschool I picked up an over-the-head technique for putting on my winter coat myself, and I thought everything about it was excellent, especially the part where I violently swung my arms trapped in the sleeves up and over my head. My mother hated this.
When my mother noticed that I had not learned to swim naturally and without teaching as all the other children seemed to in the mid-to-late 1960s, she determined that I should be subjected to swimming lessons at the local natatorium.
I am sure I was against swimming lessons before they even began. I had been happy at the outdoor public wading pool in summer, and saw no reason why I, as a very, very small five year old, should give up the warm and shallow area reserved for the preschool set. The water barely got up over my knees! There was no violent splashing! I could crawl in it!
I was removed on a Saturday morning from my hunched spot on the carpet in front of the TV and taken to swimming lessons. The place stank of pool chemicals and especially chlorine, of course, as public pools do, and involved entering a labyrinth of smelly lockers and damp tile and threatening showers. My mother may have attempted to cram my already unbrushable hair into a swimming cap, but I would have squirmed and thrashed away from her. I steadfastly resisted washing, brushing, and dressing with vigor. In addition to smelling dangerous and wrong, the ceilings were too high, there were too many people, and that pool sounded splashy and sharp, and then, once I was dragged to the edge of the pool, the most profound horror of all was revealed to me: the water was cold.
There was scolding and shouting and I don’t know who was talking to me, but suddenly I was in the water and I was supposed to be jumping up and down, and not screaming or crying. What a perfect misery! Betrayal! Cold water! Strangers! Exhausted and overwhelmed, I relented and allowed the initial purpose of swimming lessons to be revealed: I was meant to put the back of my head into the cold water, followed by my ears.
It was unthinkable.
The swimming teacher
wanted, no, needed required me
to relax my whole body and let it float on top of the water. The water would
hold me up, like magic. All I had to do was let the water hold me up, let the
water surround my neck, let the back of my head rest on the water, let the
water lap around my ears, let my ears go under the water. It was going to be
I could take about three seconds of it. One, Mississippi, I was in the water. Two, Mississippi, my head was in the water. Three, Mississippi, I was floating in the water. Four, nope, no way, not doing it. I was standing, gulping, sputtering, and crying.
I did not want to float. The water was too cold. I did not want to learn to swim. I did not listen to the instructor. I screamed and cried until I was allowed to get out of the water. I was happy to sit in the acrid, stinking terror of the freezing cold locker room, shivering until my mother came back to take me home. Anything but swimming in that pool.
There was no second lesson.
By the time I was in the third grade, my mother, had arranged for me to attend a summer camp where I would get particularly well-regarded swimming instruction. There, we were grouped not by age but by ability, and I, being unable, was grouped with the kindergarteners. Suddenly, the stakes were very high. They could not have been higher. No, I did not know any of the other kids at this strange new day camp, where the only real highlight of every day was the tiny plastic tub of imitation vanilla ice-cream with ripples of indescribably delicious artificial chocolate given to each camper to eat with a tiny wooden paddle before we boarded the buses home. Even in the presence of strange other children who hadn’t yet learned to make fun of me and all of my obvious flaws, I knew that being in the kindergarteners’ swimming group was social death. I was in the third grade.
And so, dear reader, I put my head in the water. I got water in my ears. I floated on my
fucking back. I attempted the crawl with
primitive side-breathing. I learned to jump in from the side of the pool and from
the diving board. I learned to dive into the water with my hands stacked on top
of each other, my upper arms tight over my ears. The next summer I was not
required to attend the strange new camp again: I had learned to swim.