Swimming Lessons

In Texas, swimming is as much as part of our lives as walking or driving. Especially during the summer months where the state turns into an oven more apropos for cooking slabs of meat than human habitation, we retreat en masse into the cool blue waters of overly-chlorinated pools. It’s simply too hot to do anything else.

When I was a teenager, I spent many afternoons in the cool waters of the Rosemeade neighborhood pool and thanks to the swimming lessons of my childhood, I’m still here to tell the tale. Swimming lessons were mandatory for my siblings and I in the early years of grade school so each summer, my mother would pack us into the big blue Aerostar van and drive us across town to Gail’s house.

I liked Gail. She had short blonde hair, spoke kindly to us and took her job seriously to ensure we didn’t drown, but truth be told, I was as much a fan of driving to Gail’s as I was splashing around in the cool morning waters of her pool.

Once we were all buckled up in the Aerostar, my mom put the Best of the Beach Boys cassette into the dashboard player and we sang along as we drove across town. Nearly three decades later, listening to the Beach Boys still brings me back to those rides in the van to-and-from swimming lessons, singing about Rhonda and T-Birds while begging mom to stop at Sonic for limeades. It was about as summery as a drive could be.

Once the singalong came to an end and we met Gail in her backyard, swimming lessons were a fairly straightforward affair. We used kickboards to get from here to there, swam laps across the length of the pool, and floated on our backs to train for the moment we found ourselves stranded in the middle of the ocean and in need of the ability to tread water. This description/forewarning made complete sense to me because at that age, my future career aspirations included becoming a deep sea diver/dolphin trainer or a jungle explorer/lion tamer and if either of those didn’t pan out, I’d just be Batman. Still, I’d seen Batman: The Movie when Adam West clung to the ladder above the ocean with a shark clamped down on his leg and Burt Ward had to hang upside down to hand him the Shark Repellent Bat Spray. If that situation had gone sideways, he’d have needed to know how to float. Therefore, so did I.

My favorite part of the morning was when Gail brought out the brightly-colored plastic rings to toss into the pool. It was ultimately a game of fetch to teach us how to hold our breaths, to cut through the water to get to the bottom of the pool, and to retrieve the sunken rings. At first, she tossed the rings into the shallow end of the pool but as we progressed, she began dropping them into the deep end. I went after them with reckless abandon. I was Aquaman. I was the Creature from the Black Lagoon. I was invincible.

On the last day of swimming lessons, Gail told us we had to bring jeans and a shirt with us because we’d be jumping into the water fully clothed. The purpose was to teach us how to swim with the added weight on us should we ever find ourselves overboard or, like Michael Scott, in a coy pond. Something about that day made me nervous. Perhaps it was the shift from what had become a comfortable routine or maybe it was fear of being drug to the bottom of the pool by my tapered jeans.

But nerves or not, we were getting in the pool with our clothes on. Whereas Gail tended to take her time with kids if they were skittish about the water—sometimes it was just my siblings and I at the lessons and none of us really struggled with learning to swim but other times, stranger children were mixed in with us and not all of them were thrilled to be there—her patient temperament evaporated on clothes-in-the-pool day. There would be no coddling, no hand-holding, and no prolonged-coercions to talk any of the more skeptical students into the pool. On more than one occasion, I saw her pick up a small, nervous, screaming child, tell them to hold their nose and close their mouth if they didn’t want a belly full of water, and drop them into the pool. She was a momma bird pushing the babies from the nest.

Well I didn’t want to be one of those kids so when Gail looked at me with my jeans, shoes and shirt and told me to go ahead and jump into the deep end, I did as I was told. I wasn’t ready, I wasn’t in control, I didn’t get to ease into the water in the shallow end. I just had to go for it, so I did.

As I plunged into the cold water, it felt like every piece of my clothing was hell-bent on dropping me like an anchor to the bottom of the pool. Swimming back to the surface with the extra weight on me was a substantial challenge for my miniscule body but I had no choice but to pull myself up to the surface and in doing so, I learned I could.

A decade later, I learned to dive in a similar fashion.

My friends and I were standing around the church lobby one summer Sunday evening as we did most every week when we were told there was a big pizza party happening at one of the girls’ houses. She and I were acquaintances, if that, but I heard the words “pizza” and “party” and decided if everyone else was going, I was too.

When I arrived, the pizza was on the back patio but most of my friends were not. Very few people I knew actually showed up so I stuck close to those who had and shoveled pizza down my throat. Que sera, sera.

A few minutes later, one of the boys was pushed into the pool. Then another. And another. Soon, every teenager at the party stripped down to their underwear and joined them. The backyard didn’t have any lights to illuminate it so the blue alien glow of the pool served as the only way to see anything. Teenage silhouettes jumped from the blackness into the blue glow, illuminated in full color only for the half a moment they were suspended between the air and the water.

Even with the darkness moated around us, I—being rife with body issues and not wanting to strip to my underwear—stood off to the side, entirely unprepared for the swimming component of the evening. I was there for the pizza and the conversation and I was comfortable with both. But the conversation had moved to a second location and was now taking place in the pool, leaving me alone in the dark next to empty pizza boxes. After half an hour of being repeatedly told to get in the pool and threatened with being thrown in against my will, I caved. If it had to happen, I’d do it myself.

Begrudgingly, I took off my pants and shirt. This was a radical act only enabled by the fact there weren’t any lights in which to illuminate my lumpy body and I quickly jumped in. Though I was glad the water acted like a protective blanket and the ripples distorted the lumps and bumps I wasn’t fond of, I also realized the conversation I’d chased into the pool was a figment of my imagination. Everyone was in their own worlds doing their own thing and as such, I hovered off to the side by myself. I watched as my friends threw themselves into the pool one-by-one and before long, a friendly diving competition took shape.

“Ryan, get in line,” I heard one of my friends say. I didn’t have any interest in participating because I’d never even tried to dive before. Couple that with the reality of standing exposed in only my boxers and I was happy to stay submerged under my protective blue blanket of water. But after the relentless badgering to get me into the pool, I knew something similar would happen if I didn’t acquiesce. As much as I hated it, I pulled myself out of the pool and got in line.

I didn’t say anything to anyone, I just crossed my arms to hide my stomach and waited. Person after person dove in, some did flips, some went in backwards, and everyone was trying to show off what they could do. When it was my turn, I stepped onto the board, mortified and half expecting it to break in the middle, and I looked out over the alien blue pool full of eyeballs. In reality, no one was even watching me, they’d now found the lost conversation I’d chased into the pool, but in my head, all eyes were on me and my non-Abercrombie catalog physique.

I looked at the one friend who’d marshalled me into the line and said, “I don’t even know how to dive.”

He replied, “Just throw yourself in head first. It’s deep, you’ll be fine.”

Probably not the safest advice but that’s what I did. I threw the weight of my body into the pool and actually did fall in head first. My legs were splayed and crooked, but I went in. No one so much cared because again, no one was paying attention, but that one friend who told me to participate said, “See? You just have to go for it.”

He didn’t ridicule me for making a huge splash or for not being able to do what the other guys could do. He simply told me to straighten my legs next time. And against all odds, there was a next time. A few minutes later while once again submerged in my blue water blanket, I had a nagging thought: You conquered it once. Maybe you can a second time. I pulled myself out of the pool, got back in line, this time with my hands by my side. Splash. I went into the pool again, my legs felt straighter and I didn’t so much thud into the water as dive. That night, I learned I could do it by learning to just throw myself in.

After I’d jumped in the pool with my clothes on during my childhood swimming lessons final exam, I gasped for air as my face breached the surface. Gail asked me how it felt to be in the water with my clothes on.

“Heavy,” I told her.

“But you can totally do it can’t you?” she asked with a smile.

I could.

Ryan’s book of essays, I Feel God in This Cab, is available here. 

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4 thoughts on “Swimming Lessons

  1. You’re an awesome story teller. 🙂

    My son (14) is not a happy swimmer but he too had to go through the lessons forced on him since babyhood because we’re evil parents and all that. ;P But when he was 8 and away on his first hockey tournament and there was a pool at the hotel with a slide guess who was so happy to be able to join the rest of the gang there…! (I’m still waiting for the ‘you were right, mom’…) 🙂

    To this day he swims only for fun and never without his buddies whereas his sister is basically a mermaid and has to be forced OUT of the water.

    Liked by 1 person

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