Sunday, June 16, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 358: Biomythography - Note 96: Swim Lessons

Swim Lessons 

On a warm day in June of 1969, I got into the passenger seat of my father's car. My father drove a Morris Oxford, a British car, green on the outside, grey on the inside. I remember it didn't smell of cigars as much as usual. My father had cleaned out his ashtray. Or maybe it was just a beautiful, spring day and he opened the vent windows. 

Up front for once, I clutched my towel. 

"You're not going to get sick, are you?" he asked. 

There was no good answer. I rolled down the passenger-side window and leaned my head as close as I could to the gap above me. Sometimes a fresh wind helped.

"Why are you driving?" I asked after we had ridden for a few miles. 

"Your camp is on the way to my school." 

I didn't nod. Sometimes moving my head during the drive made me sick. Anyway, I had to contain myself. I was starting to tremble as I thought about summer camp. It was my first day. I was going to learn how to swim. 

I had been begging for swim lessons for years, it seemed. Every day in every summer, I yearned to launch myself into the community pool on my own power. I ached to live my life like one of the big kids and to go wherever I pleased. To be respected like a big kid, not a baby. To walk to the pool without my mother. To cool off when my body wanted it, not when grown ups decided they could spare the time. Want, want, want. I had not wanted something so much since I'd kissed the girl across the street. I wanted to break free and swim like a fish, like a shark, like an otter, like a dolphin. Like I was free.

At the camp, the swim instructor came late. Or actually, she was there on time but she wasn't in a hurry. She wasn't already waiting for us in the pool. She wasn't rushing like I wanted, so we seemed behind schedule. She said she had to talk. 

"Today, the water is pretty cold," she explained as she got in. She held her arms up so they didn't get wet. 

A little girl dabbed her foot in the water and winced. I followed. The chill sank into my toe like it was a piranha biting me. At one end, the camp was still piping the water in. Everything was fresh and new. That also meant it hurt. 

"See?" the instructor laughed. "You won't have to get in today, if ..."

As I looked at her hesitant, overly polite smile, I jumped. 

A moment later, she was pulling me out. I was gasping but it was because of the change in temperature. I was fine. 

"I want to swim," I demanded. 

"Well, sit on the side first." She plunked me down on my bottom. "You're not the only student."

"It's cold!" I complained. I held myself and shivered. But I kept my icy legs in the water.

"I didn't tell you to get in."

"I'll be warmer if I move around," I suggested. My father told me that all the time. My swim instructor, though, took a deep breath. She considered it. 

"I might let advanced students hold onto the wall and kick," she said. "If they behave."

"Great!" I started to position myself.

"But only if they behave!" She raised her voice and one of her eyebrows at me. "We have ten students today, not one. Ten."

I grunted and shuffled where I was, on my bottom. I felt the rough concrete grab my swimsuit and start to rip at it. If I wiggled, I could feel the serrated surface scratching the fabric. I tried to hold still. But when I got bored, I wiggled. The instructor talked. She talked and talked. I wiggled and wiggled.

Some of the other students told her they didn't want to swim. What were they even doing here, then? I folded my arms and sulked at them.

After a while, I found myself dry and wrapped in a towel. I was standing at the edge of the Town and Country Day School building lot where they were holding the camp. Some of the other day campers were leaving. My father had been waiting for me. He'd done whatever mysterious chores there were for him at Northwood High School and, afterward, he had parked in the line of cars with the other parents.

"How was he?" my father asked a camp counselor.

"Very good," she said. "Very advanced, I'd say. He was the best student."

"Oh," he gave me a nod. "That's nice to hear."

But in the car, I sat and sulked some more. I was a champion at brooding, moping, glowering, and all the other non-verbal ways of expressing despair in a manner that was not quite deserving of a parental ding on the ear - although sometimes the adults seemed tempted by the idea. My father regarded me for a moment. He asked how the lesson had been. Then he turned the ignition. The car roared. As I tried to respond to his question, I burst into tears.

"What's wrong?" he said.

"I didn't learn how to swim!" I shouted. 

"But ..." He thought for a moment, letting the car idle, trying to square this outburst with the assessment he'd heard from the counselor. "Weren't you good? Why didn't you learn?"

"I don't know."

"Huh." He rubbed his bearded chin. "It was your first lesson. Did anyone else learn how to swim in the first lesson?"

"No," I complained. I folded my arms. "She wouldn’t let us."

"You’ll learn," my father said.

"She has to let me!" I wailed.

"She will, she will." He sighed and put the car into first gear. "Geez, you have all week."


The swim lessons went on, an hour a day, every day until Friday. Our last lesson got cut short by a ceremony, certificates, and juice. By day three, though, I was allowed to swim. 

With some hints from the instructor, I could manage to stay afloat and move forward. On day four, I swam doggy paddle for the width of the pool. On day five, I swam the length of the pool, starting from the deep, cold end. I didn't just doggy paddle, either. I got my arms above the water to pull. Plus the swim instructor indulged me by teaching me to take breaths on my side. Like a big kid. 

"Now I can go to the pool by myself," I announced.

"Well." The instructor put one hand on her hip. "I don't know about that. Just remember to tell your lifeguard that you want to take your test."

"Today," I said. 

"If your mother lets you go to the pool today," advised the instructor.

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