My son takes swimming lessons every summer through the . And every summer he asks me why he has to take them again.
“I already learned swimming last summer, Mom,” he assured me. “Don’t you remember?”
He has progressed to greater levels of proficiency each year while taking lessons—advancing from frog to jellyfish to dolphin. I don’t actually know what he's now, maybe a tuna? Whatever sea creature his current level represents, it's also known in numerical terms as level three.
I've discovered that there's a world of difference between level two and level three. For one thing, lessons take place in the deep end of the pool instead of in water the kids can stand in. For another, students swim actual laps instead of distances that most of us could cover in just a few big steps. And for the coup de grâce, they learn to dive.
Watching my son in his swimming lessons has always been a bit of a challenge for me. It brings up all of my old water wounds from when I was a child.
I also took swimming lessons—and failed. I fought with the water every day and the water always won.
I don't remember enjoying anything about my swim lessons. I don't remember my classmates. I do not even remember the pool.
I do remember, however, diving for rings. It was torture. I couldn’t retrieve that blasted orange circle to save my life. Over and over again, I swam down and over and over again I came up empty handed. Although I cannot picture his face, I can still hear my instructor’s voice, “When Autumn decides to get a ring, class, we can move on.”
Diving was worse. I was sure I would crack my skull on the side of the pool after falling head first into the water. The whole idea of diving went against everything I knew about keeping myself safe. The closest I ever came to actually attempting a dive was to get to the end of the board and jump in feet first. Swimming to the edge, I was torn between feeling proud of myself for jumping in and embarrassed at not having done it right.
My teacher quickly reminded me that the appropriate reaction was that of embarrassment.
These are the things I remember as I watch Justin flail about in his level three swim lessons at . I watch him perform his backstroke, kick and twitch about as if a shark pulled him from underneath the water. I hear the crack of the water as he belly flops on his first attempt at a dive.
Sitting on a towel I've laid out in a shady corner of the facility, I hug my knees into my chest. I feel like a 9-year-old girl again and just can’t wait to go home.
He cries that night about the backstroke. “Everyone else can do it, but I just can’t!” He buries his head in his pillow.
I want to embrace him and promise him we will never go back to that wretched swim class again. I want to rock him and whisper "shhh" in his ears until he falls asleep.
I dig a little deeper inside myself and find what feels like a more appropriate response.
“The backstroke might just be one of those things that is hard for you. You might just have to practice it more before you really get it.”
He wipes his nose with the back of his sleeve and stares at me blankly, unconvinced.
“Remember when you first started playing the piano? You could only play a few notes and could only use one hand at atime. Now look at you! You’re using two hands and playing entire songs!”
He brightened a little.
I decided to press on. “I bet if you don’t give up and keep trying, you’ll get it. This might just be a bigger challenge. I mean, you can’t be great at everything the first time you try it, right?”
He smiles. “I am really good at so many things without even trying,” he tells me with a dimply grin.
The next day at swim lessons, I check in with his teacher. “Should he be in another level?” I ask in a whisper. “I notice that the other kids are doing their backstroke and diving without much problem at all. He’s a bit worried about being behind.”
Her answer surprises me. “Most kids have to repeat level three at least twice,” she says. “It’s a hard level. Some of the kids in his class are on their second or third attempt.”
She must read my skepticism. “He’s fine,” she promises just before heading into the water.
The following weekend, Justin decides to practice his backstroke in the pool at our condo complex. He swims to the edge of the shallow end, takes a deep breath and jumps backward, splashing and twisting in the water. After several minutes of this, I notice things starting to smooth out. I watch him swim in a straight line for a full five seconds!
“You’re doing it, bud! You look awesome!”
He climbs out and comes to sit next to me. We munch on some watermelon.
“Do you want to work on your dive now?” I ask after a few minutes.
“Oh, I already know how to dive,” he informs me. He walks over to the edge of the deep end, raises his hands over his head, and falls forward into the water, landing belly first with a thunderous splash. I wince in sympathetic pain as I imagine the sting he must be feeling, both on his skin and his pride.
He climbs out of the water, a triumphant grin spread across his face. “See?”
I lean back and smile. “Yes, honey. I do.”