Swimming Lessons

I remember the first time I jumped of a diving board. It was the most exhilarating moment of my life up to that point. I was eleven years old, in the sixth grade, and the year was about to end. I had been a member of the Safety Patrol, an organization of junior “law enforcement” officers at my school. As thanks for being a member of this volunteer group, we were all taken to a swimming pool to celebrate. I’d looked forward to the party all year. The principal even gave us each a buck to spend on snacks at the pool, and surprisingly a buck went a long way at the concession stand there. I had another buck that my mom had given me, and with two bucks I was able to get a corn dog, nachos, and a soda.

The concession stand wasn’t what I was looking forward to, though. It was the water. I loved swimming, and being in the water, it was so much fun. I had a blast in the water that day. My best friend at the time, Aaron, convinced me to jump off one of the diving boards. There were five diving boards. Two spring boards, and three high dive boards. I wasn’t about to jump off a high dive as it was going to be my first time jumping off a diving board, but the spring boards seemed reasonable. We went over to the diving boards, which were in a separate pool with deep water, and Aaron showed me how it was done. It was quite simple, he just jumped off and into the water. No fancy dive or anything, just a basic jump. I wanted to practice first, so I went over to the six foot deep water and jumped off the edge. No problems there. With the practice jump out of the way, I was ready for bigger things. I made the jump of the board with the least height and swam to shore. I was so proud of myself. I made two more jumps off the higher spring board. Here is my journal entry from the day:

JUNE 26, 1995

Today was the Safety Patrol swimming party. I went swimming. I was too scared to go on the diving board, but I started to see what was like so I jumped into six feet. Then I got in line. When I was up I sort of jumped off. It was fun. I did it two more times. While I was there I bought a corn dog, nachos, and a drink. It was fun.

My journal entry doesn’t do justice to how ecstatic I was. I had achieved a great accomplishment. It was one of the triumphs of my young life, because there was one other time I had attempted to jump off a diving board…

Water. I was afraid of water growing up. While I was excited about the pool party when I was eleven, there was a time before that when I feared the water. The fear probably stemmed from my birth as I came out of my mother’s womb, desperately swimming to escape the water that bound me from life. Well, probably not, but at least that sounds metaphorical. I did have a fear of drowning for a long time, though. I was even afraid to take a shower, because I thought the whole stall filled up with water. In fact, the first time I took a shower, me and my brother both went in with our swimsuits on so that he could show me that it wasn’t dangerous.

Swimming was a scary thought. I remember when I was a kid I enjoyed going boating. I wasn’t afraid of that, since I had a life-vest so I wasn’t going to drown. One time while out boating, some guy swam up to our boat to say hello. We were far from the shore by my recollection, and there was this dude, swimming out in the lake without a life-vest. I feared he would drown and asked him if he wanted to hang on to the back of our raft while we paddled him to shore. He said he would be fine and swam off. It boggled my mind, there was no way I would set foot in the water without something to keep me afloat. I always wondered if that guy had drowned. Probably not.

Growing up with a single parent, and one that worked on Saturday, meant I was put in daycare with the neighborhood ladies. Well, one of the daycare neighbors decided to have us take swimming lessons. My mom figured it was a good idea because she wanted us to be at least a little athletic. But there I was, scared to death at the prospect of swimming without a life-vest. I understood, however, that there were lifeguards, so I hesitantly agreed, not that I had much choice. I mean, I must have been a lad of seven or eight, so even three feet of water was a lot to me. I made it through the lessons, though. Scared to death the whole time. I remembered seeing littler kids with those floaties around their arms. I thought that I should have those too, because I didn’t want to drown. I even inquired about putting some on, but I was told that I was too old for that. ”Too old”, I thought, ”I’m too young to drown and die!” I made it through the lessons, if you could even call them lesson, as I don’t remember learning how to swim. I mean we did a few drills, but mostly we were just playing in the water, and I was staying as close to the edge as possible.

Then came graduation day, the final lesson. We were all going to jump off the diving board. I had feared this day since my first time getting in the pool. The diving board was this mystical object above the deep end of the pool. I knew it was there, and I prayed that I would never have to go near it. Deep water, the kind of water where there is nothing to do but drown, was the last place I wanted to go. Alas, our instructor led the group of us kids towards the diving board. I was shaking the whole way as I followed her. I had no intention of jumping off that board. I figured I’d tell her I didn’t want to do it and be done with it.

And so, we arrived at the edge of the deep water. A lifeguard was at the ready with a ten foot pole that had a loop on the end. (I think they call them life hooks.) All we had to do was jump off the board, find the pole, grab on, and get pulled to shore. Since I knew that if I jumped into the water I’d sink to the bottom, the ten foot pole wasn’t very reassuring. One by one every kid in my class jumped off the board, grabbed the pole and were brought back to edge of the pool. I had intentionally gotten in the back of the line. I wanted to delay the inevitable for as long as possible. I wanted to delay my display of cowardice as long as possible. Then it was my turn. I said to the instructor, “I don’t want to jump. I’m afraid.”

She could have just let me walk away. She had no reason to compel me to jump. It’s not like they weren’t going to pay her if one little boy didn’t want to complete the dive. She wouldn’t have it, though. I’m not really sure how old this lady was, she was way older than me, that’s all I knew for sure. In retrospect, though, she must have been in high school or college. Young enough that she had all the dreams and aspirations of making the world a better place. Young enough that she wanted to help some scared little boy overcome his fear and turn him into a courageous young man. She was going to have me jump off that board no matter what.

I don’t know how she managed to do it, but she convinced me to jump. Or at least, she thought she had. I stepped onto the diving board, walked to the edge, and beheld the water before me. There were gentle ripples on the surface from the other swimmers playing in the distance. I didn’t notice them, though. I only noticed that, as far as I was concerned, I was standing on the edge of the world, about to sink to the end of my life. I could already imagine myself, stuck at the bottom of the pool, trying to get to the surface, watching my life pass away. I looked from the water, back at my instructor, then to the lifeguard and his ten foot pole. It still wasn’t reassuring. I wasn’t going to jump, there was no way. I knew that from the moment I stepped onto the platform. I turned around and walked back. I didn’t even care that I looked like a coward. My life was more important than any facade of bravery.

Back at the side of the pool one of the other boys in the class tried to convince me that it wasn’t so bad. In fact, he went right onto the diving board a second time and jumped. ”Truly a brave man”, I thought, ”but still, I don’t have to jump, so why should I?” But there was my instructor, adamant that I jump, so she asked me, “If I jump off with you, will you do it?” I don’t know what changed in me that moment, maybe her gentle sincerity convinced me that everything would be alright. Maybe knowing that I’d be in the arms of this mother-figure as I fell to my death brought me the comfort to know that, at least, I wouldn’t die alone at the bottom of that pool. I agreed to make the jump.

So, we together, stepped onto the platform and walked to the edge. I was scared as ever. I knew I was about to die, but at least I had this woman with me. And so, she grabbed me by the shoulders and, with me in her arms, made the leap. The fall lasted for an eternity. I remember every moment as the water approached our bodies. I panicked, there, in the air. My arms flailed like the wind, searching for anything to grab onto. Anything to save my life. The water was coming closer and closer, and unless the laws of physics were about to change, I was in a hopeless situation. As my arms reached uncontrollably for something to save my life, in a split second my hands finally found something to latch onto, the strap of my instructor’s bathing suit. We hit the water, and I knew that I was about to drown. Somehow, by some miracle, I found myself above the water again. I was desperately paddling, looking for that ten foot pole, and there was my instructor, half naked in the swimming pool.

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