I can do a fair number of things pretty well. I can speak a couple of different languages well enough to make myself understood. I can play the guitar and the piano passably. I can knit and sew and cook. I can write a decent appellate brief or a will, and I can appear in court to fight a traffic ticket. What can't I do well?
I'll tell you. I am not a good swimmer. I never have been.
This caused some consternation when I was growing up. The two adult women in the household, my grandmother and my mother, were unable to swim. My grandmother had always wanted to learn to swim (her brother was a strong swimmer), but when she was young, in the early part of the twentieth century, swimming was considered an inappropriate sport for girls, and her parents wouldn't let her take lessons. Diving into the water just wasn't ladylike. My grandmother, until her dying day, regretted the fact that she could not swim.
Though my father was and is an excellent swimmer, my mother, as far as I know, just never learned. I remember her being afraid of the water when I was young. She was also unhappy about this, so she and her mother decided that the next generation of women should know how to swim. From an early age, my sisters and I were enrolled in swimming lessons. Grammy sat poolside, working on her knitting, while we attended classes.
My older sister excelled from the beginning. She quickly advanced through the Red Cross swimming levels, from Beginner to Intermediate to Lifeguard, earning certificates and accolades along the way. My parents and Grammy were very proud of her. I, on the other hand, could not master a basic crawl stroke. I could doggy-paddle around the pool and the lake, and I could splash and play with my friends, but I failed the Beginner test again and again. Grammy's pile of completed knitting projects got taller and taller, but still, I could not get that coveted certificate that evidenced my ability to swim. The instructors told me I'd never be any good.
Eventually, my parents gave up on my ever becoming a great swimmer. I could stay afloat, so they didn't need to worry that I was going to drown. I was allowed to play in the pool, the ocean, and the lake. But after a few years, my parents stopped signing me up for lessons, since the investment clearly wasn't giving them any returns.
When I met my husband in college, he was a water safety instructor, had been on his high school swim team, and taught swimming lessons to children at the college pool. Though I passed the college swimming test by doggie-paddling across the pool, I couldn't even complete one lap of crawl stroke. Sam offered to teach me, but I was convinced that I was unteachable, a terrible failure at this basic skill. I worried that he would get frustrated with me the way all my swimming instructors had when I was a child. They told me I'd never be a good swimmer, and when a teacher tells you something like that when you're young, you believe it. You internalize it. You give up on yourself because they've given up on you.
All three of my children are excellent swimmers like their grandfather and their dad. They can spend a whole day swimming back and forth in a pool or a lake; they can swim their way out of riptides, right a capsized canoe, race each other to a buoy, dive off the high board without hesitation. I spent many years sitting by the side of the pool like Grammy, worrying about their safety and sorry I couldn't teach them myself. Now, though, I don't worry. I know they are going to be fine in the water.
But what about me?
Last year, a friend joined the local community center, where we have been members for nearly twenty years. My friend gave them my name when they asked who had referred her for membership. The center, to thank us for the referral, gave me a $100 coupon, good toward any of their programs. I put the coupon on the refrigerator, under a magnet, and forgot about it.
But then, a few months ago, I looked at the coupon and saw that it had an expiration date of August 2012. I needed to use it. Since no one in my family seemed to have any interest in the coupon, I went to the pool desk at the center and asked them whether it would be good toward swimming lessons. "Sure," the clerk said. "It's good for anything." Three private swimming lessons cost $150. I signed myself up and handed over my coupon and a $50 check. I was going to learn to swim. The right way. Finally.
My swimming instructor's name was Michael. I met him on the first day and told him my story. He watched me paddle across the pool. "You're not so bad," he said. "Most adults that I teach are afraid of even getting into the water. But I can work with you. A couple of lessons and you'll be crawl-stroking with the best of them." Undaunted at the prospect of teaching an overweight middle-aged woman to swim, he showed me how to kick, move my arms properly, and turn my head to breathe. I started with fins on my feet and a kickboard. Michael assured me that I was a good learner, and that I had the ability to be a good swimmer. All I needed was good instruction and a little practice.
So, in between lessons, I practiced. I packed up a bag with a bathing suit and a towel and took it to the pool early in the mornings. I used the fins to keep my feet afloat so I could focus on the movement of my arms. I lifted my elbows out of the water like Michael had shown me. Then I used the kickboard to focus on my head and my feet. I turned my head ever so slightly, like Michael had taught me to, when I needed to inhale. I kicked with my legs straight and together. It was exhausting. My heart pounded. At first, I needed to stop and catch my breath every half-lap. Then every lap. Then every three laps. I shed the equipment and started swimming by myself. I was actually getting better at it!
This morning, I swam for an entire half hour without pausing. Michael was the lifeguard on duty, and when I got out of the water, he congratulated me. "See?" he said. "I knew you could do it."
I have discovered that I like swimming. It's a good workout; my arms are firming up quickly, and I might even have lost a pound or three over the past few weeks. It cools me down; it's been hot here lately, but when I start my day with a swim, the heat bothers me less. On nice days, I even enjoy the scooter ride up the hill to the pool. My next goal: to get my husband to join me and swim a few laps before work. I know he'd love getting back into it, too.
All of this made me think about the profound impact a teacher's words can have on a student's opinion of herself. "You're a terrible speller." "You'll never be much of a swimmer." "You shouldn't audition for the part - how about joining the stage crew instead?" "Math isn't your strong suit." How many of these remarks have we heard and internalized in our lives?
I had a fifth-grade teacher who told me I was an extraordinary writer, and she said she looked forward to reading my first book someday. I remember that remark as clearly as I remember the swimming instructor who told me I'd never be any good. I believed both of them. Children listen, and they believe what they're told. But it's not a bad idea to develop a healthy sense of skepticism. It's that skepticism that finally, after forty years, has me swimming laps across the pool.