I had to go back to Grand Junction today, driving (yay!) four hours through the mountains and through every kind of weather there is in Colorado (sun, wind, snow, rain, wind, fog). The little Prius that Could made it OK and I checked into the hotel that gives you a yummy calorie-filled cookie at checkin and then I went swimming in their lovely pool.
I almost never get to go swimming. My gym doesn’t have a pool and there isn’t a public pool within decent walking distance of work or home. My opportunities to swim come few and far between and I take advantage of them when I’m able. This pool was lovely, outdoor, slightly heated (so not too cold), and had only a few splashing screeching children.
For years I was a swim instructor and lifeguard and I worked with children as young as two and as old as fourteen, helping them grow more comfortable and more confident in the water. Basic skills for each level were outlined by my employer, but I made up the curriculum for the classes myself and I loved doing it. I loved helping kids feel like they could be safe and happy and enjoy the water, and I still remember having Fred the 5-year-old pull down my bikini top with a devilish grin on his face. He wasn’t the only one, just the youngest (so he could get away with it). It was a banner day when a kid who was afraid to put his head under water finally did just that for the first time, a huge milestone when a kid who took two weeks to muster up the courage to jump in the deep end would jump into my waiting arms. Swimming and teaching kids to swim is something I’m just good at.
Today there was a young boy in the pool with his older (college aged) sister while mom looked on from the sidelines. Between laps I spoke with mom and talked to the little boy, and he gained more and more confidence in showing off and taking the risk of removing one hand from the side of the pool. “He’s afraid of everything,” said the boy’s mom, “His hair is long because he’s afraid of the hair cuttery. He’s afraid of going outside sometimes. He’s so sensitive.”
I began to work my bag of tricks, asking him to show me what he could (read: what he was willing to) do, and demonstrating things of my own. I showed him how to make a big splash with his legs (scissor kick, legs held out behind while you hold on to the side of the pool) and he told me that he didn’t like having his head under the water. He would tiptoe across the shallow end of the pool while waving his arms as if to swim. He asked my name and asked if I could swim underwater, sit on the bottom of the pool, do a somersault. All the things he wanted to do himself but was too afraid. I’d talk to him, show him how to tread water in order to keep his head aloft, his skinny arms and legs moving spastically as I held him up. All those summers came back to me, the years of kids who would come back for more lessons from me at the local pool, the milestones of the kids as they grew more confident in their skills.
“What’s his name?” I asked his mom at one point during our conversation. “Birc, like the birch tree. It was a common name 1500 years ago,” replied his Swedish Buddhist mom. Birc shivered as the sun went behind the clouds, skinny as only six-year-olds could be. He wasn’t moving enough to generate the heat he needed to stay warm, and I encouraged him to do more and more active things while daring him to take one hand or both off the side of the wall.
“I can tell you’ve worked with kids like him before, kids who are scared of the water,” said Birc’s mom, and I told her of my history of teaching children to swim. “You have the touch,” she said. “He doesn’t let me show him anything.”
“That’s because you’re his mom,” I replied. So many of my kids over the years didn’t want their parents showing them what to do or how to do it. But a young teacher? Sure, someone to show off for! “Emily, watch this!” called Birc as I continued my conversation with his mom and treaded water. “Watch me jump!”
Eventually it got too cold for Birc, and we all headed back into the hotel. Later, I saw the family as I left with my coworker to get some dinner. “Hi, Emily!” Birc yelled. “Hi, Birc,” I called back. “Have a good dinner!” My coworker had heard about my efforts in the pool with this little boy who was afraid of everything. “He’ll remember you for a long time,” she said. “The little ones always do.” Honestly, I only spent about 45 minutes with the little boy, but he remembered my name two hours later, and I bet he’ll be asking his mom when he can go in a pool again soon. I could see it in his eyes when he saw me swimming laps and pulling myself along underwater. He wanted to be able to do those things. He just wanted someone who wasn’t his mom to show him how, because if Mom hadn’t told me he was “afraid of everything,” I never would have guessed. He was just like half my kids taking lessons for the first time. And he had the first lesson down – he could put his face in the water and blow bubbles. One summer I spent 3 weeks with another 6-year-old before he could do the same thing. Now that kid is 16 somewhere and I bet he’s an excellent swimmer. Someday, Birc will be too.