Lake, ocean, pool or river can be inviting, calming or terrifying. For the latter camp, a solid NYT piece with vid of an man who just had to get over his wet anxiety brought back pubescent times.
First know I’m a water guy, as in:
- My water-safety instructor (WSI) mother taught me to swim in the South Branch of the Potomac at Romney WV
- My sister and I became instructors and lifeguards
- I coached a summer swim team two years
- I was on my high school, then freshman college swim team
- I got all the Boy Scout aquatics merit badges
- I swam at beaches from Florida (yucky hot) to Maine (my God! cold) and lakes all over
Water is my buddy. I meditate while swimming several times each week and I never feel as graceful as in the water.
Yet I was surprised at 12 or just 13 to have the head swimming teacher at a man-made lake in Virginia ask for help. My sister and I were taking life-saving classes and killing time afterward swimming and diving. We would wait until our mother, who ran the local Red Cross chapter, to come by and drive us home.
Turns out the teacher had a lot more in mind that just getting me to help her. What she really wanted and cannily figured out was that I could teach some gray hairs to swim.
Had she put it like that I’m pretty sure I would have said I wasn’t able. In no small part both the times and central Virginia locale made that unlikely. I was a Ma’am and Sir, respect-elders boy. It would seem to betray the natural order for a kid to teach maybe 8 folk in the 60s and 70s anything.
Yet, the teacher knew my mother, sister and me. She knew that many of the Red Cross volunteers aged up to 80 or so had me call them by their first names from when I was 6 or 7. Yes, I was polite and attentive, had a large vocabulary and never ever would have called them by another other than Mr.., Miss or Mrs. (last name) unless they insisted. They did.
I was also a water prize, getting my advanced-swimmer card young. I was my mother’s son. So maybe it wasn’t so crazy to ask me to help.
I didn’t know any of the 8 or so men and women in my instant class. In retrospect I guess the median age was 72. The teacher introduced us and said I’d show them how to get used to the water. Then she left.
Well, I was a sincere little boy and that’s just what I did. I’d bet they were both charmed a lad their grandchildren’s age was in charge and comfortable that if I could do this water stuff they had a shot.
I was in for my own shock when they told me, almost to a one, that they were afraid to put their faces in the water. They never had in the 70-some years. They were born at the very end of the 19th or very beginning of the 20th Century. Shower baths were rare. they would bath in a tub but never do as I was used to — shampooing and plunging my whole head underwater repeatedly while rinsing, repeating. They said they wet washcloths and used them on their faces.
That was not a chapter in the WSI manuals at home and in the chapter buildings. I read those on the sofa or on the toilet. When I went into a new level of swimming class I already knew what we were supposed to do and generally had already mastered it on my own. Yet, afraid of water? Never put your face in water in your entire life?
Well, it turns out the clever teacher had it right. My job was to teach this group to be okay in the water. By then it never seemed possible to do less and maybe a lot more. The students were certainly willing. I got them bobbing, splashing water on their heads and faces as they stood in thigh-high water, and eventually putting their faces down in water while keeping control by blowing air through their noses. We went on as I had learned in my first few levels of classes to back floating, front floating, using a kickboard and basic rhythmic breathing. We did dog-paddling and backstroke.
I didn’t have time to teach them how to swim, as in how I swam. They let me know how far we had come though. At the end of one class, they told me together that they felt they had learned to fly. They had been afraid of water their whole lives and now were able to float, to do basic strokes, and to breathe out with their faces in the water was mastering a whole new element, just water instead of air.
Since then, I’ve taught photography, writing, various aspects of computer use, and management. Apparently I’m good at doing that, but never since that lake have my students compared what they learned to mastering a whole new element. When students and teachers are in it together, there is elegance, beauty and fulfillment. That class is still my touchstone for a splendid job.
I hadn’t thought of those happy moments in a long time, until the NYT piece. I was with Attis Clopton all along. That’s the thrill of learning at its best.