Monday, June 22, 2009

This story may explain why the lead instructor's friendly greeting and readiness for our son this morning just about brought me to tears of joy.

Taking the Pool Plunge, Again

I remember it well, the week I learned to swim ten years ago, at thirty-four. The water felt icy and my skin shriveled under my dark blue, ever-so-matronly looking suit. On the huge windows overlooking the indoor pool, rain beat down steadily and the sky darkened like a biblical warning. And I thought ‘what on earth am I doing here on a winter’s day, freezing my behind off, when I could be home drinking high-octane coffee and reading endless stacks of books to our two offspring?’ But no, the children were there too, shivering, without an ounce of fat between them, bobbing up and down under the artificial lights, their lips as blue as cornflowers.

I took them to swim lessons. Twice a week. Rain or shine.

Until that week, I had successfully avoided water for decades. I had found excuses, feigned disdain, and sometimes hardly bothered to hide my intense fear. I had suffered torments by grade-school classmates during the school’s annual attempts to teach swimming, head-shaking wonderment by relatives sure that someday I would stop sinking, and frank disgust by exes (which is one of the problems with dating jocks when you aren’t one), who thought that I should “get over it.” But nothing could have moved me to take the plunge.

Except our kids.

With kids come invitations to swimming pool birthday parties, irresistible entreaties to frolic in chlorinated hotel offerings, and car trips to Frog Lake—if one wants to be a good parent. Leading me to ask, ‘if it’s so important they learn to swim that I’ve been driving them to lessons for the last two years, requiring they get over their fears, shouldn’t I ask the same of myself?’

Thus, I was up to my waist in water, waiting for my instructor to get the lane cleared so I could flounder my way across the pool without collateral damage. On day one I’d barely ever put my face under water. By day three, I could motor ahead face down. By the end of the week, I could do a front crawl. By day ten, I could make my way clumsily across the length of the pool.

Talk about your cathartic experiences; I was a pool-swimming mama sure I’d be doing the breast-stroke, side-stroke and learning CPR by the next week.

Didn’t quite work out that way. I was empowered, not brainwashed, by the several weeks of lessons I endured. But I did feel less of a hypocrite when I hauled our kids to continual lessons and eventually summer swim team, right around the time their little brother was born.

Having set a precedent, swim lessons were scheduled for him shortly after he turned three, just like his sibs. These were at the outdoor public pool open only in summer, not so I could swim laps in the sunshine and be smug about my expertise, but so I could lounge poolside while he and the older kids got their share of exercise and I got a moment’s peace and some Vitamin D.

Didn’t quite work out that way.

While my older kids had their fair share of separation anxiety and water worry when they started out, our third boldly strode into the water without a backward wave. And kept going. Never mind the kind commands of the instructor, or efforts to herd him back with the flock, often leading to an aquatic attack leaving the teenaged teacher a little frustrated to say the least. He didn’t follow the leader, blow bubbles or sing ring around the rosy—he was off in the opposite direction getting corralled by one of the teachers.

When it became clear that he was going to spend more time in time-out than in the pool, and I’d become “that mom,” the one hauling the screaming, flailing kid out of the pool while the other moms look on in censure and/or compassion, we ceased swim lessons for that summer, sure that next year he’d be ready.

Didn’t quite work out that way.

A year brought increased verbal skills, but no real interest in directions, instruction, or anything the two teenaged swim teachers could come up with to engage him. Admittedly, we knew by then that he had sensory issues, and that preschool hadn’t worked out the previous fall, but we were hopeful, because he loved water, that he’d be eager enough to follow directions and join in.

I was sitting by the pool with my friend, Amy, my older two kids across the pool at swim team, when my son pushed another kid, in that case innocently urging him to get in the water (unlike the other ten times when he’d responded to a brief touch with a shove). The kid almost tumbled on the cement steps, and apparently that was the last straw. A lead instructor young enough to be my offspring came over to tell me that our youngest was no longer welcome in swim classes, and that he needed to get out of the pool pronto.

To give the guy credit, once I’d finished wiping off my over-reaction, he offered me a pamphlet on inclusion classes through the parks program, for special needs kids unable to take the typical lessons. I was able to maintain some dignity while getting my son out of the pool in a way that didn’t disgrace him, and didn’t let him know there was anything especially wrong, took the pamphlet and fled with my pal, letting the older kids, one a teen by then, walk the couple of blocks home.

After some private ranting, I got myself back to the pool the following morning and signed our son up for inclusion classes. He finished the summer that way, another six weeks in the same pool he’d been kicked out of, with one patient adult teacher at his side, and no other kids to collide with.

By the next summer, we knew it was autism that made the usual class so sticky for him, and smote our brows for forcing him into a situation in which he couldn’t (at that time) succeed. We signed up for inclusion classes first thing, and he spent all summer happily paddling in the pool, making no real progress as a swimmer, but some in following directions. I spent a daily half-hour at the pool smiling with wonder that it was working out, while the older kids snoozed at home, uninterested in swim team that summer.

Summer is coming up, and with it, THE POOL. While I should, for the sake of my physique, take advantage of my daily visits to swim laps, I will be surprised if I get into deep water again, forcing myself to don a suit, face my fears and flounder down the lane. Frankly, with three kids, I can always use some peace poolside. But I won’t be surprised if this is the summer our youngest son discovers that water can support his body if he lets it, and that playing in the water can become the epiphany of learning to swim.

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