Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The first failure I remember, or swimming with the sharks.

     I know some people that can remember back to their toddler years, but I'm not one of those people.  My first memories are glimpses of my kindergarten class, the teacher's husband showing up with golf clubs one day wanting to take her out, acting in a school play (I'm pretty sure I was a green light cuz I was too short to be the red or yellow one), and my friend Rob that I played with at Sonnenberg Park that summer, but who went off to a public school, while I went to St. Mary's. Those are my earliest memories, but today's blog is about the first time I remember failing at something, and disappointing my mother, and it happened just a few years later...

     It was summer again and they were offering swimming lessons at the junior high school right up the street from where we lived in Canandaigua.  It cost $.50 to register, and if you completed the lessons, they gave you back your registration money.  My mom wanted to make sure we all were good swimmers (Dad and her were Navy folk), so she sent about 4 of us up to register.  Before she did, she went into her bedroom and came out with an envelope, and placed
a Kennedy half dollar into each of our palms. You could tell that they were important to her, I'm not sure what she was saving them for, but the expectation was clear, that this was a loan, she expected to see those coins again.  I was the youngest of the group, maybe 7-8 at the time and I think it was Brother Redface, Aquaman (yes, I get the irony), and Ace that walked up the street with me.  We handed over the coins, and then they started to sort us into our swimming abilities.  My swimming time heretofore was moving around in a tub of water that my brothers had all previously bathed in, so it was kind of like floating in the Dead Sea, it was almost impossible not to.  I'd been to the beach and touched my toes to the water, but I don't think my head had ever gotten wet at this point (My siblings would argue this to be true, even at bath time).  Amazingly we all were put into the same group, along with a few others.   What a momentous day, I was going to learn to be a swimmer !

They said jump, and I just couldn't.
     The instructor lined us up, and marched us to the deep end of the pool.  I watched the depth markers pass by my little feet, and I was roughly aware of my height, thanks to all the amusement park ride signs that said I had to be "this tall" in order to ride (I wasn't "this tall" yet, hence being typecast as a green light, but I was just a eensie-weensie below "this tall").  We quickly passed the "this tall" mark, and went even further.  I was a little confused, but at this point in my life I didn't question authority, so along I went.  We went all the way to the deep end of the pool and he lined us up there, shoulder to shoulder toes facing the water.  The instructor then directed us to jump in.  WHAT?  I was sure I had misheard him, or he thought he had the advanced swimmers in his group.  Apparently that
wasn't the case as he kept repeating the instruction to each of the kids including my brothers.  They all dutifully jumped into water over their heads and the pattern was repeated right until he came to me, and I refused to comply.  I probably wouldn't have drowned, but in my head, I kept thinking, "They haven't taught me anything yet, how do they expect me not to drown?" After a short debate, they separated me from my brothers and brought me to the shallow end of the pool for my instruction.  Six weeks later, after the end of my instruction, most of which I do not remember except for using a flutter-board, I had not advanced my skill and when they lined us up to receive our coins back, my hand remained empty as I still couldn't jump into the deep end of the pool.  My siblings all had advanced their abilities and were given cool monikers that showed how they had done, like dolphin, otter, or shark.  I'm pretty sure I went home as a tadpole or a turtle.  I dragged behind the others on the downhill walk home, and I'll never forget the look of disappointment on my mother's face, when I was the only one who didn't hand back her investment.  It was a look that I tried to avoid seeing in the future.

The kid on the left has my technique down pat
     I eventually learned to swim, however, it was no less embarrassing when I did.  I was in the 8th grade at St. Mary's and we used the local YMCA pool for lessons.  This time my instructors were two of my classmates who swam competitively, and they took turns monitoring my progress (yes, with a flutter-board). This time I got the basic mechanics of it all and could dive in the deep end and navigate across the pool.  No one offered to try and get my coin back when I finished, although it seemed like it would have been fair to me.  It was one of those life lessons that stuck with me, "It's not always about getting it right, sometimes it's about getting it right, when it is expected of you.  There are no prizes, when you miss it the first time."  I don't even think I told my mother of my eventual success, as it would have only reminded her of my first failure.  As an adult, I'm now sure that my mother would never have thought like that, but you would have been hard pressed to get me to believe that, back then.  I remained a struggling swimmer for all of my life, with heavy handed strokes, and more gasping for breaths than anything that looks remotely like I was in control of the process.  When I started going to Scout camp with my sons, I realized that in order to stay with them in the aquatic activities, I would have to pass the BSA swim test which required 2 types of strokes and the ability to float (this was exactly one more stroke than I knew, and required exactly one ability that I didn't have, I blame the dirty bathwater).  With practice, by the time my sons passed it, I did too, but barely, and it was the floating requirement that almost sunk me, no pun intended. 

     Coming up this winter, I'll be working with the younger patrol at Scouts to help them with a few swimming requirements.  I've got to book some time at the high school pool to do it. All my older Scouts in the troop have passed the swim test, except for one.  The kid struggles with a fear of the water, and then with the lack of swimming ability to actually pass the test.  He's just an eensie-weensie short of "this tall".  It took me a whole session with him last year, just to get him to jump into the deep end, but I did get him to do it, and that was more than the school was able to do during his lessons there.  I'm sure he'll eventually be a swimmer, when something motivates him more than the fear he has of the water, and he sets his mind to the spot he needs to, to do it.  It's all about motivation.  You see, I fail less as an adult now, than I ever did as a kid, because the stakes are higher.  I've got a family to support, bills to pay, kids that look up to me as an example, friends that wish me well and competitors that don't, and these are all powerful motivators.  I'll help this Scout find his motivation, and when he completes the BSA test, maybe I'll have a shiny Kennedy half dollar there as his reward.  It's the least a fellow green light can do. 
We'll never know the lives we saved with these lines. 


Daphne Mays said...

Another great story with another great moral! If it's any consolation, I can't float either. I sink like a rock. Some might say I'm dense, but I prefer to think of it as muscle. ;)

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