In a Swimming Pool, Learning to Trust

A swimming instructor for ten years, Matt Grant learned the most from his most challenging student.

Matt Grant | Longreads | August 2017 | 14 minutes (3,550 words)

 

I’ve been treading water for almost 10 minutes and my limbs are starting to ache. It’s 5:28 on a humid evening in late July, and there are only two minutes left in the private swimming lesson I’m giving in my family’s backyard pool. Ever since Jacob, who is 7, took his first tentative steps onto the diving board, he has inched towards the end with all the enthusiasm of a death row inmate approaching sentencing. Three feet below, I wait in the center of the deep end, my arms in a wide, welcoming posture. My legs thrash underneath me, working to keep my body afloat.

Today is a big day for Jacob. We both agreed before the lesson started that by the end, he would jump into the deep end. We’ve discussed it for weeks so that he could mentally prepare himself. But it’s clear to me now, as he creeps closer to the rim and stares into the depths below, that he never actually thought I was serious. “It’s too deep,” he says. I can see the fear wracking his body.

“Don’t worry, I’ll catch you,” I say.

“I’m going to drown.”

“No, you’re not.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I’ll catch you. Trust me.”

Jacob hesitates, fingers in mouth. Already at 7, he is large and stocky, with a bit of a belly protruding over the bright lemon-colored face of SpongeBob SquarePants, who beams at me from Jacob’s right thigh. I’ve taught my fair share of difficult students over the years, but I’ve never encountered a pupil quite like Jacob. To say he is resistant would be an understatement. Jacob is terrified of the water, and as far as he’s concerned, that’s just fine with him. The problem is, it’s not fine with Jacob’s mother. A short and narrow woman, she is the opposite of Jacob in every way. She finds me through the YMCA the summer before I leave for college when she comes seeking private lessons for her aqua-phobic son. Jacob has tried several group classes and has so far been unsuccessful, which is another way of saying she’s unhappy with his progress. Jacob’s mother makes it clear to me at our first meeting what she expects.

“I need him swimming laps by the end of the summer,” she says as she stands in my living room, casting accusing glances at her son, who is drawing at the dining table nearby and pretending he doesn’t hear. I’m unsure of what to say. Jacob is afraid to dip his toes in and she wants him to be Ian Thorpe in eight weeks. In a rambling litany, she rattles off everything she has tried so far: lessons wasted, rewards promised and consequences threatened, family vacations on which she literally tried to force him into the water. Nothing has worked. “You’re my last option,” she says, looking at me like I’m Obi-Wan Kenobi. “If you can’t get him to swim, he’s hopeless. I’m not sure what else I can do. He’ll just have to grow up never knowing how.” She lets out a large sigh and shakes her head. She seems a little overdramatic about the whole thing, to be honest. But she’s willing to pay $20 per half-hour lesson, so who am I to judge?

***

Once, when I was 6, I almost drowned during a swimming lesson. I was bored as I waited for my turn, and leaned over the edge to reenact the climax of The Little Mermaid. You know the one: Ursula, the tentacled sea-witch, steals King Triton’s trident and magically enlarges herself, stirring the frothy green ocean into a whirlpool to trap Ariel and Eric, the fateful lovers. I had just finished muttering “the sea and all its spoils bow to my power!” under my breath, churning the surface with three fingers, when my bony 42-pound body toppled headfirst into the water. When I turned back to grab the side, I discovered with some panic that it was beyond reach.

At that point, I had been swimming for most of my life, which granted, was so far very short. Some of my earliest memories consisted of chasing plastic ducks through the baby pool as my mother cradled me like a football. I never shied away from the water, but this was my first class in the “big pool,” already colder, louder, and more unforgiving than the toddler pool I’d recently graduated from. The teacher was too far away, the lifeguard didn’t see me, and so somehow, through some combination of swimming, bouncing, and sheer will, I pulled myself to safety.

I wish I could say that this story is my secret superhero origin. That I start teaching as a way to rescue other children from similarly harrowing experiences. It sounds nobler that way, but the truth is, when I begin looking for jobs my sophomore year of high school, it’s because I need gas money and there’s a freshman girl I want to impress. When my two friends Mike and Tom, swimmers on the school team, suggest I apply to work with them at the Y, it feels like a no-brainer. I never swam competitively, but I did grow up in and around the water.

Today is a big day for Jacob. We both agreed before the lesson started that by the end, he would jump into the deep end.

This was largely thanks to my childhood home, whose crowning feature was a beautiful, ovoid, blue-bottomed backyard pool, rimmed with tile the same color as brick. I was in kindergarten when we moved in, and until I moved away some 20 years later, I spent every Fourth of July, every August birthday party, every day and night of the muggy Illinois summers in that pool. I learned not only how to swim, but how to love swimming. So when Mike and Tom suggest teaching, I figure that knowing how to do something can’t be that different from teaching it.

During the interview Linda, the Aquatics Director, hands me an application, despite my not having any trainings, certifications, or previous teaching experience. I wonder if it’s because they are so desperate for people, but I don’t ask this out loud. When I start, I keep waiting for some kind of teacher development program, but all I do the first few weeks is assist the veteran swim teachers in their classes. I learn how to structure a lesson and where to hold the children in order to avoid lawsuits, but not much else. Soon enough, someone calls out and I have to teach a class of my own. My first time alone, with six 8-year-olds staring at me, it’s clear that I have no idea what I’m doing. I see Mike two lanes away going over the breaststroke. His kids look older than mine, but it’s something. I turn back to my class. “Okay, we’re going to do breaststroke.”

“We don’t even know what that is!” a girl on the end says, giggling. She thinks I’m joking.

“I know that!” I say, laughing, glad that in the water, sweat goes undetected. “I was just messing with you guys. Out of curiosity, what do you know how to do?”

As the lesson continues, I realize with growing dismay that I was wrong. Knowing how to do something does not equal knowing how to teach it. The strokes and movements that I see so perfectly in my head become suddenly convoluted and abstract when I try to communicate them. I try showing them what I want them to do, and they do it on the wall just fine, but when they’re out in the water I can tell that they’re just mimicking me, not truly understanding the concepts. And in swimming, that difference can mean life or death.

This goes on for months. I pretend I belong, as if I know how to teach. My lessons are a mishmash of things I learned in swimming class and whatever they’re doing the next lane over. After a while, I start to rethink the whole thing. I don’t feel as if any of my students are making progress. They’re not advancing as much as I’d hoped, and I’m afraid this makes me a bad teacher. I keep waiting for Linda or one of the head lifeguards —college-aged students who wear their whistles like police badges — to come over and say, “I’m sorry, there’s been a mistake. You’re just not working out. Please pack your trunks and go.”

Amazingly, they never do. Instead, as months become years, I gain more experience and grow more comfortable with teaching. I learn simple tricks for getting my students to do what I need them to, like giving me a high five in the air to get their “reaching arms” out of the water, or telling them to pretend they don’t have knees when I need them to keep their kicking legs straight. I stop worrying about seeing major leaps in progress and start to celebrate the little ones. Rather than grow frustrated at the end of a lesson that every student can’t swim the full length, I get excited when just one of them makes it only a few feet.

It’s clear to me now, as stares into the depths below, that he never actually thought I was serious. ‘It’s too deep,’ he says. I can see the fear wracking his body.

And since all teaching is also a learning experience, I learn something too: knowing how to swim is first and foremost about conquering fear. Like the first few wobbly feet ridden on a bike without training wheels, the first time a person allows 14,000 gallons of water to fully support his or her body weight becomes an act of faith. More than once, I teach students who grasp onto the wall as if it is a life buoy, tethering them to the only thing they trust. My job as a teacher becomes getting them first to trust me more than the wall, and then eventually, the water more than me. I am just a waypoint between two goals, a guide. I am not teaching anything new, or creating new swimming strategies from thin air. There is no secret, no knowledge that I have that they don’t have. I am simply showing them how to find the knowledge on their own.

***

Trust becomes my most important tool as a teacher. For this reason, I take my time building trust with Jacob. We start off slowly, walking along the wall in the shallow end. Then I hold his hands and we stroll towards the middle of the pool together, feeling the gentle slope of the floor beneath our feet. Since he doesn’t want to put his face in, we only blow bubbles. Once he is comfortable with that, we try putting one eye in. Then the other eye. Each time he does something new and discovers it won’t kill him, we build a little more trust. Eventually, he can submerge his entire face. He makes great progress, except when we try a back float. The back float seems to cause him actual, physical pain.

There’s a trick I sometimes like to do when teaching the back float, which I consider the gateway skill to independent progress. I tell my students to lie back in my arms and put their head in the water, as if they are in bed. I tell them to find a point above them to focus on, and I let them relax into my hands. Then I promise that I won’t let go, but as I say this, I remove my hands from their back. More often than not, they feel the water take them and stay perfectly afloat. When they finish, to distract from the fact that I just blatantly lied, I clap and cheer and make a big deal over their doing something on their own. There’s always a marked improvement in their swimming afterwards. This is because it’s hard to argue with empirical evidence. I’ve tricked them into believing in themselves.


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But when I first try the back float with Jacob, his tiny hands reach over his head and grasp my forearm with such intensity that I can feel my blood flow restrict. I try to lean him back in the water, but he writhes and tries to sit up. When I finally force him horizontal, he is so tense that if I removed my hands, he would jackknife in half and sink. “Don’t let go!” he screams. “I won’t,” I say. “You have to trust me.” I press harder into his shoulder blades, so he knows I’m not going anywhere.

Like with everything else we do in the pool, we take it step by step. First, I let him rest his head on my shoulder and reach his arms around my neck. Then, we try holding his arms out to the side, like an airplane. Eventually, we move to resting his head on my forearms as I stand behind him. Each time, his head goes back a little more, belly rising to the sky. Finally, the moment comes. I can feel that I’m no longer supporting him. “Jacob, I’m going to let go now,” I tell him. “No!” he whines, starting to squirm. “It’s okay,” I say. “You’re doing this all by yourself. I’m not even holding you. Trust me.”

Before he can change his mind, I remove my hands. This time, instead of freaking out, instead of screaming and giving up, he keeps his head back and his stomach up, and floats. It’s the first time he’s done something completely independently in the pool. When he’s done, I cheer him on, and I can tell he’s proud. He never thought he would come this far.

Jacob is terrified of the water, and as far as he’s concerned, that’s just fine with him. The problem is, it’s not fine with Jacob’s mother.

It takes many hours, but eventually, by the end of summer, Jacob is swimming. He isn’t doing laps, but he is able to move forward a few feet with his face in and his legs up. His arms lacerate the water rather than cut gently through it, but it’s a stroke. Each time, before going home, he shows his mom what he’s learned. Amazed, she calls me “The Miracle Worker” in her overdramatic way.

***

Over my 10-year career as a swimming teacher, I teach all kinds of people of all ages. Toddlers who can barely stay seated on the wall because they are so eager to learn; teenagers who won’t improve their stroke because they think they know better already; middle-aged adults more skittish about getting their faces wet than children; senior citizens who are convinced they are too old to learn. But I have yet to meet someone too old to learn. I remain convinced that everyone can learn to swim, if they have the desire and the time.

A question I get asked all the time, especially by the children, is “Why?” As in, “Why do I have to do this by myself?” Or, “Why can’t you hold me anymore?” My answer is always the same: “Because what are you going to do when I’m no longer here? What happens if you fall in and there’s no one around to help you?” They look shocked when I explain that I can’t follow them around the rest of their lives into every pool, river, and ocean they come across. Their questions remind me that the entire point of teaching is rendering myself unnecessary.

As I help many, many people overcome their fear of the water, I overcome the fear of teaching. I learn that teaching, like swimming, is a gradual process, honed by years of experience and flanked with just as many failures as successes. I did not become a good teacher overnight, but the more I did it, the more I learned how to probe in search of someone’s boundaries, and then gently yet firmly push him or her past those boundaries, a little at a time. Trust and faith, that’s all it is. My students must have faith in me, but more importantly, I have to have faith in them. In many ways, I have to have the faith in them that they don’t have in themselves.

That’s why my favorite pupils are the ones, like Jacob, who are the most afraid. I love witnessing the miracle that happens as a non-swimmer steps into the water timorous and frightened, and emerges reborn, running to her towel with new confidence in her abilities. They are astonished that all this time, a swimmer was locked away inside of them. They just needed some help finding it.

***

Before the summer is over, there’s only one thing left for Jacob to do. I’ve made it clear that he can’t go home until he jumps. Just as with everything new, he’s petrified. The problem is, unlike floating, I can’t start slowly with jumping. With jumping, you either do it or you don’t. I can only hope that whatever trust we have built over the last few weeks will convince him that he can do this, too.

I look up at Jacob now, his toes barely curled over the edge of the board, his hands on his face like the tortured figure from Munch’s The Scream. It’s now 5:35, and both of our mothers have come out onto the patio to watch. “Come on, Jacob!” his mom says, clapping. “Go for it!”

Knowing how to swim is first and foremost about conquering fear. The first time a person allows 14,000 gallons of water to fully support his or her body weight becomes an act of faith.

“Will you catch me?” he says again, for what feels like the thousandth time.

Yes,” I say, trying not to let my impatience show. “You’ll be fine. You can do this. Trust me.”

He grows very, very quiet. I hear his mother as she sucks in her breath. The only sounds are the gentle swishing of the water as I knead it through my hands, and the rising susurrus of the cicadas ushering in the dusk. I watch as Jacob’s brow furrows, and I swear I see the moment of decision as it crosses his face. He leans forward, holds his nose, and jumps.

Right into my waiting hands.

As he comes above the water, spluttering and gasping, I grab a passing foam noodle and stick it under his arms. He grabs it like it’s a lifeboat and I tug him to the side. When we climb out, I give him a big high-five.

“Great job, buddy!” I say, grinning. “You did it! How do you feel?” He is relieved, I can tell, but tired. “Can we go inside now?” is all he says.

“Yeah, buddy. We can go inside now,” I say, ruffling his hair.

Inside, Jacob’s mother gushes over how thankful she is. “I just can’t believe it, he’s like a brand new kid!” she says. “Can we continue these lessons next summer? He just responds to you so differently from anyone else.”

“Of course,” I say, because I’ve grown fond of Jacob. But after that day, I never see him again. His mother either forgot, which seems unlikely, or has found some new obsession to force upon her son. I still think about Jacob from time to time, wondering how old he is now, what kind of swimmer he turned out to be.

***

Years and years later, I stand in the entrance of a cafeteria in a Manhattan middle school. It’s 2:40 in the afternoon on the first day of school in early September, and the final bell has just finished ringing. Students are trickling in a few at a time, signing in to their first day of the after-school program that I direct. I never would have thought it, but all of my years teaching swimming and working with kids has led me here. It’s the best job I’ve ever had.

I watch the students’ faces as they enter the room, the eighth graders taller and older than I remember, the seventh graders relieved to be out of class. The cafeteria grows noisy as they call for their friends, or bemoan the frozen cheese sandwiches offered for snack, or greet the returning staff members with high-fives and hugs. It’s like being a part of a large family, and I’m pleased with what I’ve built.

I can identify the sixth graders most easily. They are the newest, the smallest, and look the most scared. They enter the cafeteria not with confidence, but like they’re in over their heads, and I’ve seen that look many times before. It’s the first day of middle school, the first day on the cusp of adolescence, and they look as if they’re in the deep end, asked to let go of the wall.

One of them, Mya, comes up to me. She is by far the smallest and the shyest. I smile and wave hello as she approaches, and I have to ask her to repeat what she says three times until I am able to hear her. “I’m not on the list,” she says, barely above a whisper. Her voice shakes, as if the confession means I will have to banish her. I look at her face, eyes down and about to cry, and I can’t help but think of the hundreds of swimming lessons that I’ve taught, the countless students who clung desperately to the wall, unsure of what will happen if they let go, whether they will sink or swim. So I smile at Mya and say, “Don’t worry, we’ll figure it out. You’re going to be just fine, trust me.”

She looks up, and her smile matches mine, and just for a second, in that moment, she does. She trusts me.

It may not last. But it’s all I need for now.

* * *

Matt Grant is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor whose work has appeared in Literary Hub, Book Riot, Huffington Post, and more.

Editor: Sari Botton

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