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In a Swimming Pool, Learning to Trust

Matt Grant | Longreads | August 21, 2017 | 3,550 words

A personal essay in which Matt Grant details how he learned to trust himself as a swimming teacher as he taught students of all ages to trust the water. He learns the most from a particularly frightened, challenging young student named Jacob.

Posted inEssays & Criticism, Nonfiction, Story

In a Swimming Pool, Learning to Trust

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

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?

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