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Syam Palakurthy

What Can and Can’t be Learned From a Book

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad and Laura McCabe

Syam Palakurthy | Longreads | October 2016 | 13 minutes (3,188 words)

 

When I woke up on January 1st of 2012, I resolved not to drown. At 24 years old, I still lacked a crucial survival skill that most American children pick up before finishing elementary school.

It wasn’t for lack of opportunities. As a toddler my parents enrolled me in classes at a local YMCA; while I did develop an electromagnetic poolside grip, I did not successfully learn to swim. Later, I took a few lessons at a neighbor’s pool until those ended abruptly following rumors that another neighbor was threatening to alert the authorities to the unlicensed swimming business. In high school, during a harrowing water-treading test, my gym teacher hovered nervously over me as I flailed my gangly limbs to keep my face just above the water’s surface, and when I looked up I saw in his eyes my own terror reflected back. Knowing that he wouldn’t want to be responsible for a kid drowning in his gym class, I was certain he’d happily let me switch to the more terrestrial bowling/tennis/golf PE track that term. After high school I went to a college that had a somewhat absurd but rather practical requirement that in order to graduate, you had to be able to swim two pool lengths. I passed by back-floating across; no one seemed to mind that it took me nearly a half hour to “swim” a total of 50 yards.

Being in the water terrified me, evoking the kind of primal fear that our ancestors learned, generally, to heed. But I rarely told anyone; I was too embarrassed to admit I couldn’t swim. Attending an outdoorsy college with more riverside ropes to swing on and cliffs to jump off than I cared for meant that I often found myself in the water hoping and praying that I could thrash my way to some semblance of dry land before swallowing too much water–or before a fate worse than death to my idiotic college-addled brain: to have to be saved from drowning by a peer.

So on New Year’s Day that year, I promised myself one final chance to figure the damn thing out before resigning myself to a lifetime in fear of three quarters of the Earth’s surface. Read more…