Thursday, September 11, 2008

Learning to swim

As we enter the local swim center, we are immediately met with the unmistakable scent of chlorine and mold. A smell reminiscent of library books crossed with Clorox. A musty-meets-antiseptic odor that brings my own days of swimming lessons — some 30 years ago — bubbling to the top of my memory. The woman at the front desk directs us toward the waterslide, where we join several shivering preschoolers and their moms, anxious about their first class.

Josh has been excited about this all week. And once he gets into the pool, he's thrilled to find that he can stand up by himself in the generous two-and-a-half-feet-deep shallow end. I take my seat on the bleachers and watch six wet heads blow bubbles into plastic rings, reach underwater for rubber fish, and scoop pretend ice cream with both arms. The teacher then takes each minnow-in-training for a solo swim, first on their stomach with a kickboard and then on their back with their head resting on her shoulder. Some are more graceful than others. And some are definitely more comfortable in the water.

Josh thrusts his bottom underwater yet tries to kick during his back float. He ends up looking more like a clam than a fish. But he tries every exercise, no matter how proficient. And after class, we go out for ice cream to celebrate a successful first lesson.

The next week starts with a half-hearted protest about the temperature of the water and something about not being ready yet. I plop him into the pool and hurry to my seat, hoping he'll suck it up until he remembers how much fun he had last week. He starts selectively dropping exercises. He refuses to blow bubbles in the ring but merely touches his lips to the water. He won't reach for the rubber fish his teacher holds just low enough that he has to get his face wet to reach it. Instead, he lifts her arm up with his foot to bring his prey to his grasp. He swims his solos but only kicks occasionally, and he won't relax his head for the backstroke. Between structured activities, he spends all his time holding onto the side of the pool and pleading with me to let him get out. Needless to say, we do not go out for ice cream this week.

Eric and I try to practice with Josh between lessons. We take him to the pool in his grandparents' neighborhood and urge him to blow bubbles, get his whole face wet, kick, float, scoop. Some days we are successful. Other days we are not. Such is life with a three year old.

The following lesson is a little worse, and by the final session, I can hardly keep him in the water. The teacher takes each student through the required minnow skills, evaluating their progress. The other kids demonstrate remarkable aptitude — even the ones who cried through the first lesson. But while they progressed, Josh regressed. I try not to cringe as his teenaged instructor hands me the small yellow report card with nary a check on the list of class requirements. At the bottom, it cheerily proclaims, "Congratulations, your child is now qualified to enroll in the Minnows" which is, of course, the very same class he's been taking. Or should I say avoiding.

So I decide to sign him up for a different version. One that meets twice a week instead of once a week so he can hopefully sustain some momentum between sessions. The first day brings an unlikely surprise — a male teacher. Josh thinks this is a huge bonus. And with the help of a rubber duck wearing a farmer's hat, the new instructor lures my timid swimmer into the pool. Winston works slowly, carefully gaining Josh's trust before leading him into uncharted waters. And Josh begins to cautiously follow him, first moving off the stairs (or "his office," as we like to call them), then almost getting his nose wet, and finally kicking all the way to the deep end on a kickboard sporting the aforementioned duck.

As I root his tentative progress, I am reminded of how difficult indeed it is to learn to swim. A couple years ago, he was just learning to walk, figuring out how to steady himself on solid ground, awkwardly scooting around the coffee table on his newfound legs over and over again until one day he accidentally walked all the way across the family room floor while firmly grasping the remote control for imaginary balance. Now I have thrust him into a completely new world — one that doesn't follow any of the same laws of physics or aerodynamics — and I'm somehow expecting him to swim from end to end after a handful of half-hour lessons.

It is suddenly clear to me that he will learn to swim the same way he learned to walk: One small step at a time, with fits and spurts of progress followed by inevitable setbacks and eventually culminating in an unexpected surge of success after what seems like weeks of failure.

And the more I think about it, the more I recognize this path. It is the same one I follow as a mother. Prudently taking two steps forward and then inevitably one step backward. Striving to walk away from my more naive, less sacrificing younger self and swim in the deeper waters of the more responsible, less impulsive, wiser souls who came before me. Learning the new strokes of nurturing and often running out of breath as I brave new depths. Misplacing my confidence with every new challenge. Making mistake after mistake before finally achieving an unlikely breakthrough.

It is slow-going, this process of becoming. And it is rife with setbacks. But it is also full of promise and possibility. When Josh and I are finally able to embrace the true weightlessness of swimming, we will be rewarded with the unique freedom that comes only from perseverance and growth. In this moment, as we both kick and choke and splash our way through our respective lessons, that's what I'm truly counting on. That, and the celebratory ice cream.


Midwest Mom said...

You are so lucky that your second teacher was so patient and helpful. And what a great perspective to think of building skills in the water the same way as walking!

I had a reticent 5 year old in swimming lessons, so I enrolled his 3 year old brother with him "for support"... they are such a dynamic duo at home. (They only wound up clinging, cringing, and howling together. Some dynamic duo!) :) So, I've taught them to swim myself... and it has been an amazing journey.

Thanks for the great post!

Sus said...

*sigh* how can you keep up these great posts, Robyn? one right after the other!

I love, first of all, that the steps are his office. :) Josh & Frannie are kindred souls, I think. She was the only one who wouldn't even somersault, much less cartwheel or stand on her hands, in our tumbleweeds class 6 months ago. I didn't even attempt swim lessons this summer, knowing it would be the same story again - Josh's story, but in a two piece. And, of course, with a less forgiving and reflective mother. :)

Oh, and thanks for the tip for getting 16 month old Cal to walk: give the boy the remote! Why didn't I think of that.

Laurie Rodak said...

I yearn for the swim lessons that I can watch from the sidelines. We are still in mom and child swim classes and I always have to make that walk of jealousy pass the dry moms watching their kids splash around or flipping through magazines on the benches.

I have a friend whose son was kicked out of swim class because he refused to swim without wearing a t-shirt. They switched to another class and he loved it. I think it's all just hit or miss at this age. I do love the tales in between though, thanks for sharing!

Designed by Lena