I distinctly remember the light-blue, square tiles that are standard for indoor pools (at least back in the late ‘80s). I was lucky enough to go to an elementary school with an underground pool. (Or was it the neighbouring school down the street that allowed us to use their pool?) It’s quite hazy now as the memory exists in my mind from so long ago. I can’t tell you my exact age but I must have been somewhere in the range of third or fourth grade. The physiological effect of cool, blowing air mixed with water droplets dripping off my body from the mandated pre-swim shower gave me major goosebumps all over. My legs were shaking and my bare feet, one after another, slapping the wet tiles in a rhythmic motion as we all walked in formation towards the deep end of the pool. I didn’t know how to swim when I was a kid (sadly, I still don’t know). I remember walking along the pools’ edge looking into the depths of the limitless water and not being able to trace the bottom of it with my eyes. Where does it even end? The only thing I felt in that moment was pure fear. How will this end? It was my gym class and this was the rotating, 4-week swim period of the year.
Swimming was my worst subject (if we can consider it a subject). Every year, as the weeks came and went, I would countdown to the approaching swim period with dread and trepidation. Why wouldn’t I? Who would look forward to swim class if they couldn’t swim and had no one to teach them? This is one of those memories that has stuck with me through the ages. Perhaps it is because of the vivid memory of fear that I recall so clearly.
Most of my friends (as well as my husband) seem to be natural-born swimmers, but I come from a family of non-swimmers. Knowing how to swim, I think, is a privilege that I have never taken lightly. It was never taught in school and the opportunities just never existed because we didn’t grow up by the water or have a summer cottage with lakefront views, nor we did we know anyone who had a pool. In my experience, if you wanted to learn how to swim, you were either taught by a parent who knew how to swim, or you had to take professional swim lessons. My parents couldn’t teach us how because they didn’t know themselves, and between keeping food on the table and paying rent on time, my parents couldn’t afford to put us in swim lessons let alone find the time to shuttle us back and forth on the bus.
So there we were, lined up by the pool. I was freezing and my teeth were chattering as I hugged myself with my arms in an effort to calm my jittery body. For some reason it felt like the air conditioning was always bloody blasting at you from all angles. The details of what happened next are very murky to me and I wish I had someone to corroborate my version of the story with but I don’t. From what I can recount though, we were all instructed to jump into the deep end, one by one. In that moment, my heart was thumping out of my chest, my mouth went dry, and my mind was racing a mile a minute. I don’t think we were even surveyed for our skill level because if we were I don’t doubt I would have been honest and forthcoming with the fact that I was a zero-level swimmer. My best friend was struck with fear so badly that she had a panic attack in line and was permitted to sit out. Lucky duck! (Her parents put her in swim lessons after that day.) I weighed my options about giving in too; maybe I could do the same and feign distress so that I could sit out, I thought. However, a part of me was more terrified of being embarrassed and standing out than perhaps drowning in front of my classmates in a chlorinated pool. (I know!)
Panic rose as the pools’ edge inched closer with every student’s fateful jump. I hesitated for a split second and then whispered some version of “Oh my God” before I jumped in hoping for the best. If I close my eyes now, I can almost see myself under water for what felt like impossibly long minutes before I popped back up. With water in my nose and hope on my side, I quickly paddled over to the pool wall and grabbed on while bobbing my head in and out of the water toward the shallow end, praying it would look as though I was “swimming.” I remember thinking (with my back to the entire class), “I wonder if it’s obvious that I don’t know how to swim.” (This part cracks me up!)
I honestly can’t tell you why I didn’t resist or speak up. I’m not sure if it was total fear or the engrained idea that “life sucks and sometimes you just have to get through it and hope you survive” mentality that kept me quiet. The opposite of fear is courage. What’s interesting to me is that I thought courage meant jumping without thought but now upon reflection, courage would have probably been to speak up, stand out and protest for what you believe in. I believe I can’t swim!
An American author by the name of Zig Ziglar once said:
Fear has two meanings:
Forget Everything And Run
Face Everything And Rise.
Whether it was fear or courage that I exhibited then, I’m glad I rose through the surface of the water that day.
How about you, have you ever felt the fear and did it anyway? What prompted you to do it?
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