I slowly walk down the driveway on a humid July morning. A wave of thought begins to swirl around in my head, I tug at my T-shirt to keep it from riding up over my bathing suit, thinking.
Will I know anyone in my class?
What will I do with my glasses while I’m swimming?
Am I going to make a fool of myself, as usual?
I let myself daydream for a moment. I imagine I’m the perfect student gliding smoothly through the pool, now I’m on the diving board arms in the air as I give a little hop before performing a graceful swan dive into the water. My Velcro sandal catches on a raised piece of pavement, I stumble forward and as I catch my step, my dream of graceful perfection turns into a full-blown belly flop nightmare.
Nervousness is almost overwhelming my system now. I consider turning around and sprinting back to the van, Mum is waiting, watching to make sure I get in ok. But I know better, she has no tolerance for my ‘theatrics,’ her word for my anxieties. There’s no way she would let me into the van, or get out to walk me in. I was nine, not two — there would be no hand holding for me.
I clutch my towel a little tighter as I reach the gate. I’m terrified, I haven’t attended swimming lessons since I was traumatized by an over eager instructor at the age five. She thought a great way to help me get over my fear of jumping off the diving board would be to pick me up and drop me off the end, while promising the instructor treading water at the bottom would catch me. Well, she missed, and I lost all trust in swimming instructors and lifeguards.
Today is my first day at the YMCA backyard pool programs Seal Level swimming lessons. There was no community pool in our little town, and after the diving board drop, I had refused to go back to the pool in the next town over. So here I was, and the pressure was on. I was already signed up for Dolphin Level in 3 weeks, so if I failed this I was in big trouble.
I walk in and am asked my name and directed to join a group in the far corner. Two kids and the instructor were sitting on the concrete near the deep end of the pool. Turns out they kept the class sizes very small and it would just be the 4 of us. Initially I had mixed feelings about my classmates. In one way I was happy they weren’t schoolmates of mine; my poor swimming skills wouldn’t be a source of ridicule when I returned to school in the fall. But on the other hand, I was nervous about being liked and fitting in. A recurring fear of mine and the product of being bullied for several years already. I’d be spending mornings for the next two weeks here, I didn’t want it to be another source of torture, I was hoping to get a break from that during summer vacation.
To start the instructor asked us to talk about our previous swimming experiences, for my turn I mentioned the lessons from a few years back and boasted about all the time I spent swimming with my cousins in their pool. I strategically left out the embarrassing stuff, I didn’t want to draw any negative attention to myself. My classmates were both a year younger than me, I was put into Seal Level due to my swimming lesson hiatus but was doubling up this summer to catch up with my peers. We did the normal chit chat about safety, then climbed in the pool to show off what we could do. Surprisingly, I kept up pretty well.
As the week went on, my fear dissipated, I looked forward to donning my hand me down suit and heading across town for the morning lesson. Friday, we started off with some rescue breathing practice. You know the part where your partner is lying ‘unconscious’ and you get to shout ‘hey, hey are you ok’ in their ear, not forgetting to shake them in case they didn’t hear you. Then you pinch their nose while saying breath, breath about a centimeter from their face until they make their miraculous recovery. A gross invasion of personal space, in my opinion. It was all going well until it’s announced we would be learning to dive from the side of the pool. It was part of fulfilling the syllabus item of retrieving an object from the bottom.
‘Diving, oh hell no,’ I thought.
Well, probably not ‘hell’ as I didn’t want to be sent there for cursing. There was no way I could ‘dive’ into the pool if I couldn’t even manage a little jump without pinching my nose. I usually messed up the timing, not breathing out when entering the water. Not pinching my nose meant filling my sinuses with burning chlorine water, and me coughing and snotting my way to the side of the pool. But I had no choice, I needed to do this to pass and catch up with my peers. One less thing to be teased about.
I silently assess the situation. ‘Ok, so no climbing up to a tall diving board, so less chances of breaking my neck.’ ‘No jumping or springing, maybe I can still grab my nose before hitting the water. But what if I just torpedo down and smash my head off the bottom.’ ‘We’re lining up way to close to that drain thing. Didn’t my cousin tell me a story about a girl getting her hair caught in one of those and drowning.’ I tighten my ponytail.
I take a spot at the end of the line, giving me more time before I have to drop headfirst off the side of the pool. Now my turns up, and I was nearly frozen. I shuffle my toes to the edge and glanced up for a quick peak of who I would be embarrassing myself in front of. My gaze it met by a wave from Mum who was standing across the pool. Great, the one day she finally came early to watch and it’s the day I’m going to fail. I notice she’s got my dad’s Pentax hanging around her neck. Wonderful, I not only get to deal with everyone seeing my humiliation, there’ll be photographic evidence of it too.
After readjusting my toes on the edge of the pool, I fold myself over, arms beside my ears, only I don’t link my fingers to make the pencil shape. I’m still hoping to grab my nose before impact. By this point the instructor is heavily encouraging me to just go.
‘Just tip yourself forward,’ she says.
I try, but the moment my centre of gravity starts to shift, I stiffen up and jerk back. This happens at least three times, probably making me look like I was about to have a seizure on the side of the pool. The instructor’s now standing behind be, she coaches me to try again as I hear her mumble about giving me a little help. Next thing I know she’s grabbing onto my bathing suit and I’m hovering over the edge of the pool, arms dangling into the water. She lets go and I plunge down towards the bottom. After a brief which way is up panic, I reach the surface, water pouring out of my nose as I make my way to the ladder.
Shakily climbing out of the water I’m flooded with a mix of emotions. The ‘how dare she just drop me into the pool like that,’ blended into a ‘hell ya, I did it, and survived’ (again probably not hell, or even heck because fake cursing still shows intention of sin). I take my place at the back of the line, waiting for my next turn. ‘This time I’ll do it myself,’ I repeat in my head. And I did it. Then did it again a few more times. I could dive, or more accurately drop myself headfirst from the edge of the pool.
And you know what, I was fine. I was still taking a mouthful and gasping when I surfaced, but I didn’t drown. There would be no standing ovation or applause for my grace, but I was doing it. Taking one tiny baby step towards banishing a long-held fear. The world didn’t come crashing down on me.
While pouring through albums and journals trying to decide what I would write about first, this picture and its memory stuck with me. This moment in my life and the feelings it reminded me of are similar to what I was feeling towards this blog. I’ve owned the domain for so long and attempted to start writing an embarrassing number of times. I’ve been dangling my arms over the pool for far too long and it was time to drop in, headfirst. The water will be fine, it won’t drown me despite my fears of putting myself and my writing out there. And while it may not be a beautiful image of grace at the beginning it’s a needed step forward.
To close this out I’m going to add that eventually I did learn how to dive properly, although it took three years and me having to shake the nickname frog legs where my diving skills where concerned. And Mum did get to catch a less embarrassing series of photos of me in action at swimming lessons.