There is a wonderful program that is available to kids in our community. It has them in the pool everyday…but it’s not swimming lessons. Well, not swimming lessons in the sense you usually think of them, anyway. Not the kind I took…
I remember, years ago…quite a few years ago, when I really stop to count…I took swimming lessons at the Rec Center. That’s what it was called then. And, it was THE place to see and be seen…oh, and to swim or learn to swim, or just bounce around in the shallow end. I can easily remember how I felt about swimming. We arrived for lessons early in the morning and about 25 or so kids got into the cold, cold pool and lined up against the wall. Then we all held on to the side and kicked our feet.
I’m swimming,” I thought. But, no…then we had to stick our face under the water. This was something I had tried to always avoid. It seemed to me, it was a little hard to breathe when your head was down under. And, I know I was right because one time, I accidentally forgot about that and while I was bobbing in shallow end, I went down too far and happened to breathe in at the same time I bobbed down and severe panic ensued! PANIC, I tell you true! “Get thyself out of the pool and forevermore, never put your face in the water,” I told myself in no uncertain terms. And, that became one of my LIFE RULES. Until now. Here were these Rec Center lifeguards…who were part mermaids and mermen…surely having been born in some other world and transferred here to ours…because they actually SAVED people! And, they had little whistles that hung around their necks and when they blew them, every body looked up to see who had messed up big time. Some times they only issued a warning…but other times…they had the power to banish you to sit on the sides or even leave the pool for the whole day! And, here they were…telling me to put my face UNDER the water. Now being the intuitive child that I was, after a few more’breathing under water’ incidences, I learned to ‘hold my breath’. That was not as easy as it sounds and entailed strict preparation. First you had to bob up…then wipe all the hair out of your eyes, pull your swimsuit out of the nether regions, take in a gulp of air as large as possible, This made a large sound which warned people nearby you were about to make your move and not to get in your way. Then you closed on that huge gulp of air which cause your cheeks to puff out like a squirrel in October! Next, you held your nose with one hand…this gave you two life lines… no air out of the nose and no air out of the mouth! And I suppose that’s the reason I squinted my eyes so tightly closed was to prevent water from escaping there, too. Though, that was pure instinct…I don’t think I thought about that. Though, it does make perfect sense, doesn’t it?. Then, giving a little jump up in prep for the bob down…I would GO FOR IT! And as quick as I sensed the water touch my face, WHOOSH, I was up again. Now whether I actually went completely under the water, all the way, totally immersed, whole head wet, is a mystery to this day. I, of course, like to think for sure I did, but it really is a toss up. And, now, these water gods were telling us not only to calmly lay our face over into the water…they actually wanted us to blow out our air while we were under there!!!!! BLOW OUT OUR AIR? Then what are we supposed to do? Magically grow gills? No. No. Now, if I were to actually lean over and calmly put my head under water, I can promise you that I would not let go of the only thing keeping me alive at that moment. NO WAY was I going to let my air out in bubbles! HA! Craziest thing I ever heard of! But, I noticed that all the kids around me started doing this death defying act. They acted like it ws no big deal. They had probably never had the scary encounter I did with the ‘monster water’ getting into my eyes, and nose and ears and surely right into my brain, itself. They didn’t know the dangers. And, now one of those mer-girls was heading my way, to see me do it. I was about to be humiliated in front of the whole water logged beginner swimming class. I had to do it, I had to. She stopped right in front of me. “Let me see you blow me some bubbles, Sweetie,” she said. “Put your life in danger while I stand here and watch,” she said. (She had the thickest Southern accent I had ever heard). And, so I began my prep for the task. Bob up, hair back, swimsuit out, big gulp, hand to nose bob up then down…rising upon feeling the water. When I had finished wiping the hair out of my eyes and sputtering and coughing, I looked to her for her approval. She was laughing. At what, I don’t know…but I was sensing no humor at that moment! “Sweetie, that’s not it…you act like that water is gonna bite you or something!,” she said between laughs, “Here, it’s like this.” And with that, she leaned over and put her face in the water right in front of me, and then she blew bubbles out of her mouth…and as they slowly rose and danced to the surface, she just stayed under longer. Her blond hair, pulled back into a ponytail, did not get into her eyes at all. I do not know why my Mama did not put my hair into a ponytail! She should know about these things. Could have been because my hair was permed on the sides and back within an inch of its life and my bangs were cut near to my scalp in the front. My hair did not lay smoothly in the water like Ponytail Girl. No, it freakishly clung to the sides of my head in big blobs like a bird’s nest, all tangled and twisted. I knew what it looked like because I had seen Joy, and Mother obviously liked what she did to my hair, cause she did the same to Joy’s. So what her hair looked like wet…mine looked like wet. I was a hot mess. I digress. Anyway, when the water goddess finally decided to rejoin the human race, she came up and just opened her eyes and started talking, right normal like. No coughing, no sputtering, no wiping her eyes. And, then she had the gall to say, “Now, sweetie, you try it.” Yeah…you don’t give a girl much mercy here, do you, She-ra of the Pool? “I’ll practice on it, ” I said. And she said she would be right back. But, she forgot and I did not remind her. I’m sure that was a sin and I will be shown that one day, but at that point in my life, it was a matter of survival. And, when the mer-people said we could go for today, unless we wanted to stay and practice, in which case, they would hold the opening of the pool an hour, I found Joy and told her we were getting out quick cause Mama needed to go somewhere. And, we must not keep Mother waiting. Lie number two. I know. I know.
The very next day, with not even a day to rest, we had to go back. We lined up against the side again, and first we practiced holding on to the side and kicking. Fine. I did it. But, I was no dummy, I knew what was next. They blew the whistle and everyone stopped and turned to look at them. “Now, y’all practice putting your face in the water and blow me some pretty bubbles. Now, I know some of you had to leave to go with your Mamas yesterday, and didn’t get to show me, so I’ll be sure and see you do it before we can go on to something else.” Wow! Way to go…make me responsible for the whole Rec Center Beginner Swimming Class of 1959 not being able to progress and have to spend another day ‘blowing pretty bubbles!” So, I had to do this. “Just do it,” I told myself. And I leaned over and took in that gulp of air and held my nose, then I put my face in the water and blew out all my water in one large SWOOSH! But, it came out and I didn’t die! I didn’t die! So, I kept practicing and practicing and soon, she of the blond ponytail showed up and told me it was time to show her what I could do. And, I did. Not pretty bubbles, but I had it down to 2 swooshes instead of one. I came up and she said, “Well, Sweetie, you are doing so much better! I’m so proud of you. Now you just keep practicing and one day THIS WEEK I want to see those pretty bubbles like I showed you.” I told her I would get right on it . Lie number three. That was enough lessons, but no, I hear the whistle, and they tell us what we are going to do today. We are going to PUT OUR FACES IN THE WATER AND PUT OUR HANDS IN FRONT OF US AND PUSH AWAY FROM THE WALL!!!! DANGER! DANGER! DANGER, WILL ROBINSON! This is not fun anymore. I want to leave. I don’t care if I ever swim. I don’t even WANT to swim. It was all Mama’s idea, anyway. Who needs to know how to swim? Give me a book and a sofa and that’s enough physical activity for anyone! But, I knew I would not be able to ease out of this. Mama wanted us to swim. That was enough. She never went swimming. Why was she making me? I hate swimming! I was so mad, I began hitting the water until the girl next to me started looking at me like I was looney! Then I put my face in, pushed off, all the while holding my nose. And, I found I could do it without blowing bubbles. So, that’s the minor adjustment I made in my attempt. The Sweetie Queen came over and told me that wasn’t right. I could not do it that way, cause I was going to need both my hands for the next step. And, it was then that I told Mama I had an ear ache, and she told me to get back in that pool and do what the nice girl said. I learned to do this routine, and I learned to simulate moving my arms too. And, I faked all of it I could.
The last day finally came and instead of looking forward to it… I went into it with the same way I imagine some walking to face a firing squad. We had to jump off the diving board and swim to the side to graduate. WHAT? And, somehow, I got up on that low diving board. Everyone was looking! I was the last one. I heard Mama, “Tonja Lynn, you jump right now!” I didn’t. Then she yelled across the whole Rec Center pool, so everyone in the whole town could hear, “Joy already jumped and you’re the BIG SISTER!” Way to put the pressure on Mama.
And, I jumped. I don’t know how. I don’t remember jumping. I don’t remember the hour it took to hit the water. But, I remember being under the water. Way under the water. I must have gone to the bottom of the pool being as I was older and all. There was water all around and I could not get out of it. By some miracle, I felt my head come out of the water and one of the mer-men saying “Come on, just swim over here!” What? The 5 miles to the side? And, I began hitting the water and slapping the water and I felt 2 strong arms give me a push in the right direction, and the boy at the side reaching his arms out and grabbing my hand and pulling me to the side. I inched my way slowly down the side of the pool to the steps, holding tightly to the sides with my bent fingertips. And, when I got there, I turned and looked back at the water and there was Blond Ponytail giving me a thumbs up! And, I got out and gave her a thumbs up back. But, I didn’t mean it. I wasn’t proud. I was thankful I was out. I vowed no one would ever get me into another swimming class even if I had to feign a broken leg! Never. And, that is one of my promises to me that I have kept. Not that it is a good thing. Not that I am proud of it. But I kept it. In the years since then, I have learned to swim…somewhat. I can take care of myself in the pool. I can swim with my face in the water or out. I can bob and go under still and I can even blow pretty bubbles. But, I have never, ever, ever gone off a diving board again. And, while there are still things I would like to do in this world before I take my exit, I can live out the rest of my years and go to my grave and never go off a diving board. And, still die happy.
I have never learned to swim. When I was a kid the only time we ever were in the water was in farm ponds. I did almost learn to swim the summer I was 12, but then my summers after that became too busy with working. Later, when I was 18 I went to Jamaica with a music group, and we were jumping the waves at the beach. I didn't want anyone to know I couldn't swim, so I just held onto other people's hands on either side of me as we jumped. Then a huge wave came along and knocked us apart. I was under water long enough to take some in as I wondered if I would drown right here in Jamaica. Needless to say, I have never had any desire to try swimming since. I was that mother who could not swim who insisted her children learn to swim!