I don't remember learning to swim. Truly, I don't. I was one of those "brother/sister threw me in and I figured it out" stories. I do remember swimming lessons every summer. They were in the morning at the Lawrence Municipal Pool. It was usually still dewy and cool, and we would jump in quickly. There were sometimes storms and lightning. Then we would have to clear the pool until the lightning stopped. But if it was just raining, we kept on. I took lessons every summer for six or seven years. The final level was pretty crazy, now that I think back on it. We had to jump in fully clothed with jeans, remove our clothes while treading water, and tie our jeans into a knot to use to help rescue someone who was drowning. We had to tread water for five minutes. We had to do the dead man's float for ten minutes. We had to do four pool lengths of each of the strokes (freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, sidestroke). I doubt I could do any of that anymore! But I was and am a proficient swimmer. I have no fear of drowning unless I am sucked into a very strong current.
One of my very few early-early childhood memories is of being at the pool with my mom. I assume we were there because my brother and sister wanted to swim. She would hold me close and walk around the waist-level water. I would float in her arms, falling in and out of sleep. I remember it was warm and the water noises were very soothing.
For all these reasons and more, I love going to the pool now. I love boating and being out on the lake and ocean, as well. But something is special about the pool. I was so excited at the beginning of this summer because Vicki Jo is old enough to go to the pool and really have a few hours of fun before the sun tires her out. Before we moved from Topeka, in the nasty armpit of a heat wave, we were going three and four times a week:
Topeka has a couple of very awesome aquatic centers. Going there invariably made my day better. I would race home from work, throw on our swimsuits and slather on sunscreen, and speed to the pool. It made me feel like I was seven years old. All day long I would be fantasizing about jumping off the 5-meter platform. Jeff would get a hot dog, some Cheetos, and a Mountain Dew and we would split our naughty snacks before going home to eat dinner.
When we moved to Nashville, I was confident that a major metropolitan area would have dozens of these kinds of neighborhood pools or municipal aquatic centers. Sadly, I was wrong. There is a wave pool, and there are YMCAs, but there isn't something like what I had as a child: a gathering space for swimming and fun as a part of the city's recreational bureau. Someone at church mentioned the pool that used to be in Centennial Park (Nashville's huge, central green space west of downtown). I learned the rueful history of a magnificent city pool that closed rather than be integrated in the 60s. And I realized we had moved to the South.
Ronald, our church's custodian, who is also African-American, told a story this morning about how he used to wash houseboats out on Old Hickory Lake to make money as a teenager. He blew me away when he got to this point in his story: "And I couldn't swim." What!? You washed houseboats, were on the lake every day, and you couldn't swim?
Then, I went to my office, sat down at the desk and turned on the radio, and heard this podcast about how American minorities struggle to learn how to swim and have the highest child drowning rates. It was so sad for me because I was immediately aware that one of the issues has to be lack of access. If there isn't a cheap neighborhood pool within walking distance to go and hang out in the summer, how will you learn to swim?
To me, this seems to be a basic public safety concern. Our society's children should know how to swim, if they are able. I view it as essential for my child to learn those skills. She will certainly take lessons when the time comes. And hopefully, she will want to do it because she loves being at the pool, out on the lake, or taking a dip in the ocean. I want her to feel comfortable and safe around the water. I want that for all children.