the pool at the y smelled of chemicals and was filled with noise. spashing, joking, teachers calling out, all muted by the wetness and water and the overpowering scent. i was in my brother’s swim class this week because somehow we had missed mine and this was my make up class. i was small and out of place in his class and i clung to the edge of the pool and the grooved cement hoping no one would notice me. hoping it would end soon. hoping to not have to swim.
the teacher stood above us all tall and thin and shrill in her instructions. up a floor, there was a glass viewing room where i knew my mother as waiting. eventually the class would end and i would be free and done and safe. i pressed myself into the tiled edges and kept my elbows bent tightly and my head high above the waters disturbed lapping.
most of the activities of the class she let me skip, or she modified, or maybe she just pretended not to notice me opt out. i did hold onto the kick board with my fingers clutching it so tightly they were cramping and blue white in color while i did some practice kicking.
at the end of the lesson she decided to do a quick round of races before she ended things. we were to swim to the bouy line and back in two’s. she counted the pairs off going down the line and each set did a quick race. i was at the end of the line that had formed and i was certain i would not be racing. certain. sure of it. because, i could not swim like that. i could not do it so how could she have me do it?
truly that must be the moment i started the drowning. in the moment that i firmly believed i could not swim. and when i protested her when she tried to send me out to race. and again when she assumed i was protesting because i didn’t want to lose to an older boy and she assured me she would give me a head start. maybe she was trying to be equitable, or encouraging, or make me brave. she insisted i race. she sent me out ahead. i made it to the bouyline and and i grabbed onto it thinking i could never ever make it back to the wall.
she called out to me to let go and swim back and i either told her no or i just hung on silently. i don’t remember. but i remember her irritation in response, her acidic insistance that i let go and swim back. the shrill rising with impatience and frustration.
i did let go, and swim a few meek strokes of the gasping panicked variety and then i just gave up and started sinking. the real drowning had begun. the decision to let go and slip under. the acceptance of failure. the chlorinated water swallowing me down and all the sounds of the pool area muting more and more.
did she yell to me to try harder?
i don’t know. i know, from the retelling of the story that she stood by the side of the pool watching. that my mom fled the spectator room and flew down the stairs to the side of pool in a frightened rage. that another teacher, a man, jumped in and pulled me out. i do know that the teacher said she did not want to jump in because she had gotten her hair permed that morning and it would be ruined if it got wet. the swim teacher. with a sinking child in her care. she did not want to ruin her perm.
that was one time i drowned. how i remember it through my memory of the experience and my memory of hearing about it. what sticks with me might be not the drowning, the sinking below, the fear, the panic, but the rejection. the truth of knowing that i was worth less than a hair style to someone.
that is still my struggle many days. believing i am good enough, or that i deserve, that i am not fundamentally flawed. believing in my own worth.
in the moments i do know, it is always through my practice, through my spirituality, and through seeing the light in everything. embracing the divine.
but some days i just struggle. i don’t believe i can swim. i don’t want to mess up anybody’s hair.
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