Justin's dad was a swimmer and when he was around he used to take Justin to the Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool in Long Beach to swim in the morning. Then, they'd go to a greasy spoon diner for breakfast, where they have home-fried potatoes that look like they have been puffed with air. I know, because Justin took Ella and I there for breakfast one day to show us a piece of his childhood.
My dad can doggy-paddle. He learned to swim by being tossed into the water by one of his 12 brothers and sisters, the story goes. My mom is not a swimmer. She doesn't even really like being in the water, as far as I can tell. I remember her taking swim lessons with her cousin at a community pool when we lived in Canada, so I must have been four or five years old. I feel like my brother and I just sat on the benches and watched, but I can't imagine that's true. My aunt or someone must have been there. There's no way our mom let us sit by a pool unattended.
My memories of swimming lessons involve the pools at Goldenwest College and Westminster High School. My brother and I took group lessons in the summer, probably starting when I was about six or seven years old. I remember holding the edge of the pool and later the kickboard and dunking my face in water. I remember kicking. I remember hanging onto the edge of the pool waiting my turn to swim a few strokes to the teacher. I remember learning to do the deadman's float (do they still call it that? I bet they don't, since kids don't sit Indian-style anymore. Criss-cross-apple-sauce!). I remember learning to float on my back, but my legs always sank. I remember eventually swimming all the way across the pool by myself. I think we did that in races and I think I always lost. I remember getting little certificates when we graduated to the next level.
But mostly, I remember holding onto the chain link fence and wailing while my mom pried my fingers loose. I remember eventually climbing the high dive ladder and then freezing, paralyzed with my fear of heights and water combined. I remember they wouldn't let me climb down, so I had to jump. I remember belly flops. I remember shooting down to the bottom once I hit the water and then pushing myself up to the air. I remember not making it all the way to the bottom and not knowing how I was going to get back up without pushing off. I remember swallowing a lot of water. I remember the idea that I was going to jump from the low dive to the instructor seeming crazy. I remember doing it anyway, because I had no choice.
I know I eventually loved the pool and the carefree summer days of swimming at my friend's house and Marco Polo and jumping in the ocean and pretending I didn't know that my parents were calling us to the shore for lunch or to go home. I know I love the water now. I must, or why would I want to live so close to the ocean?
But I remember being terrified.
So, I've been putting off signing Ella up for swim lessons, even though the swim school is only four blocks from our house and we have a pool in our backyard and live a block from the ocean. I finally registered her for lessons and my anxiety level was so high that I had to keep taking deep breaths. Luckily, she was napping and Justin was counseling me, "She'll be fine. I love swimming. She'll be like her daddy."
We went to the pool on Tuesday to buy the reusable water diaper that she has to wear over her disposable water diaper and under her swimsuit. There was a mommy-and-me babies class going on, and a couple of preschoolers were getting private lessons on the far side of the pool. Justin and I employed the same technique we do with any new situation: with doctors, classes, people. We talked it up.
"Look Ella! They're swimming! You're going to get to swim here! Swimming is fun! See how they're dunking their heads under water? Isn't that neat! Look how nice the teachers look! It's going to be so fun! You're going to make a new friend! She's going to swim with you! You're going to love it!"
The whole walk home she kept saying, "Swim! Swim!" Then, when she saw the pool in the backyard and for the rest of the afternoon, "Swimming! Swim! Socks and shoes!" (Whenever she wants to go outside or go somewhere she says "socks and shoes" because she knows that means we're leaving the house.)
We decided not to mention swimming again until this morning.
When we got to the pool it was so much more crowded with preschoolers than it was during our first visit. Some of them were screaming.
I do mean screaming. Sobbing. I don't know how they sustained it for the whole lesson, but we were there for 30-45 minutes and it was never quiet. (Lessons are 15 minutes each, but there's the pre-crying and the post-crying and the next kid crying.)
Needless to say, the scene didn't bode well for Ella's future. She let us change her into her triple layer of swim bottoms, and resumed hanging on my neck. There's a water table next to the pool, so that kids can splash around as they "wet" their appetite for swimming. She loves water tables, but wasn't going to touch this one.
Luckily, Justin is off today, so he was there, too.
We found a seat on one of the benches after the girl working in the office showed us who Ella's teacher would be. Thankfully, she was working with a boy who was happily putting his head in the water and swimming back and forth between the little platforms they have in the pool to make it shallow for the kids.
"Look Ella! That's you're new friend! That's Liz! She's having so much fun with that boy, isn't she? You get to play with her next! You're going to love it! You get to play with her and Mommy and Daddy are going to sit here on this bench and watch you have fun! It's going to be so cool!"
She seemed a little skeptical, despite her excitement for "socks and shoes! new friend!" this morning.
|Waiting for her turn.|
I had told Justin to be prepared with the camera phone and I began snapping away. I expected the first picture to be of Ella crying and the last to be of Ella smiling, or at least bearing it.
|When Ella meets a new person, she generally reaches for me to hold her. I don't know how she knew that she had to hold onto Miss Liz instead, but she did and she didn't hesitate at all.|
|The first thing Liz had her do was lie on these mats to float on her tummy. Um. She's smiling?!?! My heart was bursting with love and relief and pride. She likes it!|
Regardless, Ella and Liz floated back to us, smiling.
|Liz gave Ella a frog to keep her company during her lesson. At the end, I had to remind them both that the frog lives at the pool and couldn't come home with us.|
"Look Mommy! Look Daddy! I'm doing it! I'm swimming with Miss Liz!"
Water in the mouth.
|Liz seemed a little surprised at Ella's positive attitude given that it was her first swim lesson ever and that there were crying kids all over the place.|
|Liz tipped Ella's head back to keep the water out of her mouth and help her stay afloat.|
|See that kid behind Ella? That's the face I expected to see.|
At the end of the lesson, Liz told us how incredibly well she did. Especially for her first lesson. That she was so confident. That a little fear would actually be a good thing, so that she'd keep her mouth closed and know she had to be careful.
After all, smiling the whole time was fun and beautiful, but not conducive to keeping water out of her mouth.
My hope is that Ella will always get the best of Justin and me. Have his fearlessness and my sense of
commonsense caution. Have his knack for numbers and science. Have my passion for language and arts. Have his straight teeth. Have my strong teeth. The list goes on.
My girl loved her first swimming lesson ever. She was brave and strong and courageous and she didn't even know she was being all of those things.