A Chicago mom’s adventure in learning how to swim

I didn’t learn to swim until I was eleven, and even now at three times that age, I am quite certain that I would stand only a 20 percent chance of survival if I fell off a boat. If I find myself, for some strange reason, in the deep end of a pool, I perform a panicky, spastic doggy paddle over to the ledge. With my head tilted back at a frighteningly unnatural angle and my legs and arms kicking out like Elaine’s dance on “Seinfeld” (go ahead and YouTube it if you don’t remember).

I often get the question: “Are you okay?” And the answer, while technically yes, is also a definite no. I’m not really okay. I’m a weak swimmer and I’m afraid of drowning. Plus, I despise bathing suits, and would be much more comfortable climbing out of the pool if only I were in sweatpants and a turtleneck.

That being said, I made it a point to enroll my older son in swim lessons this summer. He’ll be four in July, and while he had a month of “swim lessons” back when he was one (i.e, being held by a grown-up while sobbing in the pool), these will be his first actual lessons in which he will, hopefully, retain some basic water skills. I’d like him to learn how to hold his breath in the water. I’d like him to learn a healthy respect for the water and an understanding of how to have fun SAFELY. I’d also like him to reach my age and feel confident that there’s at least an 85 percent survival rate should he fall out of his paddle boat one day.

My mother never learned to swim. She was scheduled for swim class at her high school, but the Oak Lawn tornado of 1967 destroyed the building and also the pool. Sometimes, when I hear her talk about that tornado, there’s a layer of relief imbedded in her words. She was scared of the water. She didn’t want to take lessons. And then that tornado blew into town and she had the good fortune of playing kickball that semester instead of having to get into the pool.

My father, who loves to swim, had a near drowning incident when he was in his early twenties. He was in a lake, went out too far, and the next thing he knew, he was being dragged back to shore by some random guy. This is a terrifying story to me but one that reminds me of the kindness of strangers. And also reminds me to stay out of lakes.

As for myself, by the time I was signed up for swim lessons, I was already pretty wary of the water. It took a few weeks for them to get me to stick my face in the water, and it turns out I was right to be afraid of aiming my face towards the bottom of the pool. Later, when I was fourteen and feeling much braver than usual, I would jump off the diving board, rocket to the bottom of the pool and slam my face into the pool floor, finally coming back up to the surface missing half of my front tooth and bleeding from a scrape on my nose. To this day, having had two different series of dental procedures, I still can’t bite down into a submarine sandwich with any sort of confidence. And yes, I used the word “submarine” because we are talking about the water. Get it?

And that brings me back to my almost four year old. It’s high time he gets into that water and starts learning some skills. Drowning is no joke in early childhood, and not only do I want to equip my kids with the tools they need to be safe around the water, but I also want to make sure he is not afraid of the water, either. I mean, sure, he should be a little afraid of the water and know well enough what he is and is not capable of, but he should also know how to hold his breath should he fall out of mommy’s boat one day. Who am I kidding, though. I’m definitely not buying a boat. But my son is going to learn to swim, even if the park district pool gets destroyed in a disaster. And he’s going to learn how to be safe at the beach. And he’s definitely going to learn: when you dive into the pool, for the love of God, keep your arms out in front of you and please don’t go teeth first.

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