The Swimming Lesson

I was behind everyone else on the chart, but at least I was ahead of Mitchell.

It was my first day of college and I was scared. Scared because I felt like a nameless student lost in a sea of students. Scared that my high school achievements would not meet the requirements of my new classes. But most of all, scared by the sudden opportunity to improve my mind and body in ways I had never had before. I wanted to learn, but I did not want to fail. And that was why I worried about Swimming 101.

I had signed up for beginning swimming thinking that I would broaden my physical abilities. But as I sat on a locker room bench preparing for the class, I wondered if it was foolish to admit that I had never learned such an elementary skill. Wading in the creek that ran through my grandfather’s ranch and splashing around in some waist-deep ponds were the sum total of my aquatic experience.

Suppressing my fears I popped the contacts out of my eyes and stored them in their case. My blurred vision softened the surroundings and somehow made me feel less vulnerable.

Moments later I stood beside a huge swimming pool waiting for class to begin. Staring into the water I imagined my body lying lifeless at the bottom of the pool, then, pulled out by a lifeguard only to have a crowd of onlookers gather around whispering and snickering about an 18-year-old not knowing how to swim.

The shrill sound of a coach’s whistle brought me back to reality, and I lined up with the 23 other bodies in regulation swimsuits. As the roll was called I couldn’t help but wonder if all these students really didn’t know how to swim or if they were just taking the class for an easy A. I began thinking maybe I should transfer to a sport I knew more about.

The coach gave a speech on the benefits of swimming, then explained a chart on the wall. It listed the skills we had to learn in order to pass the class.

“And by the end of the semester,” he concluded, “you must all swim one mile and jump from the high dive.”

Everyone looked to the far end of the pool. Even without my contacts I could see all too well the spindly ladder and platform towering above the water. I swallowed hard and tried to forget it, but its image was etched in my mind.

One week went by. A second. Then a third. I was beginning to make new friends and feel comfortable with my classes. Except swimming. My classmates had taken to water like fish, but no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t seem to get the hang of it.

“Relax!” the coach kept telling me. “Don’t fight the water. Let it help you.”

Relax? How could I relax when I lagged behind all the other students? They were passing off the skills on the chart while I had to stay near the side of the pool and receive help from the coach or his assistant.

I hurried to and from the locker room each day, glad that my blurred vision kept me from recognizing anyone, and hoping no one would recognize me. Still, I worried about coming face to face with one of the California guys from my dorm. How could I explain Swimming 101 to someone who grew up with the Pacific Ocean in his backyard?

By the sixth week I was ready to quit. I was tired of being a loser. But something unexpected happened that made me decide to stay. I was working my way down the length of the pool, trying to pass off the backstroke, when I was suddenly torpedoed by another body. The impact sent us both thrashing about, sputtering and gasping for air.

“Stay in your own lane, Mitchell!” I heard the coach yell.

“Yes sir!” replied my assailant as he continued across the pool in wild and ungainly strokes. Thwack! Thwack! His feet slapped the water sending gallons of it into the air.

Mitchell. I checked his name on the skill chart after class. He had passed off four requirements, but I had now passed five. It felt very good to no longer be last, and I vowed to keep it that way.

Weeks went by and my swimming improved. My secret race against Mitchell had given me new courage and a deepening sense of satisfaction. I checked the chart at the beginning of each period, focusing not on how far I was behind the others, but on the fact that Mitchell was two, then three, then four spaces behind me.

Mitchell always practiced at the far side of the pool. I watched him from my lane, squinting to see what advice the coach was giving him, assessing his performance against mine. Rarely did a class period go by that the coach didn’t get down in the water and help him. I wanted to move closer and learn from the coach’s instructions, yet I kept my distance, thinking that association with Mitchell would label me a loser once again.

The final days of the semester came like a tidal wave, swiftly and silently submerging the student body in a flood of projects, papers, and exams. I sequestered myself in a corner of the library and tried to study for my tests, but visions of the high dive and the deep waters beneath it kept interrupting my thoughts. Relax, take a deep breath, jump, push off from the bottom, and swim to the side of the pool. I kept rehearsing the steps in my mind, wondering if I was really brave enough to do it.

The day I dreaded came quickly, and I stood below the diving board as other students ascended the ladder and dropped one by one into the pool. I tried to relax my knotted stomach by telling myself it would be easy.

“Okay,” said the coach tapping his pencil on my shoulder, “It’s your turn.” I nodded and turned to go.

“Oh, and could you give Mitchell a hand?” he added, pointing to a figure that stood by the wall.

“Sure,” I replied, wondering why I had to help him. Was he too afraid to climb by himself? Did he need someone to coax him off the edge?

I walked over to the wall and, for the first time, stood face to face with Mitchell, close enough to look into his cloudy, misshapen eyes and see that he was blind. Guilt and embarrassment shot through my body. This was the person I had privately put down all semester, too worried about my status to notice why he had been given extra help.

“Hi,” he said, reaching out his hand and grabbing onto my arm.

“Hello,” I managed to reply.

“Are you nervous?” he asked as we walked toward the high dive.

“A little,” I confessed.

“So am I,” he said. “But once we do it we will never have to be afraid of it again.”

As we climbed the ladder I thought of Matthew 7:1–2: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” [Matt. 7:1–2] It seemed as though I had heard that scripture a million times, but suddenly I began to understand it. My judgments of Mitchell could not have been more wrong. He was not a loser, but a brave person who was conquering a physical challenge with confidence and enthusiasm. We only become losers when we avoid trying to learn a new skill because of fear of looking foolish. I regretted that my unkind judgment of Mitchell had prevented me from associating with him during the class and learning from and being motivated by him.

“Do you want to go first?” Mitchell asked as we reached the top.

“No,” I said, “you go ahead.”

I watched as he cautiously walked to the end of the platform, plunged down into the water, then resurfaced and swam to the side.

I knew I would not get an A in Swimming 101, but I had learned a lesson that I would not forget. I went to the end of the platform, took a deep breath, and jumped.

[illustration] Illustrated by Scott Snow