The Westminster City Municipal Pool has been my summer home for as long as I can remember. Along with my fellow swimmer-turned-coaches, I’ve been with the Stingrays (the pool’s resident swim team) through the highest highs and, more recently, the lowest lows. The responsibilities of the coaches extend further than just the kids who sport the team suit though; we also have a feeder system called The Stingray Learn-To-Swim Program. The program was born about seven years ago when my mom began a conversation with her most infamous phrase, So I’ve been thinking…
So now coaches are more than coaches, we are also teachers with five half hour classes, four days a week, for six weeks. The lessons are drastically underpriced, so parents from all over the county start signing up their future olympians in April to secure a spot. All the kids are memorable to me, which is a beneficial seeing as I always seem to run into them around town throughout the year. I can almost always retrieve their name from my mental rolodex.
This summer I had my most memorable student thus far. Maya, a cherub cheeked three year old with sandy blond ringlets, was too petrified to even dip her toes in. Her mother explained to me that they had tried to do a Mommy & Me class at the YMCA over the winter, but that not even she could get Maya into the pool. I was completely unfazed; this child wasn’t going to be the first I’d picked up and carried into the water with me to prove to them there was nothing to be afraid of. No, I’d done that countless times; I’d even had similar reactions before–a mixture of screech, siren, and blood-curdling scream. The difference was Maya did not stop. The usual remedies (soothing pats, hushed compliments, a tiny rubber duck) had no effect. Her legs squeezed tight on my ribs, her arms wrapped tighter around my neck, and her baby nails dug into my skin. Many minutes passed and she had only gotten louder, the child was going to wear herself out. I couldn’t neglect the other students or leave my thirteen-year-old assistant to tend to them alone, so I slowly walked Maya back to the steps. She B lined for her parents.
I had to re-think my approach, so I designated a spot on the steps for each student. Maya’s spot was outside the pool, but near enough that she could still hear me talking. The class continued like any other ‘Beginner I’ class, we blew bubbles, kicked our feet, splashed with our hands, floated on our backs, and the most daring of us even put our faces in the water. Maya watched, unimpressed. At the end of the class, I bid all the children goodbye but asked Maya to stay for a second. I asked her to stand on the top step, where the water came to her knees. The most she would do was sit on the edge and put her feet on the top step. I accepted it but upped the ante a little bit, asking her to scoot on her bottom along the edge until she reached the other side of the steps. Success! We left it at that on the first night.
At the end of the first week, Maya would walk on the second step in water up to her belly button from one side of the steps to the other. The problem was, she wouldn’t do this until the class was over and it was just her and me. By the middle of the second week, she would sit on the edge of the pool and let me hold her, koala-style, as we walked through the three-feet giving high-fives to the other teachers and assistants who had yet to make a mad dash for their towels as the evening’s lessons had wrapped up. This occurred however, only after thirty minutes of pure negotiation, with a lollipop as a tasty bribe. I was oh so slowly, but all the while surely, gaining her trust along with the help of grape DumDums. As the session came to an end, I was still unsure whether Maya’s daily refusals to do as I asked were pure performance or bona fide fear.
When I saw Maya had signed up for the next session of lessons, I took her class right away. I didn’t want her to have to start over with a new teacher. Much to my surprise, she smiled when she saw me again. I joked that it was because I was wearing my StrawberryShortcake bathing suit, but her mom negated it, saying Maya had been talking about me all weekend. The progress Maya made in the next two weeks took everyone by surprise. She began putting her face in the water, kicking with a barbell shaped flotation device (first with assistance, then without), she would even jump to me without trying to grab hold of my hands first. A literal leap of faith. The first time she lunged toward me from the edge of the pool and she locked her big brown eyes with mine, I knew she finally trusted me. I knew, also, that it had never been an act. Maya’s fear had been authentic and it had been alleviated.
Maya and I jumped off the diving block together into five feet of water, holding only one hand. At the ripe age of three, she still couldn’t swim on her own, but she knew I was there with her. She even surpassed her classmates when she went down the water slide into the diving well on the last day of the session. Unlike most students, of any age, she didn’t even hesitate. Once we made eye contact through the yellow tube, her at the top of the tall slide and me treading water in the nine-feet, I said Go ahead, and she did just that. Naturally, her parents were ecstatic they had captured such a huge moment on their video camera. While their side-view captured her arch through the air, I know I had the better vantage point. I saw Maya’s face as she accelerated down the tube, not even the sun through the yellow-gold plastic could jaundice her bright expression.
Maybe it’s selfish, but I’m glad that I’m the only one who saw her on her way down. It makes the memory that much more valuable.
Maya and I spent another week swimming together after I got back from vacation. Her parents had requested private lessons and I obliged. She loves swimming, they told me, She loves you. The funny thing is, I knew that already. And Maya knew I loved her too.