Not many people remember how they learned to walk or talk as children. But it seems like everyone remembers swimming lessons. Even if they didn’t work.
First grade. Warsaw, the late 1980s. The smell of chlorine, which hits you from the entrance to the pool and foreshadows what’s coming next. Then it’s just the locker room, the showers and the footbath. And then the PE teacher will throw us into the cold pool, one by one. At the end, the lane where we can’t touch the bottom. To the children who are sinking, trying to catch their breath, waving their arms and legs, he graciously extends a pole. I never saw him get into the water himself.
I didn’t learn to swim then, but I learned to fear the water. Added to that was a family story my mum told my about my cousins. They were teenagers; they went to the river. One jumped into the water and started to sink, and the other jumped in to save him. He rescued his brother, but he himself was swept away by a whirlpool and drowned.
Maybe because my mum always swam breaststroke, keeping her head out of the water. And she’d say over and over that I shouldn’t go in too deep. My dad could do the backstroke, but he didn’t swim in the deep end. Even that was better than their parents, who couldn’t swim at all.
Supposedly my granddad became enchanted with the water on a beach in Yugoslavia and decided to learn to swim, but never got beyond splashing around on the edge, because he was already well over 70, and it was his last vacation at the seaside.
So nobody from the family put much pressure on me to learn to swim. Not on the playground, either; after all, kids say: “Go take a long walk off a short pier.”
But even though (or maybe because?) I kept well clear of the water, I became fascinated by stories about sailors and pirates. My mum read me my beloved Treasure Island (with a stormy sea on the cover) over and over again – when she got to the end, I’d ask her to start over. We read it to pieces, till it fell apart.
In high school it was the same. On the one hand, I’d fake absence notes just to avoid going to the pool; on the other, my favourite reading material was Lord Jim.
Today, more than 20 years later, I can swim, and I look at my children, learning the breaststroke in the next lane. I see in their movements the same fears, uncertainty and intimidation with respect to the water – even though it’s warm, and nobody’s chucking them into it.
And maybe everybody’s like this? Not just me and my children.
For example, my sportsman father-in-law forced my wife to learn to swim. She could avoid the afternoon visits to the pool only on one condition: if she was sleeping, because in their home, sleep was even more important than swimming.
So even before she learned to swim, she was able to fall asleep at will – anytime, anywhere. She retains that ability today, and I envy her. Just like I envy her great swimming.
Now we’re wondering together how to motivate our children to swim. But in such a way that they won’t have regrets later.
I’m reminded what the parents of a friend dreamed up when they took me with them on a seaside vacation at the end of primary school. In the evenings they let us go to parties, on the condition that the next day we got up at 8am and went for a swim in the Baltic.
Today I don’t know what they were more interested in: that we swam in the mornings, or that we didn’t party every night?
In any case, we managed. We got up every morning at 8, sat on the empty beach and, half-conscious, looked at the sea. And before going home we wet our trunks and towels at the edge of the water.
I recall that beautiful view from the beach and I wonder whether my relationship to the water reveals my overall attitude to life. Water is associated with power, strength and vitality. And fear of it may be fear of life, and avoidance of confronting what it brings.
Who knows? I suppose water can be a metaphor for anything. After all, we say “a drop in the ocean”, “a sea of faces”, “water to one’s mill” and “hot and cold running water”. I also remember what the drivers of long-distance buses used to say before the advent of low-cost airlines: “Ladies and gentlemen, the toilet in the bus is a stream of consciousness subject.”
As a wise man once said: “People are like oceans: sometimes calm and friendly, sometimes stormy and treacherous. But most of all they’re just water.”
Maybe that’s how I’ll encourage my sons to swim. Because why should they be afraid of their very selves?
Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino
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