He was probably in his mid-fifties, ramrod thin, with a flash of gray in his dark hair. His mouth sometimes pulled down to one side, as if caught between a smile and a frown. He wore the same black bathing suit every time I saw him come to the pool. I never learned his name.
He told me a little bit of his story one day. He’d had an accident in the water when he was a boy, about the same age as my kids, who were at the pool that summer to take swimming lessons of their own. “I almost drowned,” he said, with that pulled-down grimace of a smile. “And since then I’ve been terrified of the water.” Now, as an adult, he’d signed up for a summer of private lessons.
We watched him, trying not to stare. His body froze underwater, muscles clenching & straining & grabbing at nothing. He wore a full set of water wings & floaties, and his arms and legs churned aimlessly.
He got better, slowly. At the end of the summer — during which time Olivia learned to put her face in the water & Ian learned rotary breathing for his crawl stroke — he could support himself w/o floaties. Eventually he swam, by himself, across the deep end of the pool, maybe 15 feet or so, in 12′ deep water. I’ve seldom seem anyone so triumphant, or so scared.
I think of this story a lot at the end of the semester. Learning is painful, risky, and dangerous — sometimes we teachers forget that. You have to put yourself in an untenable position — in the destructive element immerse, to borrow Conrad’s language — to make real education possible.