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How I Learned to Swim

It was a storm that pushed me back in. I took swimming classes at the Community Center in 1980, in the summer, when I was six. The instructor was massive to me, muscled, tall, dark-skinned. He blew a stern whistle.

There would be a test to pass at the end of the lessons. He came into the pool and showed us how to rotate our arms, how to cup our hands. He put his hands on our midsections and told us to kick. Some of us wore inflatable orange cuffs. To pass the test, you must swim the length of the pool three times, from the shallows to the bright blue deeps.

The water, warmed by Pennsylvania midsummer sun, claimed me, placing pressure on every nerve. I would sink, eyes opened and burning, shafts of light on my body. I lingered there, as long as I could, forgetting to breathe, testing the pressure. I never heard the warning whistle that told us a thunderstorm was arriving.

When the whistle blew, you climbed out. To swim in with a thunderstorm approaching was a folly like crossing without looking, or putting a hand on the stove. I hadn't noticed any thunder, or whistling, nor my name. The splashing blocked out every other sound. Finally I heard my name, and looked out at an empty pool.

I came out quickly, pulling myself over the side, ashamed to find that I had broken a rule. The thunder passed, and the instructor ordered everyone else into the water. My punishment was to watch the rest of the swimming from shore, on the edge of my pool chair.

I sat still for the remaining half-hour, forgotten in plain view, the light coming up off the white concrete, coming out of the water, and read the pool rules again and again, sounding them out. The most important rule was: no running. I watched the others swim, like a dog at the window as its owner drives away.

The class ended, and the other boys and girls filed off home. My mother was late. So it was just I and the teacher. I bowed my head.

“I'm sorry I didn't get out of the pool,” I said. “I didn't hear you.”

“It's okay,” he said. “But you have to get out of the pool if it's going to thunder.”

We sat together for a long moment. “Are you ready for your test?” he asked.

“I think so,” I said.

It was something for him to do. “Okay,” he said. “Let's see you do it. If you do it, you'll be the first.”

I was in, the slide of water thrilling my skin, and pushed off hard from the pool wall, arms windmilling, turning my head to breathe, blood coursing through my muscles, washing out the shame of punishment. One length, then two, then three, and another to prove I could. From the deep end, I popped my head up and held onto the side, and looked at the instructor, took him in from his sandaled feet to the muscles coming out from his T-shirt, to his tightly trimmed kinky hair.

“Not bad,” he said. “You passed.”

Propelled by pride, I rose out of the water, and towelled off, and my mother arrived. I left with her. I told her everything: my failure, the long punishment, and I was afraid of her disappointment, but she needed to know the whole story. And then I described the lengths I swam, the fact that I was first, my redemption. Now, with my arms in motion and my legs kicking, nothing was too deep, or too wide.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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