Last winter I was in a play that took place in a pool called Pool Play that was conceived by Jessie Bear and Directed by Erin Mee.
Erin allowed me to write a monologue sharing my experience of swimming lessons when I was a kid.
Here it is….
I don’t go in because
I can’t tread water
I grew up in Northern Virginia and we were the only black family in our subdivision which meant I was the only black kid in my elementary school. Which also meant when mom and daddy signed me up for summer recreation I was the only black kid in the pool. Which was fine.
I was used to it.
The first day, we went in the shallow end. I could feel the ground under my feet and touch the side of the pool. And we learned – how to kick our legs, how to crawl, how to hold our breath, and it was alright. Once I got over the pee and the chemicals and all that stuff…it was alright. For those first three days.
On the fourth day, the instructor – the one with the moustache – announced we were moving to the deep end. To tread water. Somehow everyone just walked to the edge jumped and started treading. Except me.
I just stood there.
He couldn’t understand it.
I just stood there.
He started screaming at me, “Get in.”
And I just stood there.
He blew his whistle at me, “Get in.”
And I still stood there.
So he picked me up and threw me in the pool. Just threw me in. I sunk to the bottom. And I didn’t want to do anything but curl up in a ball. And wait. I didn’t resurface until he dragged me up. To yell at me.
For three days, this happened. For three days, I was told to jump in. For three days, I froze. And for three days, he picked me up and threw me in the pool.
And for three days, I sank.
At home, my parents didn’t understand why I didn’t want to talk about swim class. So on the eighth day, my mom came to pick me up from recreation early. And she caught the instructor yelling at me as I stood at the edge of the water. And she saw how the rest of the kids kicked and swam while I waited. And that was the last day I went to summer recreation.
Decades later, I was in the Bahamas with a boyfriend who loved swimming. We went snorkeling, and it happened again. I’m sitting the boat, my boyfriend’s in the water and the Bahamian guy couldn’t believe it, he saw me and he’s like “You can’t swim?! Just get in the water” — and he picks me up and throws me into the ocean. And my boyfriend had to lift me out.
The thing is, I love the water. Daddy’s side of the family is from the US Virgin Islands and they all swim like fishes. It was harder for my mom – segregation meant there were fewer options in the States. But I was lucky, to have my dad. He used to float me, in the ocean – and I saw the sky and felt the water and it was… beautiful. It felt good and right and safe.
It’s important to feel safe.
People who throw you off the deep end take that safety from you.
It’s not just about being in the water. It’s about how you get there. And I don’t mean by jumping in or by taking the stairs. I mean by getting in by yourself. For yourself.
That’s how you stay afloat.