The Ninety-Sixth Chart

August 30, 2013

By Ekta R. Garg

A year ago we took Seven and Five to meet their new swimming teacher.  I had talked to the teacher on the phone before that first meeting.  The girls had tried group lessons at a nearby rec center, and the lessons had (for the girls) flopped miserably.  By the time we reached that point in time when we had set up a semi-private for the girls, Seven barely brushed the water with her cheek and called that putting her face in the water.  Five had to be coaxed to do more than sit waist deep in the pool.

The new teacher, Ms. A., met with the girls and took them as her students.  When Seven continued to brush the surface of the water with her nose and cheeks after a great deal of urging, Ms. A. didn’t bat an eye.  When Five grabbed Ms. A.’s neck in fear of going into deeper water, Ms. A. just soothed Five with words and silliness.  And slowly the girls began to trust Ms. A.  They began to understand that Ms. A. wouldn’t ask them to do anything they didn’t feel ready to do.  And little by little, they let go of their fears and began to learn how to swim.

By the time we ended the swimming lessons with Ms. A. in June, Seven and Five would both skip happily to the pool and spend the five minutes before their lessons gliding through the water like fish.  Seven would grin when she would ask me for her nose clips during their lesson just before she casually jumped into the water, and Five worked hard on swimming half the width of the pool.  Both girls chattered excitedly about their lessons during the rest of the week, and they developed a special bond with Ms. A. that extended past the student-teacher relationship.

We knew that we could never find another teacher to replicate the relationship the girls shared with Ms. A., but we hoped we would find a teacher here in Illinois who would show a fair amount of enthusiasm in helping the girls continue with the immense progress they’d made in the 10 months of lessons with Ms. A.  After getting settled into the house, we decided to visit the new YMCA close to home and talk to a swim instructor about lessons.  Once again I picked up the phone and made a call.

I spoke to a swim instructor in the Y who seemed nice enough.  I explained to her that the girls had shared lessons in Salt Lake and felt excited to begin lessons again.  To help with that, we thought it would help if someone could assess the girls’ progress so we could decide just how to proceed with lessons here.

The instructor agreed to meet with us the next afternoon.  She said she would spend about 15 minutes with the girls in the pool and ask them to do some simple things so she could get a sense of what skills needed work and what skills they had mastered according to their age.  I felt like 15 minutes might be on the shorter side, given that she had two students to evaluate, but I didn’t want to sound ungrateful to the instructor.  So I just responded with a perky, “Thank you” and crossed my fingers for the next day.

Because my husband hasn’t started in his new practice yet, he has the luxury of spending time with the girls during the day and going with us on these outings.  My father-in-law also decided to accompany us, so the next afternoon we all piled into the car with excitement about Seven and Five getting into the pool again.  And once again the girls began chattering about their swimming experiences.

We went to the pool and looked for the instructor.  She said she might be around the pool, so we looked but didn’t find her.  I left everyone waiting by the edge of the water and went to the aquatics office.  I saw a young woman just coming out of the office, and as I began my polite introduction she jumped the gun by asking, “Here for the assessment?”

I have to admit, she flustered me a little, but I managed to recover and gesture toward the girls.  Even though we arrived just a few minutes after the appointed time, I tried to smooth things over.

“I’m sorry we’re late,” I said, using my tone to indicate the opening of a conversation.

“Oh, that’s fine, this will take less than five minutes,” she said brusquely.

I blinked.  Less than five minutes?

She glanced at the girls.  “Are they dressed?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Okay, well, let’s get in the pool.”

She’d startled all of us with her demeanor and, feeling flustered again, I tried to rush the girls through taking off their shoes and bathrobes.  The instructor didn’t bother introducing herself to the kids, and she didn’t ask them their names.  She just told the kids to get into the pool.

Seven slipped into the pool, but Five hesitated.  My younger child loves her routine and familiar things; she gets a little rattled when she comes to a brand new situation with too many unknowns.  And this circumstance certainly qualified: she was faced with an unfamiliar pool and a teacher who took a cursory interest in her.  Finally, the teacher asked her to get into a side of the pool deeper than Five was tall, and she didn’t like that at all.

The teacher took the girls out one by one to the middle of the pool and asked them to do a doggie paddle.  Seven treaded water as best as she could, but Five felt scared by the water and complained about the temperature of the water (too cool, by her preference.)  The instructor watched the girls for about 45 seconds each and then recommended that both of them go into beginner lessons.

In that collective minute-and-a-half, this instructor reduced all of Seven and Five’s hard work and progress and their self-confidence to a simple label: beginner level.

She hopped out of the pool right away, asked whether we had any questions for her, and then strode away satisfied she’d done her job.  Both girls looked at us adults and asked, “Is it over?  What happened?”

Like a good parent, I had done my best to prep my daughters for the new situation by telling them as much as I could about how I thought the mini lesson would go.  The instructor had obliterated everything I’d said.  She’d acted less than courteous, and she hadn’t even bothered to give the kids any time to get comfortable with her or the pool.

I could feel my blood pressure go up.  After everything I had said to her on the phone, after the background I had given her about the kids’ negative experience in the previous rec center, she had the audacity to spend all of 90 seconds with my children and then make a pronouncement.

The greatest irony of this entire situation happened within five minutes of the end of the “evaluation.”  I managed to control my temper long enough to ask the girls if they wanted to play in the water for a little while.  The pool had open swim hours, so Seven and Five had plenty of space and time to enjoy the water.  They both agreed with cheers, and us adults exchanged looks of collective disbelief at the instructor.

I asked Seven if she wanted to practice jumping, and she came out of the pool right away.  Then I asked whether she wanted to use her nose clips.  She thought about it for a minute and said yes.  I handed them to her.  She put them on with a familiarity that only practice can bring, turned, and hopped into the water.

I had to leave the Y early that day because we’d invited some friends over for dinner, and I hadn’t finished cooking the whole meal yet.  I went home, took a deep breath, and called the director of the aquatics program.  I left him a message, because I wanted to set this entire situation right.

Make no mistake, I don’t think my children are Olympic-champions-in-the-making (not yet, anyway.)  But I do feel like they should get a fair chance, and as long as I have the means and opportunity I will fight for that fair chance.  No one is going to relegate my daughters to the “beginner level” if they’re capable of so much more.

Even if they’re just distracted swim instructors.

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