I envy you, swimmers. You arc confidently into the pool and slide beneath the water for half a furlong before surfacing to take the merest sniff of oxygen, the water barely rippling as you majestically glide past, like Aquaman or a humanoid barracuda. Whereas when I’m swimming, it looks like one of those YouTube videos where a crocodile drags a water buffalo into a river. I’m not the crocodile.
The fact that I never learned to swim stems from an odd paradox: My mother was always afraid I’d drown. And you can’t drown if you’re not in the water, which is, unfortunately, where most swimming lessons take place. I think she actually brought us to one or two lessons, where degrees of aptitude were designated by various types of aquatic animals—guppy, swordfish, shark. I believe my final classification was lobster, a repulsive exoskeleton-clad insect that scuttles along the sea floor on its disgusting arthropod legs. As far as swimming goes, I’m on par with a creature that can fly to Miami in a carry-on box from Legal’s.
During grade school, the summer YMCA day care program made weekly trips to a lake, where I’d go in the shallow water and walk along on my hands, kicking my legs behind me to pretend I was dog-paddling. At some point I learned how to tread water and flail my way forward, but I don’t think swimming is supposed to put you into cardiac arrest 10 feet away from the beach. I might be doing it wrong. It didn’t help, I suppose, that in Maine the water was so numbingly cold that after 30 seconds you couldn’t tell whether you were doing a technically flawless crawl or a waterborne version of “The Humpty Dance.”
So, like many a parent over the ages, I’ve resolved that my kids should not follow in my lobster tracks, that they should learn the ways of the dolphin and the Spitz, though maybe not the Phelps, given what he’s been up to lately. If nothing else, I’ll have someone to rescue me when I fall in. Because my wife, Heather, certainly won’t be doing it. Her swimming style is best described as “cat who fell into the bathtub.”
As much as you want to believe that your kids are infinitely malleable, bursting with unlocked potential, sometimes it turns out that they’re really just like you and limited in the same ways. I’ve been taking them to swimming lessons, which I now refer to as Tantrum Tuesdays. I figured that at ages 3 and 5, their plastic little brains would make neural connections that would have them deftly butterflying across the pool by summertime. Lately I’ve downgraded my expectations to “Get in the pool without screaming and crying and making Daddy look like a sadistic Tiger Mom in front of the water-aerobics ladies.”
Their most recent lesson began unraveling in the parking lot outside of the pool place. “I don’t wanna go to swim lessons,” said the younger one as soon as we parked. “I wanna stay in the Bronco.” I explained that I couldn’t leave a 3-year-old alone in a car, which made him flip out even harder and start going into a full meltdown as we walked toward the building. Fun fact: When this kid gets on a real frothy crying jag, he pukes. I began contemplating how that would go over if he did it in the pool. OK, calling an audible! No swim lessons today.
The older one seemed somewhat pleased that he’d be the brave one who suited up for his lesson. Until, that is, he got in the pool with our friend Katie, the swim instructor. Then he began crying and kept on bawling for the whole half-hour lesson. At one point I texted Heather, “The pool is now 90 percent tears.” The younger one sat next to me on a bench, playing with a toy boat—a completely dry toy boat. “You wanna take that in the pool?” I asked him. “No,” he replied. “Pool’s too scary.” Yeah, kid, tell me about it. If you yell “Marco,” I’ll yell “Polo” from three rows back in the lounge chairs. Pools are creepy. You ever see Cocoon? And oceans and lakes are even worse. Things live in those. You know octopuses have beaks? Hey, enjoy the water! Don’t get eaten by the bird-faced tentacle monster! When I was a lobsterman, I was doing a public service, as far as I’m concerned. I was removing bitey claw animals from the water. Every little bit helps.
At the end of the lesson, Katie said, “Maybe you should sign them up for group lessons. Those start next week. It might be good for them to see other kids in the pool.” Well, maybe. Or maybe we’re just destined to be a non-swimming kind of family, four cats in a bathtub.