When I was in 4th and 5th grade, my mom signed me up to go to the YMCA after school. In the dead of winter.
A bus would come to my Catholic grade school and take us over to the Y every day after school for 2 weeks. 2 miserable weeks. Each year I was signed up for the same three 45-minute sessions: gymnastics, swimming and crafts.
After gymnastics, I’d go over to swim. I’d sit on the edge of the pool, lips blue, teeth chattering, body shuddering. Only when the instructor scolded me in front of everyone would I get in the water and swim to the other side or try to do the dead man’s float for the longest 1 minute ever. I remember swimming as cold and scary and feeling very small and vulnerable.
Once swim was over, I had 5 minutes to rush, still shivering, dripping wet, over to the humid, chorine-y smelling locker room, and yank my clothes on over my wet skin to try to get warm as soon as possible. From there, it was to the craft room to make some kind of something or other out of yarn and popsicle sticks, and then the bus ride back to the school parking lot.
And then, the interminable freezing cold trudge home in the near dark, with my heavy backpack and still wet hair, to do my paper route and my homework.
I’m not much of a swimmer to this day.
Fast forward to the Rock Classic Hotel in Tororo, Uganda, some years later. I was with a group of US and Ugandan kids on an exchange trip. It was the first time they’d met. Their English was so different that none of them could understand each other very well. Things were pretty quiet and stiff.
The second night was balmy, so we decided to hang out by the pool. It was my night for adult chaperone duty. The hotel was empty except for our group. The night guard put his radio out for us. The tinny sound was small in the quiet of the night, the stars in full force, and the big Rock that gives the hotel its name still visible through the dark in the distance.
Most of the kids didn’t actually want to get in the water, but one of the American girls, E., realized that one of the Ugandan girls, J., did. So E. jumped in the pool. J. followed suit, but she hadn’t ever been in a swimming pool before. It didn’t occur to her that a pool is different from a river. A swimming pool is deep.
She jumped in and went under. She panicked. Before I could even get out of my chair, E. had her in a gentle embrace and was floating with her over to the shallow end.
The two girls, spent the rest of evening together in the pool, E. showing J. how to float, holding her in her strong arms so she would feel safe. A totally different kind of swimming lesson than what I ever had: warm, caring, physically secure.
The rest of us drank sodas and mineral water by the side of the pool and listened to the radio. The dancing started. Two of the Ugandan kids were not supposed to dance due to their religion. Two of the US kids were too cool to dance. But within a couple songs, they were all in a circle together, swaying at least a little bit, and singing and doing campy poses to Michael Jackson.
The laughter had started, the barriers had lowered, and by the next morning it was like they had known each other forever.