One of the worst things to happen to me as a teenager was the two weeks of the swim unit in gym class. That statement makes me sound like a huge baby, like I didn’t have any “real problems” as a teen, which isn’t true. But read on, and you’ll gain a better understanding of my plight.
As a youth, I was athletic. I wasn’t a star athlete in any sport, but I was capable at pretty much every sport I tried. Not only that, but I was extremely competitive and was coach-able. I could easily run a mile in less than eight minutes. Bouncing a tennis ball on a racket 200 times in a row was a cinch. My dad taught me well how to throw a softball and I did NOT “throw like a girl.” When I was in middle school, nearly everyone played basketball in the gym during lunch hour. Shooting three-pointers was my favorite thing in the world, and I was better at it than almost anyone. During my sophomore year, I trained and traveled to play games with a Junior Olympic volleyball team. Nearly every sport felt natural to me. However; when it came to swimming, not only was I terrible at it, but I also had a fear of deep water.
Gym class was in the mornings, so you had to schlep from the main building over to the pool with your swim gear in tow, plus everything required to get ready for the day. Fortunately for me, I was not the type of girl who wore a lot of makeup or had to blow my hair dry. I’m pretty sure the girls who did were late to their next class every day that we had swimming. I grew up in a conservative environment. Even people of the same gender didn’t whip off their clothes in front of each other in the locker rooms. “We’re all girls here, so it doesn’t matter,” was not an oft uttered phrase. This made stripping naked and putting on a swim suit an especially tricky task. You either had to try and hold up a towel for a make-shift dressing room (awkward) while you changed or you had to wait for one of the four bathroom stalls to become available so you could change in private. Is there anything worse than the wet, hair strewn floors of a swimming pool locker room? Not much comes to mind. At this pool, the women’s locker room was at the front of the building and the men’s locker room was at the back opposite corner. Every day, no matter how quickly we tried to change, the boys would already be waiting in the pool as we left the locker room. I remember the creepy silence of teenage boys ogling us as we made our way to the practice pool. Some of them could have used tissues to wipe the drool from their mouths. It was like they had never seen 15-year-old girls in swimsuits in their short lives. I do not get embarrassed easily, but this may have been a time when I felt my cheeks turn red as those boys’ eyes bored holes into us.
Our gym teacher was a football coach first and foremost. Teaching wasn’t particularly his forte. He was more machine than man. If I would have known back then what ‘roid rage was, I would have used it to describe him. You never knew what was going to set him off. He had a curly, short mullet and whenever we were in the weight room and he would get upset, you’d see a purple vein in his forehead pulsate as if it were trying to break free from under the skin. There were several times when people witnessed him hurling chairs (ala Bobby Knight). Once in class when a kid wasn’t paying attention to the instruction being given, the coach hurled a basketball at his head — going the speed of approximately 90 miles-per-hour. That kid shut up quickly and probably still has brain damage to this day.
During our swim weeks, I’m fairly certain the coach’s intent was to see one of us drown. He never got in the pool with us, and instead attempted to teach us how to do the strokes from his perch above near the bleachers. I still remember him standing there looking like a flamingo as he attempted to extol upon us the proper way to scissor kick. After we’d semi-learned the strokes, we then had to swim some laps. None of us had goggles or swim caps, so my long hair was always plastered across my eyes and getting into my mouth and making me gag. I can’t remember which day of the week it was, because it all blurs together, but the coach gathered everyone in the four-foot deep section of the pool. This was to be our lesson in water safety, undertows and what-have-you. Total, there were probably 75 of us and he made us jog in a circle. He did this in order to simulate a whirlpool. If you were about to be sucked into the vortex and attempted to grab the wall on the side, he would smack your hand away with a pole. Had I known what was to come later, I would have prayed to have died in our simulated undertow that day. For the next section of the course was diving.
I’d never been taught proper diving technique. I wasn’t a swimmer after all, so where on earth would I have learned how to dive? Swimming pools in the area of town where I lived were few and far between. I’d taken swim lessons, but not since I was about 11. We were expected to individually perform a dive and the coach then gave us a grade. He’d made it perfectly clear that you needed to have proper form. If you went to the edge of the diving board and did a cannonball or just jumped in, you’d get an “F”. The thought of getting an “F” terrified me even more than the thought of performing a dive. Everyone in the class sat and watched as each person made their way to the end of the diving board and performed their fete. If I ever end up in Hell, that’s what it will feel like. It will feel like this particular day in gym class when I was a nervous 15-year-old girl in a swimsuit, being forced to dive with 75 pairs of eyes watching me, including perverted teenage boys. As I made my way to the edge of the board, I recall taking a deep breath in and forming a triangle over my head with my hands. I tried to jump, get my toes to point up over my head, but all I managed to do was a huge belly flop. As I surfaced, I heard the collective snickers of classmates. The coach’s face looked like he was smelling something terrible as he wrote my grade down on his clipboard.
At the end of this punishing two weeks, we had to tread water for 30 minutes. I’ve never been more nervous in my life than I was that day. Somehow though, it ended up being the best part of the entire class. I kept my head up for the first five minutes or so and chatted with my friends. After that, I tipped my head back and imagined a pillow, while my arms and legs continued their circular motions. It was quiet under the water. Peaceful even. When I surfaced again, the 30 minutes was over, and it was time to dry off and head to my next class, and I lived to tell the tale.