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As the sun beats down upon my neck and shoulders it hits me that I forgot to put on sunscreen. The straps of my swimsuit are hurting my shoulders, and the bottoms of my feet are blistering on the hot pool deck. My sunglasses are marred with chlorine spots. My hair is drying crispy from the chemicals in the baking sun. The sound of splashing water echoes around me and the children’s shouts permeate the air, the water, my ears, and the ears of everyone in the vicinity.
It is the first day that I am out of the water, and many of my swimmers are panicking. Most of the children are swimming as instructed, exhilarated by the lack of physical adult presence in the water with them. There is nothing between them and the water, and the task of swimming to the other side has become even more exciting than before.
The sight of twenty children – most of them between the ages of four and six – attempting to freestyle their way across the twenty-five meters of poorly chlorinated water is something to put anyone on edge. Today, my eyes are keenly darting across the pool continually counting from one to twenty making sure I have all heads accounted for. I am acting out of habit, cyclically counting, calling out encouragement, and pacing the expanse of the deck.
I notice one of the boys, Brian, stop just past the wall. He is one of my older swimmers in this age group– he is six years old – and he has been taking private lessons with me for several weeks. Sweet, but reserved, he doesn’t speak much. He has swum maybe three strokes and has paused to pretend to cough, to hang onto the wall, and to rub the fog out of his green-turtle goggles.
Exasperated, I turn my focus from the end of the pool where the fastest swimmers are just beginning to arrive and call out to Brian: “Keep going Brian, no stopping Buddy!” He doesn’t move. I shouldn’t be surprised, but as I was the one to teach him to swim and had spent countless weeks in the water helping him develop confidence and competence, his giving-up is grating on my nerves. Making sure all of my other “at risk” swimmers have reached the wall safely, I turn and kneel down beside him.
“Brian, you have to keep swimming buddy, why did you stop?”
“Yes, you can, you do it every day! Okay, time to keep swimming, let’s go!”
“But I can’t Miss Olivia.”
“Brian, I don’t want you to say you cant. You know that you can. It’s time to go.”
“But I don’t want to put my face in the water.”
I stop: I unintentionally allow anger to start creeping into my tone, coloring my words a deepening shade of red. I don’t have time for this. His sincerity permeates the air but my vision is blurred by heat and stress. He is not lying; he honestly fears the thought of putting his face under the surface of the water, of looking through his goggles to the dirty bottom of the pool. Fear has gotten the better of him, and I very well know that when one of the kids becomes overcome with fear, there is often very little that can be done with them that day.
“Brian, you cannot swim without putting your face in the water. All of the other kids are waiting for us. Are you going to swim or are you going to get out?”
“But I can’t see! What if I drown?! What if I die?!”
“You wont drown Brian, nobody is going to die.”
“Then why are there lifeguards here?”
At that moment, sincerity looked up at me from the reflective waters and peered up at me through the rubbed clean green-turtle goggles. It clearly saw through me.
The question was honest, and I was baffled.
My response to the question was not sincere: it had something to do with that lifeguards are only there to watch the kids who didn’t know how to swim. I told Brian that because he could swim, he clearly had no reason to be afraid. While I believe this to be true, it was not honest. It was not sincere.
Brian, the five year old, had bested me. His sincerity had illuminated a flaw in my reasoning, one that only a child would think of. Obviously he was right: the purpose of a lifeguard is to protect and save lives. Neither of these things would be necessary if no lives were at risk.
I looked across the deck to my friend sitting on the lifeguard stand. He looked back at me and waved. Brian continued to look up at me. He was not fooled.
His goggles were foggy from the pool but he could see more through them than I could through my spotted lenses. He rubbed out the fog, but I hadn’t even realized that my vision was obstructed.