Thursday, January 10, 2013

Something I Learned From a Kid.

We leaned against the double doors, prying them open as a chilly gust engulfed our faces. It's a sensation to which I've grown accustomed—the sharp contrast between a gym's pungent humidity and the cold desolation of a January night.

The basketball game had ended ten minutes previous, yet my daughter's cheeks still flushed with the remnants of her exertion. She walked beside me, still in her uniform. I put my arm around her shoulder—the one not draped with her "seasoned" athletic bag, and I could tell she was still sweating a little under her "Hawks"-emblazoned shooting shirt.

I chirped open the Hyundai as we approached it. "Why don't you guys ever shower in the locker room?" I asked.

"Dad, I've told you this so many times. Nobody does that. Gross."

"I know, but here you've got this brand new school with brand new locker rooms and brand new showers and no one uses them. It's bizarre."

"Dad, things are different now. We don't parade around naked in front of each other, okay? Hey, can we stop for a Blizzard?"

"Mmmm," I thought, "Mud Pie Blizzard from Dairy Queen. Wait a second, you're not Homer Simpson, for God's sake. Plus, you're on Weight Watchers, Day Eight. Show some self-control."

"Nah," I answered, starting the car and cranking the heat, "We should get home."

Maybe this has happened to you before. You're discussing a subject you've covered a million times before, yet another topic somehow mixes in to form a profound flashback. It happened to me last night, when my mental bartender whipped up a frothy PTSD cocktail whose main ingredients were fear, embarrassment and ultimately, redemption.

For most of the fourth graders at Chinook Elementary School during that winter of 1973, excitement ruled the day as Mr. Van Epps passed out the permission slips. But not for everyone.

"Okay, listen up. You guys have to remember to have these signed and returned as soon as possible. We're doing a week-long swimming unit down at the new pool in two weeks. If you're parent doesn't sign this, you don't swim, simple as that."

"Whoa," I thought. "For a second there, I thought he said the class is going swimming. That's crazy. No one swims at school. He must have actually said we're doing a 'skimming unit' or a "trimming unit' or something."

Then Janice, a girl who'd weighed in at thirty-six pounds on weighing and measuring day, handed me the paper. I scanned it:

Chinook Elementary School
Permission Slip for Fourth Grade Swimming Unit
King County Forward Thrust Pool


"It's going to be a lot of fun, and don't worry if you aren't a strong swimmer. You'll be tested and put into groups," Mr. Van Epps shouted above the din of giddy chatter.

My guts churned. "Oh, that makes me feel a lot better," I thought. "Not only will I have to show my entire class my boy boobs that are even bigger than Cheryl's (the tall girl who'd already started developing), they'll also get to watch me flail around like an idiot and then drown."

The class buzzed with excitement. Boys and girls hopped in their seats in anticipation of hurling their wiry little Gumby bodies off the new ten-foot high dive.

A handful of larger kids sat quietly and pretended to scan their permission slips.

During that first ten years, even though I'd spent most of it at least thirty percent over the recommended body mass, I'd somehow managed to stay relatively active without displaying my naked torso. Running through the sprinkler or wading into a lake could be pulled off in a tank top with minimum ridicule. And even my mom and dad hadn't seen my shirtless body since they'd stopped bathing me five years prior.

This was unacceptable. In a fully clothed world, I could rely on my wit or artistic ability to level the playing field when stacked up against the more physically appealing young men. But now, who would care if that beached whale they were looking at could tell a joke or draw the best Fire Prevention Week poster?

Um, that would be no one.

Avoiding the permission slip was also out of the question. My mom knew everything about everything and thus, my fate was sealed.

Dread enveloped me. Although I never knew the feeling of being drafted, that two weeks of waiting felt like waiting to parachute into the swampy minefields of Da Nang...without a shirt on.

Finally, the day arrived, the Monday to end all Mondays. My classmates and I filed out of the bus hauling water-proof bags, into which our soggy suits could be stuffed later. I couldn't even visualize what "later" would look like.

The sterile, steamy stench of chlorine still makes my stomach lurch, just as it did that morning. Mr. Van Epps escorted the boys into the locker room. "Okay, no messing around. Put on your trunks, take a shower, walk out to the pool and line up."


By now, I was numb. My eyes focused on the puddled floor tiles as I stripped and positioned my swimsuit so that I could peel off my underwear and pull on the suit with maximum speed and efficiency.

Other boys were yelling and shoving each other as they showered, but I just doused my hair a little and ambled slowly to the pool area, alone. I folded my arms to shield my flabby front and nestled into the line for the swim test.

Religiously fixing my gaze downward, I finally reached the front of the line, where a high school kid stood in the waist-deep shallow end.

"Hi!" the freckly-faced red-head barked. "Go ahead and climb in."

I sat at on the edge, my arms still crossed.

"It's okay, it's not deep."

I slid in awkwardly, scratching my back and giving myself a swimsuit wedgie.

"Do you know how to swim?"

I shook my head.

"Do you know how to float on your stomach?"

I shook my head again.

"Okay, just give it a try. It's easy. Watch me." He fell forward and effortlessly floated on the water's surface. He stood and flicked his long hair backward. "Now it's your turn. What's your name?"


"Okay, Tim, give it your best shot."

I unfolded my arms and extended them, slowly easing myself face down into the lukewarm pool. My chest and stomach felt buoyant. I was doing it! I was floating! I stood back up  and smiled proudly at the freckled dude.

"Tim, you've got to make your legs float, too. I'll tell you what. We'll put you in the beginners group. You'll learn a lot there. Just go ahead and get out of the pool and stand over there with those kids." He pointed to a group of boys and girls standing at the other side of the shallow end.

I needed to find a ladder to hoist myself out of the pool, so for the first time, I looked around. The intermediate group had accumulated about halfway down the pool and it looked like the advanced kids were way down at the deep end.

But no ladder in sight. I lumbered back to where I'd dropped into the pool, where the rest of the students were still queued up for the test. Not powerful enough to even hoist myself onto my knees, I slapped my chest on the ledge and slithered sideways like a Walrus eager to sun itself.

My entire body lay on the pool deck before I could pull my knees under me and stand up. For the second time that day, I looked around.

Three boys and a couple of girls in the intermediate group stood about thirty feet away.

The were laughing.

And pointing.

At me.

I wanted to die, and that's not a euphemism. I really did, to just cease existing as a human being. There I stood, in front of my entire universe, naked, humiliated...

...and resolved to never let it happen again.

It's been forty years since the swimming unit, but when I think about that fat ten-year-old boy, he's the guy I've always aspired to be. Whenever I'm faced with a challenge like getting healthier or choosing perseverance over self-pity, that's who I summon.

While we strive to evolve and improve, sometimes we take for granted that our future self can only be better than our past self.

I'm not so sure about that.

Between fourth and fifth grade, that kid joined Weight Watchers, lost twenty pounds and learned to swim. And as an eleven-year-old, he passed the swim test for the intermediate group.

On the last day of the fifth grade swimming unit, he jumped off the high dive into the deep water.

I'm thinking he really did it on the first day.

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