Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Did It!

I grew up in the era of public service announcements about illegal drugs when they said, “Marijuana is merely a stepping stone to harder drugs.” I mention this here because this is how I was introduced to the concept of stepping stones. Because it’s hard to find streams to walk across in the city.

Jr. Lifesaving was supposed to be a stepping stone to Sr. Lifesaving. And Sr. Lifesaving was supposed to be a stepping stone to Water Safety Instructor. Why? Just because. That was the ladder. You climb the ladder. That’s how life works. You climb the ladder until you’re happy. Happiness comes with altitude. God bless America.

I stopped at Sr. Lifesaving. I swam competitively in high school, which was a very weird transition for me. Playing in my favorite environment changed to going as fast as I possibly could until I was about to puke – in my favorite in environment. Fortunately I wised up in College. Or more accurately, in college I was attracted toward and distracted by other things. Dry land stuff mostly. I still swam, but nothing intense like racing.

On Tuesday, Dec 29, 2009 I finished WSI training at MIT. I’m finally a Water Safety Instructor some 34 years after I thought I was going to be. Not bad when you think about it. I did a few other things in the time in between. School, family, job, two cross country moves, more school, writing, performing… you know, the usual. But the point is that I did it. But why? Why did I need to complete WSI at my “advanced” age? I’ll tell you my reasons. First let me tell you my mother’s reasons.

My mother epitomizes the strong black woman. Born in the early 1920’s, she’s seen a lot of history – the depression of the 1930’s, WWII, Korean and Viet Nam Wars, JFK, MLK, RFK, burning cities, marches, 70’s hair, polyester, moon landing. We’ve been a busy nation and she’s been there. But it was back in the 1940’s when she heard of black people drowning. “Drowning!? They drowned? That’s just stupid! There are people lynching us, starving us, discriminating against us, and here we die from something completely preventable!?” She was indignant. That’s when she decided to be a swimming teacher. She’s also been on a tirade about one thing or another ever since.

Fast forward to the 1990’s. That’s when I met people that I thought were from Mars. You might think that would be cool, meeting an alien life form, but all I wanted to do was help them. “I don’t know how to swim,” they told me. What? Really? Or I would hear the kinder gentler form, “I’m not a strong swimmer” – which in self conscious proud adult terms often means “I can’t swim.”

Once a friend of mine asked me to teach her how to swim and I enthusiastically said, sure! I’ve been swimming for decades, I’d love to teach you, I said. Then I thought about it and realized that I had no idea how to teach someone to swim. I made a quick call to my mom. How do you teach someone to swim? She walked me through some steps. That was my first WSI lesson – it took all of about 60 seconds over the phone. No suit required.

I got in the water with my friend and started working with her. Then it hit me. “Um, you grew up in the Philippines, on an island. What do you mean you don’t know how to swim?” But she didn’t know how to swim, as is the case with a lot of island people here in the US. It then occurred to me that there are also a lot of young new parents who don’t know how to swim at all or don't know how to swim well. They celebrate the birth of this kid, then realize they’re screwed when they take that kid on vacation. They KNOW they won’t be able to avoid water-based trips - pools, the beach, lakes. How are they going to ensure their child’s safety in the water as they do on land?

So to you new non-swimming parents and to you islander immigrants out there, I’m here to help. Contact me.

(In a future post I’ll describe what it was like to be the oldest person in WSI class.)

Monday, January 11, 2010

Sr. Lifesaving

When I was about 14, I took my first lifesaving course - Jr. Lifesaving. It’s an odd certification that no longer exists. Did it mean that I could only safe junior lives? I’d been swimming since I was 4, my mother was a life guard and swimming teacher. I lived in the pool most Sundays when she was the guard at the Center City YWCA. The picture is on one such Sunday. That's skinny little me on the board, my mother in blue. When I was 14 I wanted to take my place, follow in her footsteps. So I took Jr. Lifesaving and I passed. It was no big deal.
Most of the work was in the pool and I ruled the pool. It was like a game. I’d go up to the drowning person, which in every case was one of the instructors pretending to be drowning, wait until they were docile or pretending to be docile, dive under water, come up behind them, get them in a chin lock position, reach around for a cross chest carry, position them against my hip and side stroke them to the end of the pool. Not bad for a 14 year old. I think I was about the best student in the class.
When I was 16 I was old enough to take Sr. Lifesaving. This was harder. It required study – book study. I had to read crap. I had homework from “real school” to contend with and now I had scintillating early 70’s Red Cross prose to hack through? It made no sense. Oh the pool stuff was mostly more of the same, with a few added skills thrown in. But the other people in the class weren’t 16 like me. They were old – in their 20’s and 30’s – ancient. They drove to class, in their own cars! They owned shavers. I didn’t even need one.
I passed the pool part. I didn’t ace it, but I passed it. But I failed the written exam. I wasn’t used to flunking. I was an honor roll student in real school, but apparently not in “pool school.” I was somewhat accustomed to the patronizing attention from the instructor, a crusty older white guy who also happened to be my mom’s boss. He would look at me, this bone skinny black kid, and smile like he knew I would fail. I was never sure if I could trust his smile.
At this point other teenagers might have given up. After all, there were other things to do in life. There were hobbies, friends, a social life, TV, sleeping. I really liked TV – I really liked sleeping. Why do I need to be the youngest person to achieve an adult accomplishment? Why should I push against the system? Who needs that hassle? I did.
A few months later I took Sr. Lifesaving again. On the first day of class the same instructor had us write on a piece of paper why we wanted to take Sr. Lifesaving. I can still see him laughing as he read my paper to the class. “Because I failed it the first time. Ha – ha – ha!” I didn’t care. I could deal with patronizing. I could deal with being underestimated. I was an American black teenager in the 70’s. Most people outside my family underestimated me. I came to expect it - even leverage it. I could deal with it. I could deal with anything, I thought. And then I met the assistant instructor.
It’s not that she was stunning in a bathing suit. She was pretty enough - tall and slender. It’s more how she wore her bathing suit. Once I noticed a certain physical attribute of hers in her bathing suit, I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. I don’t ever ever ever remember seeing this type of thing before. I must have been blind since birth. Miracle workers from Wills Eye Hospital must have come in the night and installed working retinas and lenses. I must have passed Jr. Lifesaving with the help of a seeing-eye dog. Those are the only possible explanations for me never before noticing how long blond hair could play peek-a-boo from the bottom crotch-edge of a woman’s bathing suit.
I didn’t just stare – I was a frozen drooling mess. The hairs held my attention way more than the water. “OK, this is what we’re going to do today class. Are you listening?” “Uba yuba yabba thuba,” which in 16 year old male means, “Nope.” They just laid there, the hairs, and stared back at me. They were arresting. Oh there were times I tried to be cool. Yeah I’m just staring down at the pool deck tiles. Why am I always looking down? I’m just shy - shy and REALLY fascinated and desperately trying not to look.
Eventually, they did more than just stare back at me. They spoke to me. They became a blond pubic chorus, speaking as one. “You can do it.” “Read the chapters.” Yes, whatever you say. “And remember to clear the airway before administering resuscitation.” Yes of course. “You missed that on the last exam.”  Right.
One could say that having taken Sr. Lifesaving before, I knew what to expect the second time around, both in terms of pool skills and the written exam. One could also say that just the extra opportunity to study for the exam was all I needed to pass. Or one could say that I had been motivated since I was 4 to attain the same level of pool supremacy as my mother. One could say all those things. But I was 16 and I know God spoke to me in the form of a chorus. A chorus of blond peek-a-boo pubic hair from the bottom crotch-edge of a woman’s bathing suit.  God is good… and I passed.