Another summer, another swim class for Dar. The YMCA offers them all year, but we find it’s easier for us to attend in summer, when Dar doesn’t have school, when days are long and warm at the time we get out of the early evening class. Signing up is not as simple as making a phone call or clicking a few links. Because Dar can’t be in a class with most other kids. He doesn’t listen like they do, at least not so you’d notice.
The negotiations began months ago. I called the local Y in April to find out that last summer’s teacher extraordinaire, Jimmy (pictured above with Dar), had moved to a San Francisco Y. I was very tempted to take Dar to the city for swim classes, but then that would have defeated the niceness of stepping out of class at 6:15pm into warm weather and a short (often wet) ride home.
I began working with Natasha to set up something for Dar, with as few as possible of my gentle reminders that the Y was obligated to provide classes oriented toward kids with special needs.
Long story short, in early June Dar started a 4-week program that met twice a week. I get a bit excited with the prep, because we’re clearly Doing Something For Dar. Swimming could be a life-saving skill for him. Never forget Avonte Oquendo. Anyway, we’ve got our beach bag full of swimmers, diapers, plastic bags, spare shorts and the like. We’ve got Dar dressed in his T-shirt and bathing suit and crocs, ready to hit that pool running.
And we arrive and Dar freaks out. He acts as though he’s never been in a pool. Every tiny step into the water is a freakout. He screams and screams; he gets the undivided attention of every single other child and adult at the Y. We try a different pool. We try different steps into the pool. Freak out freak out freak out. He can’t talk. I assume people are thinking: uh, are you guys trying to drown this kid?
Dar meets his new instructor, who happens to be African-American. I wouldn’t normally bring up this man’s race, but I cringe when Dar appears to freak at the touch of a non-white stranger – it’s as though we’ve raised him in rural Wisconsin, when in fact Dar has been touching and squeezing non-white people in his life almost every day of his six-and-a-half years. Dar’s best friend at school, Leila, happens to be black. But there’s no way for Dar’s new instructor to know that, and no way for me to say it without sounding like a douchebag. What I do say, almost as douchely, is “You should have been here last summer. Every single session with Jimmy was terrific.” (Jimmy is white.)
Next session, Dar gets a new instructor – Natasha, who had helped me on the phone, and is white. In my twisted brain of white privilege/guilt, it’s actually a slight relief that Dar’s freakout is just as terrible as the session before. Necks crane. You’ve heard “scream, scream, we all scream for ice cream”? Try “scream, scream, they all crane for Dar’s screams.” (Meanwhile, Dar’s previous instructor helps the other special-needs kid, who is so verbal and pleasant that I can barely see the autism. Whatever.) Finally, as with his previous session, about 15 minutes into his 30 minute class, Dar allows himself to get in the water. Actually I pretty much push him in. Rip that Band Aid right off. (I’m in with him, even though I don’t really like swimming in the kiddie pool, because I don’t love child urine all over my body.) And he still screams and hops on the pool floor. But then he gets used to it. And then it’s time to go. And then he doesn’t want to get out of the pool. Lovely.
Third session goes the same way with Natasha. Sigh.
One way of understanding Dar’s new reluctance to get in pools is as a hopeful sign, to give him credit for the sort of foresight he didn’t once possess. Let me explain. At the end of every pool session we shower him, because we have to get that chlorine off. And he HATES that. Baths are similar, because they tend to end in that hose-nozzle thing, and he has also become more screamy in the bath. So maybe the screaming is a sign of being smarter?
I’ve learned a lot about parenting from our second son, and from movies. Watching “Room” last Christmas, there was a moment that 95% of viewers wouldn’t have even noticed, when Joan Allen comforts her 5-year-old grandson coming out of the bath with a quick towel for his eyes. Watching this I thought, of course, the eyes! Next bath I asked Dar’s brother, who also then hated baths, if he’d feel better if he closed his eyes during the head-washing phase. And he does. And when bathtime is done I’m quick to apply a hand towel to his eyes. And so his baths have become less screamy. We tried the same with Dar. He doesn’t understand. He doesn’t know “close your eyes.” So I have this image I see during every Dar bath – I don’t have the heart to reproduce it for you – of the soap streaming down his screaming face while his eyes are wide open. It’s so sad.
Fourth session, finally, Dar is acting like his normal self, like the kid who three months ago happily jumped in every hotel pool we visited from D.C. to Savannah. He jumps right in the pool. (The pool is about three feet high, meaning it comes up to Dar’s neck; he can comfortably walk or hop around.) But Natasha is a couple of minutes late. She shows up and reprimands me for letting him into the pool without an adult. I say, “But based on the last three sessions, I figured if he was in a good mood, and besides I was standing here…” She’s not having it.
The next few sessions go acceptably well.…aaaand yesterday was our final session. We had to wrap up early to take a family trip. Did Dar get anything at all out of swim class? Well…
Natasha was proud of him. He got his head wet with abandon. He hopped with relish. He held the wall. He kicked. With Natasha helping him to maintain swimmer’s position, he could shift his head in and out of the water with a big smile.
I suppose I’m happy but…he was doing most of that last summer. Then, it was a revelation. It’s sad how quickly a revelation can become par for the course. Now I can’t help but feel he might have done better if he hadn’t screamed so much as to waste most of the first three sessions.
It’s my fault. I need to teach him to close his eyes. I need to give him more baths, not less, when he resists. I need to stop taking the easiest road, instead make things harder now so they’ll be easier later. I need to write this here so that I’ll really do it.
Happy summer, y’all.