Friday's child

9th July 1999 at 01:00
Victoria Newmark on what it's like to be...a non swimmer.

Course I can swim," says Leah, aged nine. But the water looks somehow deeper, and the pool somehow larger, and the others somehow more skilful at the swimming she thinks she can do. That swimming is the swimming where she goes along under water for a few strokes and comes up spluttering a bit and her mum says: "Well done." And then there is jumping up and down in the waves on holiday, though not if they are too big, and she definitely does not need water wings, no way. Rubber rings, they're for baby brothers.

But here are Jo and Terri and Louise, all her very best friends who've all had swimming lessons before, jumping in and swimming in a recognisable stroke to the other side, while the instructor yells out: "Come on now, in two three, breathe two three, that's right girls, hurry up and get in now the rest of you". Oh well, thinks Leah, everyone's looking, I'm sure I can swim really - and in she jumps just like the rest.

Some time later, when she has been fished out from the deep end by the instructor's swallow dive, faultlessly executed, her face wiped and her mother called, the teacher suggests that perhaps she ought to go in the non-swimming group, just for now. Soon, of course, she will be able to swim.

"But all my friends can swim," wails Leah, far more upset by demotion than by almost drowning. The teacher applies reason. Yes, all her friends can swim.

This is because they have had lessons. Leah has not had lessons and can't swim. In fact, she nearly drowned just now. Soon Leah too will have had lessons and then she will be able, with confidence, to join her friends in the deep end.

No, it's no good. Reason sinks like a stone. Swimming for Leah, it becomes clear, is not a learnt set of physical skills but a wish-fulfilment: something all the girls must do. If all the girls must do it, then she can do it. So, at first, she is resistant to instruction. Swimming does not seem to her a matter of alignment, bouyancy, the shape of strokes and how to breathe when in the water; it is all about fun and laughter. Of course, in time it will come to be about all those things. But first there is going up and down holding this board. Leah could weep - she does weep - with the lowly struggle.

Next week it's all better. The non-swimmers get in first, and they set off with their boards. Actually, it's not bad. Avoiding glances down at the deep end (where diving is being splashily attempted by Jo and Terri and Louise), Leah concentrates. Towards the end, she starts to shoot ahead. "Well done,"

the instructor calls out. "Next week we'll try unassisted swimming."

By the end of term, Leah has moved up a group, got her blue and green ribbons and is pestering her family to let her go swimming with her friends. "Well,"

says her dad doubtfully, "as long as you are sensible and don't go out of your depth. I don't want to get a phone call, mind!" "Dad," Leah groans, "only dorks do things like that. And non-swimmers."

Dad nods. Swimming begins with not swimming.

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