Mom doesn’t know how to swim. It’s not because she isn’t interested. Well, she isn’t. But she doesn’t want to swim because she doesn’t know how, not the other way around. Most of her friends don’t know how to swim either. None of them had a pool deep enough to dive into. Most had only splashed around in shallow ones meant for kids.
Grandma didn’t know how to swim either. Her family didn’t have the money for a pool, and they weren’t allowed to use the public one. Back in those days, it was okay to turn away people from public places for no good reason at all.
My white friends all know how to swim. When I ask how they learned, most say their parents taught them. None of them could tell me anything about paying for lessons. After all, why would they go? I brought it up to Mom, but she couldn’t scrape up the time or the money to take me.
So here I am, sitting at the end of the shallow end of the pool, my feet dangling in the water. I have my swim trunks on, but I probably won’t need them. I have no plans on entering into the water.
“Come in, Derrick!” Evan calls. He waves me over. So do John and Mike.
They don’t know that I can’t swim.
“I’m good!” I shout back.
“I know you didn’t come here just to sit there!”
“What do you mean ‘why not’? It’s a pool!”
I don’t know what to say, so I kind of stare back at them awkwardly. Eventually Mike pushes John, and Evan quickly forgets about me. They’re now swimming circles around one another and splashing water all over the sides.
It’s only three feet deep back on my end of the pool, but that’s not what’s scary. I can’t tell where the shallow part ends and the deep end begins. I could slip and tumble towards where the water reaches over my head. Even if that didn’t happen, I know those guys wouldn’t let me just stand around where the water’s nice. They’d want to pull me in deeper. They’d want me to come swim with them. And if I tell them that I don’t know how, they’ll mock me forever.
I know other kids who don’t know how to swim, but that doesn’t make being one of them any less embarrassing. Well, when I’m around swimmers anyway. Those of us who can’t don’t really think about it much. We drink water and take baths, but that’s about it. Dipping our bodies into water isn’t the kind of thing that we bring up when we’re all ready to play.
But these guys can’t seem to get enough of the stuff. They splash around and dip and dive and blow bubbles like there’s nothing else in the world. I imagine their mothers couldn’t be happier. This is probably the most thorough cleaning any of them get. Mike sweats a lot. I can sometimes smell him from a couple rows back in class.
“Are you coming, Derrick?” Evan calls me again.
I think about it. It’s all I’ve been thinking about. They make swimming seem so easy. I want to slip in, but my feet don’t respond to my head. The rest of my body doesn’t either. The longer I stare at the water, the worse I feel. It’s not like being sick. It’s more of a shocking tingle that moves through my veins. Then I start to feel cold. Cold and alone.
It’s an overwhelming feeling. Since the first time a friend asked me if I knew how to swim, water has only made me feel bad. It makes me feel worse than anything else ever has. I’m not used to being bad at things. Being unable to do them is even worse.
“Yeah,” I respond weakly. I’m not sure Evan hears me. I barely hear myself. But I listen and push myself off the edge.
The water is cold. Shivers crawl up and down my body until I am able to adjust. The moments scare me. Cartoons try to scare us with big monsters and dark shadows, but nothing ever gets to me like this.
But I eventually adjust. And rather than fear, I suddenly feel comfortable. Instead of weak, I feel strong. So I take a step. Then another. The next thing I know, the water is up to my neck.
“Is that is far as you’re coming?” Evan asks.
I nod, that sinking feeling quickly returning
“Can you swim?”
I shake my head.
“You stay on that side then,” Evan says as he catches the beach ball tossed to him. “John will be on your team.”
I can’t stop the smile that spreads across my face.
“Sure, I’ll stay right here.”
“The Shallow End” by Bertel King, Jr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.