I attended a state university that required you to pass a swim test to graduate. I will not mention the name of the institution because I’m about to malign them.
When the orientation materials arrived by snail mail, included in the package was an inquiry about whether I could swim. I could not swim. The thought of getting into a pool terrified me. I grew up in a city apartment surrounded by a sea of asphalt and concrete. We had no access to water for recreational purposes, not even a leaky fire hydrant. As a child, I did not swim laps at the neighborhood pool. As a child, I got my exercise running away from my combative companions at Smalley Elementary School.
I crafted a vague response to that swimming form which I hoped would lead them to believe I could swim. I assumed they’d take me at my word; to be precise, take me at my ambiguous words.
When I arrived at orientation, I received an invitation to come at the gym for swim test. The letter had a Mafia-like tone to it, succinctly stating that this was an offer I could not refuse.
On the way to the gym, I engaged in magical thinking: Dogs can doggy paddle, right? Who teaches them? Nobody. I am smarter than a dog. Certainly, I can doggy paddle if I try hard enough.
About fifty women stood shivering in a line around the perimeter of the pool. That autumn morning, the maintenance folks must have thrown ice in the water especially for us. An older woman stood next to the diving board, clipboard in hand. She wore a white polo shirt and a gym skirt, which irritated me no end. Why wasn’t she in a bathing suit? She should be prepared for all emergencies.
I stood about tenth in line. The first nine girls walked down the diving board, dove in, then swam across the pool. Clearly, they hadn’t lied on their swimming form.
As I reached the end of the gang plank, my knees began to buckle. Who was I kidding?
I yelled, “I can’t swim. Don’t make me!”
That gym teacher did not care. Not one bit. The forty freezing women standing behind me also did not care. They shouted, “JUMP!”
I jumped and sank to the bottom. Even dead bodies float, but my bones must be made of lead. The instructor took her sweet time pulling me out.
Feeling wobbly, I staggered to the locker room where I saw a bright burst of light in the left corner of my vision, then passed out. Over the months, I passed out more times. A doctor determined my problem likely stemmed from the many head injuries I’d sustained as a child, due to both my ill-advised risk taking (another story) and my combative schoolmates.
You may wonder how the university responded. They didn’t say, “Bless your heart, child, we are sorry you’ve been through so much. Take a relaxing poetry course. On us.”
Instead, they grudgingly waived the swimming requirement and forced me, the shortest person in the entering class, to take fencing with a horde of tall, aggressively wild women who spent a semester in a tiny room chasing me around with large fake swords. That’s why I see a therapist to this day.
The moral of this story?
I agree with Walter Scott who said, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave . . . when first we practice to deceive.”