I had a horrible experience of learning to swim.
My memory is perhaps unreliable but I was clearly slow to pick-up the skills. My grandfather was paying for the swimming classes; something that he tended to point out. I remember my instructor making a big deal about us jumping in to the pool during one lesson. I was full of excitement to share this new achievement with my parents. Until I realised that they were distinctly unmoved.
To compound matters, my mum’s best friend had a son my age and we’d meet up a lot to play together while our parents socialised. The best friend’s son was an exceptional swimmer and it seemed to me that discussing this fact was one of the most popular topics of conversation.
When it came time for my two little girls to learn to swim we had a decision to make. There was the class on the industrial estate that was run by a former Olympic swimmer and there was the class at the health centre. My sister-in-law sent her kids to the one on the industrial estate and gave the impression it was a bit of a sink-or-swim place. One of her children had cried about going there.
So, conscious of my own childhood experience, we sent the girls to the class at the health centre.
And they absolutely loved it.
They were excited to go every Friday. They used ‘noodles’ in the class for buoyancy – long tubes of foam. They engaged in behaviour that looked very much like swimming and the instructors were friendly and encouraging. At the end of each lesson, the girls were given a lolly.
There was a catch. After about twelve months the girls really could not swim. They had a great attitude towards swimming; they just couldn’t actually do it.
With deep misgivings, we enrolled them at the school on the industrial estate.
It was a different world. From the moment they entered the water the girls were given explicit instruction. It wasn’t unfriendly; it was businesslike with no time to waste. A supervisor – often the former Olympic athlete – kept an eye on the whole pool and would spot things and intervene. Sometimes, the supervisor would pull an instructor aside and have an animated discussion.
The girls were getting lots of explicit feedback and so were the instructors. After about three lessons, both girls were swimming short distances unaided.
This gave them a sense of achievement. Soon they were moving up a class and were given certificates to mark this; a source of some pride. Now they loved swimming and were gaining a sense of achievement from it. No tears.
Of course, this little vignette does not prove anything. Perhaps the first class had readied the girls for the second one. But I know what I think.
As a child, I eventually learnt to swim. My mum took me to a different, more intensive class and I picked it up quite quickly. So I was probably a casualty of poor instruction.
Unfortunately, by then I had decided that I was a bad swimmer; that there was something wrong with me; that it was my fault. So I’ve never been able to enjoy swimming. I don’t swim recreationally as an adult and even the smell of a chlorinated pool makes me feel anxious. Of course, I get over myself for the sake of my girls and I swim with them. It’s just that there’s no love there.
I wonder if this is some peoples’ experience of learning to read.