Our teens teach swim lessons - the royalty of summer employment. I stand in the yard every morning watching them drive away, burning with envy. That used to be me, so I know what I'm missing. I rocked. I could teach a flying monkey to swim.
I learned the trade from my sister, who taught me that the swim instructor's most powerful tool is nonchalance. Everything you do and say must convince the child that "this is absolutely no big deal."
This is the exact opposite of what's being communicated by your student's mom as she stands on the deck. She looks like the figure in that Edvard Munch painting. Hands to her cheeks, her expression screams: "My baby is going to die!" We called it "the face." And you better believe Junior picks up on it.
I've seen mother-looks that made me forget how to swim. Hence an ironclad rule: The amount of success a beginning swimmer will enjoy is in direct proportion to the distance between said swimmer and mom.
Even most swimming teachers don't understand the nonchalance rule. They get excited. "You're blowing bubbles!" they gush. "LOOK AT SCOTTY BLOW BUBBLES!!"
This tells the nervous kids on the side of the pool, the ones in the group waiting their turn, that blowing bubbles is A VERY BIG DEAL. These students now look over at mom and get zapped with "the face." Put a fork in these kids.
All that bubble blowing simply prolongs the inevitable act beginners fear most: putting their melons underwater. Some teachers will spend three or four lessons doing nothing more than getting kids to go underwater.
My lessons began with a method that will never be Red Cross approved but worked every time. I calmly but enthusiastically led my class, like rats, straight down the steps into the water over their heads.
A great deal of coughing and thrashing ensued. But then, when we reconvened on the steps and looked around, it was plain to the kids that we, unlike the other groups, were making progress.
"Look at those kids over there!" I'd scoff, pointing to the other lessons. "Look at 'em! They're blowing bubbles!" I'd laugh. "You guys already know how to swim! Let's go home!" I teased, climbing out, pretending to dry off.
Too bad adults don't bring the same sense of humor to the pool. They tend to be far more self-conscious and overthink things. Still, I've taught lots of grownups to swim, and enjoyed it, except for one person. She was a shapely, divorced brunette in her late 30s named Kim.
"Kim the Serial Swim Lesson Lady" is what we called her at the Kentucky quarry where I worked. During guard shifts, we saw her gliding through the quarry's smooth, clear water. That didn't stop Kim from hand-selecting high school and college boys to "work on her stroke."
As I soon found out, "working on her stroke" required the laying on of hands. "Put your arms on mine and show me," she commanded. The customer was always right, so I obeyed.
No matter whose turn it was to teach Kim, her lesson turned into a spectator sport for the rest of the staff. My fellow instructors spent many Guard Room hours in deep philosophical discussion about Kim's student needs. "She wants it," they concluded.
I was naïve about Mrs. Robinson stuff in those days and mostly felt awkward with Kim the Serial Swim Lesson Lady. What's more, her lesson always put me behind schedule because the uninvited sproing in the Speedo required me to stay in the water a few extra minutes while my own enthusiasm subsided.
Desperate housewives aside, a pool is the best workplace to flirt with kids your own age. My favorite flirting story crosses over into my favorite swim lesson story.
I'm holding onto the edge of the diving well, just below the chair inhabited by my lifeguard crush du jour. I'm instructing a freckle-nosed kid named Howard, a 7-year-old I had swimming right on schedule by the end of the first lesson.
That left five half-hour lessons for us to play in the quarry while I got paid. Bored with his newfound swimming prowess, Howard tells me he wants to learn backstroke.
"In order to learn the backstroke, Howard," I inform him while looking up to make sure Madam Guard is listening, "you have to tell your mother to buy you a Grateful Dead record."
I hear the desired laughter up in the guard chair. "And Howard," I continue, "you need to listen to the record three times a day. This is very important. I want you to absolutely wear it out."
Having amused the girl and ended the lesson, I send Howard on his way.
The next morning, out of the blue, Howard's mother charges me like a freight train and hits the brakes face-to-face. "Did you tell Howard to get a Grateful Dead record in order for him to learn the backstroke?"
"Uh, well, yes I did. I did tell him that," I confess, quietly accepting that my swim teaching career was coming to a close.
"Well," she huffs, "Which one?"
"American Beauty oughta do it," I tell her.
"Thank you," she says, exasperated with me for neglecting to send home details. She spins around, grabs Howard by the hand, and heads up the hill to the record store.