There are a few universities and colleges in this country from which I could never hope to graduate. These schools require matriculated students to pass a swimming test. I do not know how to swim. And I am terrified of making my way into water in which I cannot stand with my head above the surface.
Before World War II, passing a swimming test was part of the curriculum in many US universities and colleges. But by 1982, passing a swimming test was mandatory in less than 10 percent of them. Anna is matriculating at one of the holdout schools. Not a problem for her. I made sure that both of my children learned to swim at a very young age.
And, yes I’m aware that in the old-fashion parlance of the Talmud, a father is required to teach his son three things: The Torah, a trade and how to swim. That’s as great a blueprint for success as I could have hoped to devise. It presents a child with opportunities for spiritual fulfillment, financial security and self-protection.
My girl has to swim a few laps and then off she dives into her college career. I can remember the first time she put her face in a pool. She was 4, and my husband wisely said it was time for her to learn to swim. Off went my little girl to summer camp, where she’d have proper lessons. I never went to summer camp, and we all know the consequences of that missing link in my life.
I wasn’t so sure I wanted my little girl to go to a big-kid camp. But it was a camp that had a prekindergarten division with the sweet name of Owls’ Nest. Within days, she was proficient in the survivor’s float (known as the dead man’s float until someone wised up). Soon enough, she flipped over and floated on her back. I was amazed. I was relieved. My kid could swim. Almost.
The next summer my daughter graduated to two hours a day of instructional swim. Rain or shine – minus thunder and lightning – she was in the pool learning the breaststroke and the crawl. This was one way I measured that my girl was getting bigger and stronger. But then one day she got in the car and expressed my worst nightmare: “Today my counselor jumped into the pool with his clothes on to save me.” Then she asked me something mundane like what was for dinner that night.
When I got home, I found a message from the camp. Anna was never in danger. Her counselor saw that she had ventured into the deep end and scooped her up before she was literally in over her head. The word “save” was not mentioned. Later in the evening, my girl started grumbling that she didn’t want to go back to camp, and she certainly didn’t want to swim. I, the nonswimmer, knew she had to get back in that pool.
I’m reliving the arc of my child’s swimming story because it mirrors my feelings about my first child going to college. Once upon a time, swimming was completely new to her. It was a skill that challenged her and, at moments, frightened her. Ultimately she triumphed, and now, like the old cliché, she swims like a fish.
As for me, I still struggle mightily, learning to tread water in the shallow end. Right after Anna’s scare in the pool, I thought the camp was trying to cover up that she almost drowned. But soon after, I realized that she was never in danger. It just looked that way. So much parental worry stems from emotional perception.
Thirteen years later my little girl is going to a big school. I daresay she’ll pass her college swimming test. To say this is a time of transition for our family is a bit like thinking of Moby Dick as a big fish. But I have made sure she can swim. Take that as you will and apply it to other skills. I believe that my husband and I have invested in her academic success by supplying her with an education in which she has been challenged and has ultimately thrived. So, I suppose you could say that we’re well on our way to teaching her a trade by giving her a college education.
On the spiritual side of things, all we can do is hope that her Jewish day school career will emerge at various flashpoints during her college years. You can’t teach a child to be observant or to take the Torah into her heart. You can only instruct her in Torah so that she can make meaningful choices about her spiritual life.
And so it began with the doggy paddle in the shallow end of the pool at a preschool summer camp and ends with swimming laps in an Olympic-size pool in a large university. That’s as good a metaphor as any, about parenting a child who is leaving home.