It's been a day.
It's spring break week, and you can tell; everyone is slightly off-kilter, short-tempered, more tired than usual. There have been more tears in the last three days than there have been in the last three months. On Monday, one of my tiniest students burst into tears when I greeted her and asked if she was ready to get in the pool. Her mother looked equal parts frazzled and resigned. "It's been that sort of day," she told me, looking near tears herself. I spent half of the class with her head on my shoulder, floating on our backs, looking up at the ceiling and the skylights, before her mood had brightened and she was ready to go back to her coach.
I'm still laughing, but just barely, which is why I inwardly groan when one of the kids a lane over starts sobbing - a sudden, violent howl of frustration that I recognize all too well (having done it a few times myself). He's embarrassed to be crying. He clings to the side of the pool, his head ducked between hunched shoulders like a turtle, and the more he tries to be quiet, to disappear, the more frustrated he becomes, until finally he lets go and sinks several feet below the surface, hugging his knees to his chest. He's still crying, even underwater, and it's only a second before he has to kick back to the surface for air. He takes a quick, half-strangled breath, ignoring the coach who tries to talk to him, and ducks back beneath the water.
I paddle over, and the coach throws his hands up in frustration. "I don't know what's wrong!" he tells me, exasperated. "He won't tell me why he's upset. He's just staying down there."
I tell him it's okay, "I've got this," and he swims away, glad to leave the problem to someone else. My kid surfaces, glances at me defiantly, and disappears under the water again.
I tread water, waiting as his breaths even out and his up-and-downs become smooth bobs, and I can't help but notice the water running across the palms of my hands, the slight resistance of it against my feet. It's one of the things I've always loved, the sheer physicality of the water. The touch of it against my skin. On a whim, I stop kicking, blow out my breath in a steady stream, and let myself sink.
All is quiet under here, muffled, soft. It's easy to feel alone, but in the best possible way, surrounded by light and warmth and the soft pressure of the water on every inch of your body. I open my eyes, and I catch my kid studying me from behind his goggles, trying to figure out what it is that I'm doing.
(The truth is, I have no idea. Anyone watching would think I'm nuts, and I can't blame them.)
For few moments, we do bobs together, first independently, then eventually in sync, breathing and bubbling, rising and falling in time together. Every time we break the surface he glances furtively in my direction; gradually his look changes, from one of resentment to one of expectancy. The next time we surface, I ask quietly, "Want to go sit on the bottom with me?"
He doesn't respond, but he folds his legs neatly - criss, cross, applesauce - and sculls to the bottom with me, our breath trailing above us like the irridescent tentacles of a jellyfish. We're deeper than I thought - it takes more effort and more air to reach the bottom than I'd expected - but we do, sitting still for one brief second before pushing ourselves back to the surface for a breath, then sculling back down again.
We do this only a few times before he grabs the wall, and follow suit. I'm tired, and so is he.
We catch our breath silently.
"I'm having a horrible day today, and no one will just listen to me," he exclaims suddenly, angrily, studying the tiles in front of him.
I nod sympathetically. "I'm sorry. I'm not having a good day, either," I tell him.
He looks at me curiously. "What happened to you?" he asks.
"I forgot something important today. I left my swim binder on my kitchen table last night and I forgot to grab it this morning, so I didn't have everything I needed for tonight." Just saying it makes me want to growl in frustration.
He shrugs. "I forget my stuff all the time. My mom says it drives her crazy."
"It drives me crazy when I do it, too," I nod, and impulsively add, "It makes me feel like I'll never be good at being a grownup when I make stupid mistakes."
"My mom says everyone makes mistakes," he tells me, unimpressed with my candor. "Maybe you just need more practice."
And I laugh, because he's right, and because I knew that, and because what you know and what you feel are sometimes worlds apart.
"What happened to you today?" I ask, and almost instantly regret it. His eyes darken.
"I was trying to do a freestyle flipturn off the wall, and Carl wasn't watching where he was going, and he knocked me, and I swallowed water and choked and I had to breathe right before I flipped. And coach told me, 'don't breathe right before you flip,' and I tried to tell him that I know how to do a flipturn, that Carl knocked me, but he didn't listen. I know how to do a flipturn," he finishes defiantly, turning to face me.
"I know you do," I tell him. "I've seen you."
"Carl always knocks me, because he never looks where he's going," he adds, frustrating tinting his voice. "I never get to do a good flipturn."
We are the last ones in the pool; even the slowest class ended ten minutes ago. The lanes are empty, the water still and undisturbed.
"Want to try it now?" I offer, beckoning to the empty pool. "There's no one to run in to you. You can have the whole lane to yourself."
He starts to say no, but the novelty of the empty pool wins him over, and he pushes off the wall and treads water in the middle of the lane, suddenly uncertain. He looks at me.
I open my mouth because I know what I want to say - "Remember, freestyle into the wall, don't breathe, flip, push off and roll, and freestyle back" - and I have to stop myself.
"You know what to do."
When he decides to do it, when he commits, he is like a locomotive, and nothing in his way can stop him. I watch his swift, mechanical strokes as he shoots toward the other end of the pool. He rolls to breathe a perfect three strokes before the wall, and his face doesn't rise again before he flips, his feet landing neatly on the wall, and launches himself back into the lane. I couldn't ask for better.
He pulls himself out of the water, and his eyes are shining.
"See? I knew I could do it."