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Don’t Forget to Swim

The first time I lost a kid, I felt real bad about it.

I’d seen him treading water, of course, but there were others in worse shape. I saw him go under but by the time I got there, he was gone. He’d settled slowly to the bottom and there was no bringing him back.

A darn shame is what it was, but what can you do? At the end of the day, we moved on, but I still remember that kid. His name was David.

Those were the days, though I didn’t know it at the time. Back then, the kids came to me with better skills; they knew what water was, at least. Parents cared back in those days; now, they act like all they got to do is drop them off. And the numbers now? They’re getting unreasonable.

Budget cuts, they say.

More and more, it happens. I’m getting kids who aren’t ready, kids who can barely stay afloat never mind make it to the other end.

But when they sent me the amputee last week, I felt I really had to say something. He was the last in a long line of kids who weren’t ready for the deep end.

“More depth, less breadth,” said my boss. “We can spend all day thinking of reasons why this won’t work, but these are kids we’re talking about. Now, I want you to ask yourself this- What have you done to level the playing field for these kids? To put them on an even keel with their peers?”

“Well,” I tried to explain. “He has no arms.”

“Somebody’s being negative. Now let’s just think about accommodations we can make to get him to where he needs to be.”

So, that’s when floaties came into the picture, though when it came to the amputee, we had to get a little creative. So, I devised a specialized strap that kept the student’s torso above water. Unfortunately, it only prevented him from sinking. He was just bobbing around the pool, still afloat, but not making much progress. We weren’t getting anywhere until I designed the automated propeller system. With instruction, the student was able to turn it on with his nose and it would motor him to the other side. It worked pretty well. In fact, he actually beat some of the other kids on the end of the quarter test.

That wasn’t as bad as the kid with the oxygen tank. Now, that was a challenge, let me tell you. At first, we tried a teaching assistant who swam along beside him, holding the tank. It just wasn’t effective though. The kid was gasping from breath from the effort and teaching assistants just aren’t made for that kind of wear and tear.

So, that’s when we started using small rafts. Only for kids who really needed it, obviously. Safety concerns required the teaching assistant to be on the raft with the student at all times. Someone had to row, obviously.

“Great news!” my boss said when he called me in for my Quarterly Performance review.  “85% of your kids make the cut off. See? Hard work pays off. Oh, and listen to this. We got the funding to put in an Olympic sized pool. Finally! Over in Jefferson County, the schools already have bigger pools and their students are hauling ass over that sucker.”

A bigger pool.

Think of the opportunities this will give our kids, he said. It will get them ready for the real world. I had to admit, it would be good for some of them. Sam Qi, for example, the kid was pretty much born a fish. I barely needed to tell him what to do. He glided through the water, as I was pretty sure he would through life. And Sherry Camidge? The doctor’s kid? She has been taking private lessons for years. She is something to see.

But who had time to sit back and watch Sherry Camidge skimming over the water?  What with the new batch of kids, there was no time for that. I had my hands full.

Before I knew it, the renovations were done and I was standing at one end of an enormous pool. It was a moment I will never forget. The sunlight sliced through the high windows like shards of glass and the water glittered under its spell. It was beautiful in a terrifying kind of way.

The other end was getting farther and farther away.

The data was looking good, though. Student growth scores showed steady improvement. So when test day rolled around, I was cautiously optimistic. By that time, Sherry and Sam were vying for the top slot and it was a toss-up as to who would get it. The two of them stood at the starting block, their backs rigid with tension, eying each other. The rest of the crew lined up as well and waited for the signal.

And then they were off.  A resounding splash split the air and my students were on their own. Well, almost. I was in the pool myself, side stroking beside Pedro. The boy didn’t speak a word of English. I had no idea if he understood anything I had said to him. His brow creased in concentration as he tried to find his rhythm.

Up ahead, my crew was making steady progress. Sam and Sherry were in the front, of course, the distance between them and the others increasing with each passing second. Behind me, the kid on the raft shouted directions to the teacher’s assistant, Mrs. Dobbins. She was going on 50 years old, but that old lady, she rowed for all she was worth.

So, it was going well, you see. As well as could be expected.

But then I saw this kid Jimmy start to flounder. He needed me.

“Bueno, Pedro,” I fumbled to retrieve my high school Spanish, “no dejes de nadar.”

I wasn’t overly concerned. I had Jimmy in sight and was about to start over to him when all Hell broke loose.

The raft pulled up beside me and I saw Mrs. Dobbin’s oar smack Pedro right in the temple. Stunned, the boy stayed afloat for a minute, then started to go under.

“Oh no you don’t!” I said as I worked to pull him onto the raft. But as I hefted him up, the side dipped precariously. I watched the oxygen tank slowly slide toward the water.

That Mrs. Dobbins, that woman is worth every cent they pay her! She made a heroic dive, laid flat out, I tell you, and grasped the tank just before it slid into the water!

Too bad the kid connected to it slipped in, but I fished him out and tossed him on board again. I had to dive back down to get Pedro, but I thrust him onto the center of the raft and made a mental reminder to check for vitals as soon as we got to the other side.

But Jimmy? By then, I had lost sight of him; I swam to where I’d seen him go under, but what with all the splashing and the yelling, I couldn’t find him.

So I dove.

Above me, little feet kicked churned. I pulled hard, fighting against the force of the water. I reached for the bottom but when I got there, I could feel nothing but the rough cement floor. My hands spread out, but I could feel nothing. Lungs bursting, I shot to the surface.

That’s when I saw Jimmy at the end of the line. He made it on his own! Proud as could be, I swam to join the rest, getting there just in time to hoist the armless boy onto the deck and help to pull the raft up.

I was taking attendance and recording times when the boss came in. He was smiling.

“Fantastic effort!” he said. “Just look what we can accomplish if we raise the bar.”

I looked. Some of the kids were jumping on the raft like it was a trampoline. The armless kid had slipped on the wet deck and was struggling to stand back up. Mrs. Dobbins was performing CPR on Pedro.

“See?” my boss said. “You did it! You taught them to swim.”

What a crew they were, but they had given me all they had, every one of them. Every one of them, I thought as I did a head count.

Then did it again…

One was missing.

With rising panic, I went through the list on my clipboard, checking off the names until I got to the end.

“Sammy Qi?”

We looked around, all of us. Where did he go? Was he in the locker room already? I was about to check when I saw Jimmy, standing on the starting block and pointing, pointing into the pool.

Later, my boss said it was a darn shame; he wasn’t even on the radar, that one. Don’t worry, he said, it happens.

I was highly effective, after all, he pointed out. Just look at the data.

And so, at least I had that.

I try to remember it. But at night, I dream. I dream of pools that get longer, the end receding farther and farther beyond my reach. I dream of small desperate limbs beating the water. And in my dreams, I dive, pulling my way down through the water. All that is above presses down upon me, and I pull harder.

Deeper and deeper I go, fighting all that lies between me and the ones I left behind.

18 August 2014

Jennifer Hanno is the winner of the Empirical Prize for Fiction and has a story forthcoming in Ploughshares. You can read more of her writing on her blog at jenniferhanno.com