In her memoir The Glass Castle Jeannette Walls recounts a swimming-lesson scene from her childhood, wherein her father repeatedly throws her into a deep sulfur-spring pool.
"I was spitting and coughing and breathing in uneven choking gasps. When I recovered, Dad picked me up and heaved me back into the middle of the Hot Pot. 'Sink or swim!' he called out. For the second time, I sank. The water once more filled my nose and lungs."
At North St. Johns Swim and Tennis Club, the beginners swimming program could not be further, philosophically, from the traumatic "sink or swim" method.
On a mid-June night when the air is closet-close, the cool waters of the pool beckon to the children standing on the deck. Some of the kids are anxious to get in; others hover by their parents, waiting for the instructors to invite them by name. It is the end of their first week of swim lessons, their introduction to the challenging, exhilarating world of independence in the water.
Ashley Goldstein, 17, one of the instructors, is in her third season of teaching at the club.
"You have to tell them [the children] that you're not going to let them down," she says. "On the first day, we go over the rules, and I show them I can stand in the water, and reinforce that I'm a lifeguard. I have to earn their trust."
There are two instructors for seven children in the class. Goldstein's teaching partner, Kirsten Lance, 16, talks about how the program is structured, with repetition of the basic skills each day. "We teach them to streamline, and then they can go farther and farther [in the lane] each day. We build on these skills every time."
Jen Goldstein, 21, Ashley's older sister, has been a lifeguard at the club for seven years and teaching swimming for six. This year, Jen is the assistant manager, in charge of setting up swim lessons. She says she has not forgotten what it was like being taught to swim as a young child, and she vividly remembers her earliest lifeguard experience.
Ashley was eager to get into the water and follow her older sister's example. Her twin brother, Jordan, was more tentative. "Ashley must have been 2 1/2 years old," Jen recalls. "My mom was putting water wings on Jordan, and Ashley just jumped into the 5-foot section by herself. She sank. I had to grab her."
Hearing of such scenarios - and others that do not have happy endings - can make parents anxious. According to the article "Where Children Drown," which appeared in the journal Pediatrics, drowning was the second-leading cause of unintentional injury death in those between the ages of 1 and 19 between 1990 and 2000.
While the study indicated that 55 percent of the infant drownings occurred in bathtubs, it stated that among children between 1 and 4 years old, 56 percent of drownings were in pools and 26 percent were in other bodies of water.
Denise Trainer stands with her 4-year-old twin daughters, Kristen and Lauren, on this last night of the first week of lessons. Kristen has been waiting excitedly, ready to jump into the water. Just as the class is about to begin, Lauren wants to visit the restroom.
"I don't get upset or force Lauren," Denise Trainer says. "I don't get frustrated if she doesn't participate. I stay in the background. But I do watch because neither girl can stand in the 3-foot section yet."
Trainer says she likes to see what the lifeguards are teaching "so I can work on those skills with [her daughters] over the summer."
She is witnessing real progress. Day by day, the girls are moving forward: Kristen recently raised her hand to be first to demonstrate a technique, and Lauren got into the pool to kick while holding the instructor's hands.
Within the beginner level, there is a range of capabilities. Ashley Goldstein explains how the instructors work with the comfort levels within a class.
"We try to secure a promise," she says, "like, 'Are you going to put your feet in the water tomorrow?'"
The class meets daily for two weeks. "The repetition accelerates the learning," says Rita Herlihy, whose son Daniel, 5, is in the class.
Herlihy's husband, Dave, adds: "We go to Ocean City quite a bit. I'd like for Daniel to be able to go in the ocean and not have me feel nervous about it. These lessons are probably more for me than for him."
"I'll still be nervous," adds Rita.
"Before the season started," says Dave Herlihy, "Danny wouldn't go into the pool without a [floatation] noodle. After a few lessons, we were getting out of the car, and I asked him, 'Do you want your noodle?' He said, 'No, Dad, I can swim now.'"
The lesson concludes, and Trainer wraps her girls in towels, praising their progress. Kristen tried a kickboard; Lauren got in, and did not use her new "Nemo" goggles.
It's going to be a great summer.
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