Sink or swim

June 17,2010
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

I liked sports when I was growing up. I used to watch (of all things) boxing with my dad and, while I could never cultivate an appreciation for football, I did like to watch a good college basketball game. And I loved tennis. For a few years I was convinced I could become the next famous tennis pro. I talked my parents into getting me lessons, I practiced for hours in the basement, hitting a ball against the cement wall. I'm not sure what happened in the end--my interest fizzled, eventually. The spark died. In high school I played junior varsity basketball and although I didn't care much for playing part of the game itself, I enjoyed the teammanship side of it all. I liked the coach, and when we worked together, all of us as a team, I felt a heady thrill coarse through my body. Despite all this, and despite the fact that Scott is a solid and competitive tennis player himself, I've never felt that sports had to be a critical part of our children's lives. T. likes sports and has been clamoring to play soccer for years. L., as I've mentioned many times before, has never showed any interest in sports at all. The very facets of being on a sports team that I appreciated as a child, he finds oppressive and even frightening. Swim team, though, has been a safe place. Our pool runs a fairly non-competitive team, and the emphasis has been more on the swimming part, and less on the winning. We've loved the coaching so far, and our experience last year lulled us into a naive sense of complacency about L.'s place on the team. He swam races at every meet last year, and even won a few ribbons. This year, we thought, things would surely be the same. We need sameness. Sameness is good for us. Without it L.'s world explodes out of control, and ours does, too. On Tuesday night, when Scott and I arrived at the pool with the kids, and L. raced off happily to change into his suit, we read down the lists of who would swim in each race, and saw right away that L. hadn't been placed into any races. He was swimming three non-competitive heats, but no main event races. My heart sank. I looked at Scott. His face was set thoughtfully, the way it gets when he knows we're headed into troubled waters. "Should we talk to him?" I asked. And then we made parenting Mistake #1 of the night. We decided, right then and there, that we'd just let it go. Maybe L. wouldn't notice. Maybe he didn't even know the difference between a heat and a race. Maybe he'd spend the evening blissfully unaware of the relationship between being "benched" for the night, and swimming competitively in a race. Did it matter, we wondered? Yet, deep down, I knew it would. L. had spent the whole day talking about that night's meet. At the pool earlier in the afternoon he had practiced his starting dives off the block, over and over and over again. Back at home, he had spent a solid thirty minutes organizing the ribbons from last season in the large glass frame hanging on his bedroom wall--just so he could make room for the new ones. Despite all this, we had just settled ourselves into the deck chairs and just managed to convince ourselves that it would all be okay when L. appeared, his face contorted with hurt indignation, and the effort of holding back his tears. He knew. He was mad. We haven't seen L. that upset in a long time. Surges of emotion are extremely difficult for him. Other kids burst into tears, or they articulate their anger, their sadness, their fears. They might fight inwardly for control, or pretend nothing has bothered them. L. becomes a wildly spinning tornado, a perpetual motion machine. He paces and rages inside and he needs his space. Even if what we might want more than anything is to gather him close, to feel him melt against us, to comfort him, he strikes out physically at anyone who tries to get near. So we let him do dry laps around the pool deck right up until it was time for his heat and then, just as we'd corralled him to the blocks, and just as he was readying himself for his first swim, Mother Nature stepped in, and unrolled the thunder. What followed can only be described as something akin to torture as we sat in the sweltering heat for an hour with T. while L. paced and raged, and while we waited to see if the meet would proceed as scheduled, or be called due to weather. And it was then that we made Mistake #2, for we should have just called it a night and packed up for home. But we wanted L. to get to swim, and T. was scheduled for an actual race, and the thought of leaving seemed like admitting some type of defeat, for all of us, but for L. especially, who we knew, even if he couldn't say it, wanted so desperately to swim. At 8:00 the announcement was made that the meet would go on and Scott jumped to his feet to find L., who had already changed into his street clothes. I ran off with T. in the other direction to listen in on the team meeting at the far end of the pool. We had, without realizing it, made Mistake #3. Maybe wiser parents would have waited to find out the status of the rest of the meet before getting the already devastated child of the family back into his swimsuit only to find out minutes later that in the interest of time, all heats had been cancelled. No heats. No swimming for L. No diving off the block. No chance for even a heat ribbon. It was, as the saying goes, the straw that broke the already suffering back. We were a sad procession back from the pool that night. T., over-tired to tears, walked with Scott, and I followed L., who charged on ahead, muttering to himself and periodically slapping at his face with the flat of his hands--to keep the tears inside, he told me later. Home at last, he wrapped himself into a blanket and finally--finally--let himself cry. It will be okay. There will be other meets, other triumphs. Tomorrow will be a better day. These things happen, sometimes too often for too many kids. There comes a time in every child's life when they have to process a huge disappointment; when their expectations and hopes and dreams tumble and they are left with that awful drained empty, colorless, awful feeling inside. We can't protect our kids from all these moments, even if we try. They happen, and they're important--not for the the disappointment itself, but because of what we learn from them. At least, this is what we tried to rationalize to ourselves that night, when we'd finally tucked in both kids and collapsed on the couch, drained empty and feeling pretty colorless ourselves.