How NOT to teach a Black Girl to Swim

Dad had a girlfriend.

Actually, what he told me was that he has a “friend.” But I wasn’t stupid.

Dad and Mom were never officially a couple. He was from upstate Pennsylvania. Harrisburg, to be more exact. She was born and raised in Philly. They met in college in the seventies and one year later, they had me.

Mom was no stranger to dating. And before she got married, she had introduced me to plenty of her boyfriends. Some of them even lived with us.

Therefore I had no hangups about him having a girlfriend. I actually welcomed the company.

And she seemed nice enough. She was light brown skinned with a short haircut and a pleasant smile. Her style of dress was pristine. And her mannerisms indicated an air of sophistication not native to Harrisburg, or even Philadelphia. Yet she looked and acted like every single “friend” Dad had introduced me to over the years.

Dad steered the car while I sat in the backseat.

So Charing how is your summer vacation going? It must be great spending time with dear ol’ dad, huh,” she asked gleefully from the front seat. She made my summer sound more exciting than it actually had been.

Dad and I hadn’t talk to each other much during our summers together – or not to each other, at least. I spent most of my time in Harrisburg at my grandma and grandpa’s house. I talked a bunch over there: to my cousins, to my aunts and to my uncles too. We talked, we cussed, we bickered, we argued and laughed too. But that was at grandma and grandpa’s house.

At his house, things were pretty quiet. Most times, Dad was either locked away in his computer lab or watching the basketball game. In either case, he did not like to be bothered by me. Most times I felt like an unwanted guest. A burden, even.

I didn’t want to answer her; I didn’t know how to answer her without telling the truth. But I could see Dad’s eyes accusing me in the rear view mirror. I could tell that he wanted me to be on my best behavior. To help him make a good impression.

I obliged- sorta.

I didn’t want to be rude so I started rambling on about everything except my summer vacation. I told her about my brother, my cat and my dog. I told her about my neighborhood and my favorite rap album. I even told her about what I had for breakfast.

I could tell by how Dad grimace in the rear view mirror that I was talking too much. But his girlfriend seemed receptive to it all. She smiled and nodded at all of the right parts. And she even encourage my chatter more by asking questions.

Regardless of what Dad choose to label her, I really liked his new girlfriend.

*

We arrived at our destination: a community pool.

Although this was like no other community pool I had ever visited. I was surprised at how big and blue it was. There were literally sections to it, ranging from a baby pool to a 16-foot deep Olympic-sized area for the half-human/half-aquatic species.

There were white people everywhere.

They were doing the front crawl, the butterfly, the breast stroke and the backstrokes. They were diving and not just from the bottom diving board, but from the one at the very top too. Clearly these people knew their ways around the water.

Well go ‘head…” Dad said smiling with his arm wrapped tightly around his “friend.”

I looked at his shyly. I did not know how to swim.

It was not a skill, which was usually taught or encouraged at our neighborhood pools back in Philly. For one, most neighborhood pools were severely underfunded. We were lucky enough to have water, let alone enough well-trained staff to supervise and basically keep us from drowning.

And secondly, there were too many of us in such small aquatic quarters. Any attempt at a backstroke would likely result in you getting a firm kick in the head.

Lastly, and most importantly, most of us were not allowed to get our hair wet.

Our moms had spent too much time getting our hairstyles right and nobody was trying to catch that beating for “not listenin’.”

I tried to explain all of this to Dad. But he was insisted that I go “have fun” on my own. He said that he – and his “friend” – would be around if I really needed him. I looked towards his friend for saving, but she offered no support, other than one of her perfect smiles.

In spite of our previous bonding experience, I was beginning to doubt her authenticity. But without guide nor “friend,” I went sent out into the white wilderness in search of a comfortable spot to splash around in.

I walked around the pool first, seeing where I might be able to sit comfortably in the water without drowning. I found my way to the baby section and sat down on the bottom step inside the pool. I skimmed my feet along the top of the water before plunging them below. I did this a few more times before it no longer entertained me. I looked around for salvation. There was none. Outside of the mothers, who carefully assisted and watched their babies wade around, there was nothing else going on this side of the pool. All the kids my age were having fun in the deeper sections.

I sighed. I felt bored. I wanted to go home.

Hi, I’m Abigail,” said a soft voice from behind me.

I turned around and was met by a freckle-face light-skinned Black girl with light eyes and thick sandy brown hair. She was standing on the pool’s edge nearby a white woman with a brown baby. The white lady stared cautiously at us.

She smiled. I smiled. She asked me my name. I told her my name then abruptly asked, “Who is that white lady staring at us?”

She looked over her shoulders and rolled her eyes. “That’s my mom. She never lets me play with certain kinds of girls,” she said sorrowfully.

Oh,” I said as I looked at her carefully and at the white lady again, searching for an obvious resemblance. There wasn’t much.

Nevertheless I waved at her, hoping that it would calm her nerves and stop her from staring so much. Abigail’s mom was making me feel guilty and I hadn’t even done anything – yet.

But she grunted and continued her silent condemnation of me with her eyes. At that moment, I did not like Abigail’s mom.

But Abigail seemed cool. Or at least, much more friendlier than her mother. She asked if I wanted to swim with them. I told her I couldn’t swim.

She smiled cheerfully and said, “That’s okay I’ll teach you.”

I didn’t know this girl, but I trusted her enough to followed her around the pool until we arrived at the 6 ‘in mark. I sucked at math and measurements, but just like she told me, it didn’t look that deep. I could actually see to the bottom of the pool.

Without warning or suggestion, Abigail grabbed her nose, leaped into the air and fell into the water. She disappeared under for a few moments before re-emerging full of giggles. It all looked so fun. I was tempted to try. Abigail yelled for me to try.

It’s your turn, Charing. Just do like I did,” she instructed.

For a few moments, I thought about it. But ultimately opted for caution.

Instead, I held onto the side of the pool and lowered myself gently into the water, hoping that my toes would touch the bottom. But my feet never touched the bottom. And I kept sinking deep into the water until it was almost over my head. In a panic, I violently swung my arms around until I was able to catch the pool’s edge and hoist myself back up onto the earth.

I heard a kid laugh. Then I heard more laugh.

She needs to be in the baby pool with the rest of the babies,” said a random boy in blue swimming shorts.

Abigail started to chuckle and so did a few other kids.

I didn’t appreciate her joining in with the other kids and laughing at me. Even though we had just met, she was supposed to be my girl. She was supposed to have my back.

In retaliation, I kicked water into her face and screamed, “STOP LAUGHIN’ AT ME, YOU BITCH.”

I wasn’t sure what hurt most: the chlorine jolt I gave her to her eyeballs or the curse upon her name. But her face turned red and agitated as if she was about to cry. She swam to the pull’s edge and pulled herself out of the water.

I’m going to tell my mom on you,” she wailed before running off.

I rolled my eyes at her. “TELL. I don’t care,” I screamed back.

Actually I did care, which is why I also took off running, but to the other end of the pool.

It was hard finding a place to blend in. It wasn’t just my color. But none of the other kids wanted to play with me because I couldn’t swim. The other kids jumped, dove and even curled themselves up into cannonballs with ease. But I could do none of that. I couldn’t even stick my head under without thinking I was about to die.

Pool day sucked and I was ready to go home. It was lonely, I was hot and worse, I was on the lam from Abigail’s mom.

I sulked and wandered aimlessly around the perimeter of pool until I found them.

The spot in the buttermilk.

They were huddled together in the section of the pool measuring only three-feet deep. Although the water barely grazed their shoulders, the all strain their necks to ensure that not even the nap got wet.

It was my tribe.

I scurried over to the section and stood in front of my clans members. I told them my name. They each gave me theirs back: Kareem. Lucinda. Thomas. And Larry with the lisp.

I can’t swim,” I said enthusiastically.

We can’t neither,” said Kareem who held on the tightest to the pool’s edge. “I’m just kicking my legs out to pretend like I’m swimming. But I ain’t letting this go. Oh, no!”

I can swim,” Lucinda said as she corrected Kareem’s narrative. “But my church is having a birthday prayer dinner for the pastor. And my mom said I could go swimming but I’m not allowed to get my hair wet.”

She stretched her neck upwards and even further away from the waves than the others. I couldn’t help but notice how much she resembled a turtle. “My hair is not wet, is it,” she asked.

I shook my head no. Lucinda looked relieved but not any more relaxed.

I honored her struggled but I smiled nevertheless. As silly as it sounded, I felt like I had finally found home.

Well, what are you waiting for? You getting in the warder or what,” asked Larry.

You bet your lisp-y ass I was getting in that water.

I was ready to spend the rest of the day, holding on to the side of the wall and not getting my hair wet with the rest of my new friends.

What I didn’t anticipate was the hard shove to the back.

The force was enough to rip my feet from the concrete floor and send me face first into the pool. I immediately began to panic.

I could feel all the air in my lungs being replace by water. I wanted to fight it. If only to find out who my killer was. I wanted to give him or her one last look in the eyes before I sunk to the bottom of the three-foot pool.

But I did not fight it. Instead, I closed my eyes and let the calmness take over me.

Close to blacking out, I felt a tug at my arm. I opened my eyes and saw the bright summer skies. Somehow I was now laying on my back besides the pool. Around me were troubled white faces along with Dad and his friend, who looked equally worried. Everyone was asking me if I was okay at the same time. I didn’t answer. I looked over my left shoulder at my Dad who looked the most bothered.

You didn’t even try to swim,” he said panicky…

*

I just knew it was Abigail who tried to kill me.

But after I had dried off, Dad revealed that it was he who had pushed me in the pool.

As he explained, it was how all the Carter kids learned to swim. “But you floated to the top like a dead man,” he said as he shook his head.

He sincerely looked confused by me. I sincerely didn’t know if I could trust him again.

Pool day would be cut short after the near drowning. After we dropped his “friend” off and returned back to his house, Dad made it a point of lecturing me about the importance of knowing how to swim. He tried to give the same lecture to Mom a few weeks later, when he took me home to Philly.

However Mom told him if he wanted me to learn to swim, than he should pay for the classes.

Dad never brought it up again.

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