The Summer Project: Poolside ... NOT! (1980)

The last few months of fourth grade might have been my happiest during grade school. Everything just seemed to go right. I was getting good grades. I was playing kid-pitch baseball for the first time. I had some good friends. I learned how to play Strat-o-Matic Baseball. I had the starring role (the narrator) in the fourth grade's act for the school-wide variety show. I had my first crush.

Summer was going to be awesome!

One little problem: I still was afraid of water, and paranoid I'd be made fun of if other kids knew. It was going to be another summer missing out on swimming, but I didn't have a problem with that because everything else was going to be great.

My idyllic plan came crashing down in two ways. First, my friend Franco asked one day if I wanted to go to the pool. I lied and said I had a cold. We still hung out that day and had fun (I distinctly remember playing bocce and Oh No 99! at his house), but I had to lie to do it.

Second, my friend Chris, probably my best grade school friend, got a pool that summer. Not a big pool -- just one of those 3-foot Coleco pools that you could disassemble every summer. But it was a pool nonetheless, one I didn't have any intention of going in. He called one day asking if I wanted to come over to swim, and I said no.

I retreated to my basement, turned on the giant console stereo that didn't work well anymore (the radio still did; the turntable and 8-track player not so much), and sulked. It felt like such a betrayal -- obviously, it wasn't Chris' fault, but I felt so trapped. But, I learned a great lesson in friendship that day: Chris came over to my house, and my mom let him in. I was surprised when he came down to the basement. I'm not sure what we ended up doing that day, maybe playing catch (we were on the same baseball team) or riding our bikes, and we might have ended up at his house, because I remember being there once that summer and him feeling how warm the water in the pool was. But he never pressured me to jump in, and he never seemed disappointed.

After 35 years, the thing I realize now is that Chris' pool might have been the last best chance I had to really getting over the fear of water while I was still young and developed an even more freaky, darker fear of it. The pool was only 3 feet deep -- no risk of drowning or even falling in. Chris wouldn't have minded if I came over a couple times a week to hang out and swim, and I think knowing he was helping would have made him all the more encouraging. My parents would have loved it -- I'm sure my mom would have told Chris' mom how happy she was that I was getting over my fear. And it would have been certainly less intimidating than learning to swim at Norridge Pool or another big public place where I might have felt ashamed.

However, when you are a 9-year-old, you don't think of these things logically. Between that summer and 1986, I went in a swimming pool exactly five times. In the summer of 1986, I started gradually (very gradually) getting over the fear. What helped? My high school friends, one of whom had a pool, who all encouraged me and cheered me on. At 15 I realized that; at 9, I wasn't old enough to figure it out.

The rest of the summer was still awesome. It would have been legendary if that was the summer I learned to swim.


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