I'LL count to three, then just step off. Don't worry, I'll catch you.''
Convincing a child to jump off a diving board for the first time takes a good amount of sweet-talking. Forget reciting scientific properties of flotation. The only thing that child is thinking is: I want to do what all the big kids do, but I'm scared.
It seems like such a simple thing -- a step, a splash, some bubbles, a breath. But to a kid, it's a monumental leap, an act of bravery, and a summertime rite of passage.
For swimming teachers like me, it was always a matter of endurance and patience. Verbally, you had to persuade and assure. Physically, you had to tread water with your arms outstretched -- sometimes for several minutes. Still, for many summers it was my favorite part of teaching.
At our municipal pool, every lifeguard-teacher had a tactic. Karen jumped off with her kids -- a game of one-two-three yank. Laura preferred the drop-plunk, where she lowered kids nearer to the water, dangled them, and let them go (some deemed that cheating). Frank was ruthless, saying, ''You'd rather me push you?'' And sometimes he did.
I stuck with the ''E.T.'' school of assurance (''I'll be right here''), and I had a pretty good success rate. Four out of five times, the child would paddle to the side with a proud grin -- and hop up for jump No. 2.
Not that it was always easy or quick. The drill went something like this:
''Watch me,'' I'd say, as I jumped off and then floated in the effervescence. ''See? It's easy. Now your turn.''
Tiny feet would carefully follow the dots on the gritty green diving board; arms clutched the chest and eyes were wide. At the end of the board came the dreaded look down -- a whole meter. One rule was set: Once you made the decision to go to the end of the board, you weren't allowed to turn back.
''OK, I'm right here. Ready? One, two, three!''
''NOooooo! Come closer,'' they'd plead.
Toes wriggled, bodies shivered, sometimes tears came. Overbearing parents yelled, ''Just do it'' (a la Nike) from the sidelines. Sometimes a crowd would gather and prepare to clap.
''All right, c'mon, we'll try it again. When I get to three, just take a step.
''One.... Two.... Three!''
I'd like to say that most kids gracefully dropped into my arms. But it never quite worked that way. Loosing all to gravity, they'd usually look away and collapse on top of my head. The trick was knowing when to duck.
As I think back on eight summers of teaching, I wonder why this was so gratifying. Maybe it was because I was a competitive diver and knew all too well the feelings involved. But I think it's more universal than that. Seeing firsthand how freeing it is to overcome fear was exhilarating, time after time. These children seemed to forget that they were ever scared.
It was also a demonstration of ''springboard'' as a metaphor -- where that kind of trust and bravery can lead to bigger things, not just physical leaps, but mental ones too.
One of my star students was Heidi, a precocious little girl who was barely 5 when she decided to take the big jump. Perched at the edge of the board, she carefully sized up the situation. Then on the count of ''three'' she bypassed my arms and jumped close to the side of the pool. After hoisting herself out of the water she announced, ''I did it without you.''
I wonder what she is doing now.