My two sons and I live along the Penobscot River here in central Maine. As such, I have always emphasized respect for the waters that roil past our home. This translated, in part, into summer after summer of swimming lessons for my older boy, Alyosha, against the advent of his falling out of a canoe or taking a tumble from the river bank. In short, when one lives near water, it's nice to know how to swim.
For a little over a year now Alyosha has had a little brother, Anton, age 6, whom I adopted in Ukraine. As soon as I brought Anton home I took him to the river and, in my pidgin Russian, explained that he should never go near the water without me; that the river could be dangerous; that, believe it or not, the water rose and fell, sometimes precipitously. His response: a head shake of disbelief and a beeline for the river. Clearly, I had my work cut out for me.
Anton didn't know how to swim. He had never been in a pool. I don't think he had ever seen a pool, perhaps not even a picture of one. With this consideration in mind, I decided to get him into a swimming program once he had some English under his belt. I eventually enrolled him in lessons at the nearby University of Maine. It seemed ideal: The children were taught by members of the swim team, one on one.
On the first day of the lessons I had no idea what Anton's response would be. After changing clothes we entered the pool area, which was already thronging with kids looking for their instructors, putting up last-minute resistance, and shivering poolside after their inaugural dip.
"Here we are, Anton," I said as I took the towel from his shoulders. But no sooner had I closed my mouth about the last word than - flash! - he bolted and did a tremendous flop into the pool. It took three of us to fish my flailing son out. I wrapped the towel around him and held him as he coughed and sputtered. This is it, I thought. The end of swim lessons, even before we had begun. "Are you OK?" I asked as I rubbed the towel through his dark brown hair.
Anton nodded and then beamed up at me. "When do I have my lesson?" he asked, unruffled.
In the next moment his instructor appeared, a young engineering student named Matt. Anton went with him without hesitation, and I took to the gallery to observe the lesson from on high. Without preamble, Anton jumped, dived, paddled, and kicked with ceaseless energy.
But poor Matt!
He had no control over my son and looked pained, like someone who had gotten on the wrong bus. His interaction with Anton didn't amount to much of a lesson, as he was reduced to keeping my son's head above water as he thrashed and kicked, thrashed and kicked, chortling with delight.
There finally came a moment of calm when Anton stopped beating the water and seemed moderately receptive to his teacher's direction. I watched as Matt pulled him out from the edge of the pool and then told him to use his arms to swim back. The mad churning and kicking that ensued was reminiscent of someone fleeing a sinking ship. Matt's sigh was audible even from my vantage point.
When the lesson was over Anton did not want to leave the pool. But Matt seemed absolutely spent. "Is he always this active?" he asked, managing a weak smile.
"Only when he's near water," I said.
I finally succeeded in escorting Anton to the locker room, following in the puddles he left as he ambled along. "Dad," he said as he looked back at me. "Is that it? Now do I know how to swim?"
What could I tell him? I opted for praise. "You're a regular Johnny Weissmuller," I said.
"Thanks!" he glowed. And then, "Who's Johnny Weissmuller?"
Inspiration struck. "Someone who never tried to go swimming without his dad."
My son nodded gravely, and to date the river and Anton have been on cordial terms, enhanced by a bit of distance between the two - and some help from Tarzan.