We’re on a little road trip, currently in Portland, Ore., at a hotel with one of those rarities: a warm, clean pool with no who wants to use it but us.
We got a slow start to summer in the northwest, so the girls haven’t had a ton of opportunities to swim yet. And even when we do go, the public “pool” that’s closest to our house is one of those splash pools that dumps water on your head and has water slides. It’s not the kind of place you swim laps or pretend to be a mermaid.
Magpie’s only 2 1/2, but she’s more adventurous in the water than her big sister. Bo, age 5, is very timid and isn’t close to knowing how to swim. We’re signing her up for some private lessons in August to hopefully chip away at that—it’s too important of a skill to mess around with, and group instruction hasn’t worked for her so far.
We had a couple of near drownings in Spokane this month—a 3 year old and a 4 year old, both of whom were thankfully saved in the nick of time. The thought of that scene makes me weak: a child spotted at the bottom of a crowded pool, pulled out and resuscitated. The lifeguards and teenage bystanders who swooped in and performed CPR are nothing short of angels, in my book.
My friend and colleague Shawn Vestal wrote an excellent column about the socio economics of learning how to swim in The Spokesman-Review last week. In summary:
“Children from poor families and minorities are quite a bit less likely to get swim lessons – and quite a bit more likely to drown.”
Shawn’s article continued:
“Among black and Hispanic children the figures are more pronounced. Across the board, minority kids and poor ones were less likely to take swim lessons, more likely to fear the water and more likely to drown. African-American children ages 5 to 14 drown at three times the rate of white kids, and they’re five times more likely to drown in a swimming pool, according to figures reported by the Wall Street Journal. The National Safe Kids Campaign says low-income kids generally are four times as likely to drown as other children. You might imagine that this is simply an economic issue, but it seems not to be. Fear – on the part of kids and parents – was mentioned as a larger factor in the surveys. For African-American families, there is also a history of discrimination and cultural habit to overcome.”
I’ve been thinking of Shawn’s article as my kids have been frolicking about in pools this week.
J and my experiences with swimming pools are different and similar at the same time.
I didn’t grow up wealthy (by any stretch of the imagination), but it was a country club pool where my sister and I swam away our summers. We’d jump off the high boards, dive for pennies and then charge licorice ropes to my parents’ account in the snack shack. My mom would sunbathe with her friends on the lounge chairs. It was like a scene from Caddy Shack, minus the doody.
300 miles away, J would borrow 40 cents from his cousin’s piggy bank and walk to the public pool while his cousin rode his bike. With five siblings and hard-working parents who earned modest salaries, J didn’t have the luxury of owning his own bicycle.
Different experiences, but we both learned how to swim.
All this talk of pools and swimming reminds me of an interview I heard on NPR a few years ago.
The guest was the author of a book about the history of swimming pools. He talked about how they began as giant bathtubs built as a way for poor people to get clean. Eventually, pools evolved to what they are today: recreational facilities, mainly for kids.
One portion of the interview has stuck with me. The author recalled an incident that occurred at a Youngstown, Ohio pool in 1951. A Little League baseball team was celebrating its city championship at the public pool, but not everyone was allowed to play in the water.
The pool was (unofficially) segregated, so the one black boy on the baseball team had to sit outside the fence and watch his teammates splash about without him.
Several parents, bothered by the situation, asked the lifeguards to let the boy play in the pool, even for just a few minutes. The supervisor finally gave in and allowed the boy inside, under two conditions: everyone else had to get out of the pool and the boy had to float on a raft.
My memory of the interview details was fuzzy, so I looked up the story on NPR today and was reminded of the heartbreaking way it ended:
“As his teammates and other bystanders looked on, a lifeguard pushed him once around the pool. 'Just don’t touch the water,' the guard constantly reminded him. 'Whatever you do, don’t touch the water.'"
So, I’m grateful today for a lot of things. For one, the fact that my husband and I can afford swimming lessons for our kids—private lessons at that. Most importantly, that my kids are being raised in an era during which any child is welcome at a pool, regardless of the color of their skin.
But Shawn’s article is a reminder that we’re still a long way from righting those wrongs.
Let's keep an eye on the kids at the pool this summer—our own kids and our neighbors’.