It’s that time of the year again! Charbroiled steaks and fireworks, sunbathing while sipping iced tea and, of course, incredulous looks when I’m forced to admit—as everyone pulls on their swimsuits and gets out the beach gear—that I don’t know how to swim.
I’m an adult living in a land-locked city; I think of swimming as more of a recreational sport than a required life skill, but as a little black girl growing up around moderately privileged white folks, I wondered if it wasn’t a basic human ability—like walking and talking—that I strangely didn’t posses. The truth is somewhere in the middle: as human beings we’re able to hold our breath and reflexively kick and paddle within weeks of birth, but unless formal lessons begin, that reflex never turns into a real swimming ability and eventually it’s lost completely. According to the Red Cross a little over half of americans are competent swimmers (hilariously, over 86% of Americans think they’re competent swimmers.)
That means for all of you aquatically-inclined individuals, there is likely one or two people in your social circle who are either poor swimmers, or can’t even calm down long enough to float. If you haven’t yet dealt with this, you will, and I thought as a non-swimmer (NS) myself, I could offer a few tip on how to not be a jerk when an acquaintance bravely comes out of the underwater closet:
Don’t take it too lightly:
For someone who can’t swim, being on the edge of a pool’s deep end is like standing in the open door of an in-flight plane—without a parachute. Swimming is a fun, light-hearted thing for the most part, but not being able to swim can be dangerous. Try to respect your NS friends the way you would a friend with a serious peanut allergy.
Don’t, for the love of God, push them into the water:
It’s unfortunate that I even need to include this , but I have a distinct memory of being fifteen and telling a good friend I didn’t know how to swim. His reaction was to shove me into the deep end of a pool because ‘everyone can swim.’ I still remember his horrified expression as he dove in and pulled me, sputtering and choking, out of the pool. There are a few idioms about learning to swim by diving straight in, but they aren’t supposed to be taken literally. You NS friend will not suddenly become Michael Phelps once they’re tossed into water—they’ll probably just drown.
Don’t forget that swimming is often a class issue:
Only a third of african americans know how to swim. Black people aren’t just less buoyant (in fact, since we’re statistically fatter, we should be more buoyant), but we are more likely to be living in poverty or pulling ourselves out of it. Learning to swim requires a pool or other body of water, time/effort and of course an instructor. Easily attainable things for a lot of Americans, but imagine growing up in a lower-class, single-family household where the nearest beach is hundreds of miles away and the public pool is filthy and under-supervised. Poor parents can’t often afford swimming lessons and when the lessons are free, they can’t necessarily find a way or the time to get their children to and from the pool. Some schools have swimming classes, but that means the school’s district can afford a pool or the transportation costs of carting kids back and forth to an off-campus pool. All of this assumes the parents themselves see value in learning to swim, but most kids can’t swim have parents who can’t swim either. In the US at least, it would seem that knowing how to swim is privilege.
Do invite them to the beach:
Okay, so I can’t swim and very deep water can be dangerous, but I’m also an adult and perfectly content to either laze around in the sun after dipping my feet in or splash around in waist deep water until I get bored. Beaches and pools are pretty awesome, with or without swimming. Don’t exclude your NS friends just because they can’t enjoy an outing in the exact same manner you enjoy it.
Do take necessary precautions:
Go to pools and beaches with lifeguards. Swim in lakes that are familiar and not known to have any strong currents. And some words on boats: Pools tend to get deep gradually and the even ocean can be slowly and tentatively waded into, but with a boat, the water generally gets very deep very quickly. I recall a family vacation where my step-dad rented a very small motor boat. He’d never driven one before but was—in a very typical dad-like way—confident he’d figure it out by playing around a bit. I closed my eyes and clutched the edges of the tiny thing, biting down on my tongue each time we hit a particularly rough wave; I didn’t have a life jacket and being in a small boat with a novice captain, for me, was like being in a jet with a novice pilot. You should have life jackets anyway, but also be aware of who onboard can or can’t swim, so you can prioritise if need be.
Do offer to teach them:
This shouldn’t be done in an overbearing way. For a lot of NS, especially older ones, the idea of swimming is appealing, but the idea of struggling through a class with water wings and pool noodles is kind of humiliating. So if you’re close to a NS and a strong and experienced swimmer yourself, ask if they’d like some tips, or even to do some exercises in shallow water. They might not take you up on it, but if they do and successfully learn to swim, you’ll have helped make their world a little safer and a little more comfortable.