Swimming With My Clothes On

     Do you remember when you were in school and there was always one rude, loudmouthed boy at the back of the class shouting out, throwing pieces of pink erasers, flying paper airplanes, flinging elastic bands and generally creating chaos?  He was usually older than the rest of the class, having “failed” a few times. Now we know that some kids have learning disabilities, like Dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder known briefly as ADHD or ADD which stands for that without the hyperactivity. Dyslexia is when words and numbers get all scrambled up in the brain. Usually you hear that the words and numbers come out backwards or upside down. When we were younger these terms were not invented and I’m not sure they were even recognized. The big nuisance at the back of the room was just plain dumb.

    The boy that sat at the back of my class was named Will Rock. His name described him perfectly. He was tough as nails and quite scary. No one really talked to him because you never knew how he might respond and no one liked to be humiliated in class. He could be quite vulgar and used colourful language. Sometimes he would say something that would make the whole class burst out laughing and the teacher would have to rein us all back in after sending Will into the hall. I’m sure he spent most of his days either there or in the principal’s office. He was likely suspended many times too, although he always seemed to be at school. 

      I led an idyllic childhood living in a leafy small town. Most of the houses were Victorian and huge trees lined all the streets. My house was a huge, centre hall planned home with a massive wrap around veranda and circular pointed roof that I have since learned is called a turret. My father screened in the side portion and my parents practically lived there all summer.There was almost an acre of property and a big circular driveway in front. Inside the double front doors was a black and white tiled foyer and plush red carpeted stairs with a curved oak bannister leading up to a two tiered second floor. The living room and dining room flanked the wide hall both facing the front by huge picture windows. On special occasions when we sat in these generously sized rooms we would see cars slowing down to stare. Mostly we sat in the richly panelled den at the back of the house where the TV and in the winter the endlessly burning fireplace were. Those old houses have high ceilings and are hard to heat. That was in the evenings however. We played outside during the day on weekends and after school until our grumbling stomachs sent us running home for meals or the streetlights came on. There were many quirky characters in that town and Will was one of them although I have no idea where he lived. All I know is it wasn’t in my neighbourhood. 

     I’m not sure if Will had many friends. We certainly didn’t invite him to play with us. In fact I’m quite sure we would cross the street to avoid him if we happened to run into him in our travels. The entire town was our playground and we rode our “Mustang” bikes with the banana seats all around. Those long seats just begged to be occupied by two so we usually rode “double”. A second person came in handy to hold the transistor radio, that was held together with black electrical tape from being dropped so many times, while we sped around town. Life for me and my friends was grand.

    After school in warm weather we would often congregate at the river, the “Mighty Maitland”, as it was known to everyone. Some kids liked the huge bridge to jump off but I was never that brave, even though I was an experienced swimmer, having been forced to take swimming lessons from a very young age. My mother couldn’t swim and I think may have developed a fear of water. She vowed that all four of us would learn to swim. Every morning in the summer we would be roused from our slumber, given a good breakfast and make the trek to the local swimming pool for swimming lessons. Now you must understand that it’s chilly some mornings at 8 o’clock when there’s still dew on the ground. That brisk temperature felt warm after plunging into frigid water in an unheated pool. To me it was torture and I longed for my cozy bed. What are lazy summer mornings for, if not for sleeping in until noon?

     The Maitland River ran north and south through town but the best spot to us, was the dam. Many of the local kids would climb down the side of the steep hill alongside the cement bridge and slide down the huge waterfall. There was much screeching and laughter as the powerful water cascaded their bodies down the huge watery wall and gushed them out several meters down the river. No one would be wearing bathing suits since this was usually an act of spontaneity. The boys would just strip off their shirts and the girls would just wear all their clothes. It was the ’70’s but none of us were “flower children” and we were very modest. I was not a daredevil in any way, shape or form but it did look like fun so one day I decided to throw caution to the wind and join in instead of watching from the sidelines. 

     Some bigger boys were there and Will Rock was one of them. He was one of the biggest and bravest of them all. He would just throw himself onto the rushing cascade and ride it backward, forward, sideways and face first on his stomach . I decided I would just sit down and let the thundering water take me down safely. I cautiously moved to the perch atop the slope. My heart was pounding in my chest and thumping in my ears as I slowly moved to the edge. My friends were coaching me because everyone knew I was a “fraidycat”. I was always picked last in gym class since whenever a ball would come my way I would move away or duck. I was not adventurous or courageous in situations of skill or physical prowess. Yet here I was teetering above a mountain of booming jets that would carry me down the huge incline. There was no turning back so I slid my bum onto the rough cement to ride the beast down. I didn’t stay on my derrière as planned. The force of the water pulled my feet from the sitting position and left me lying flat on my back. I felt a searing pain at the back of my head as it slammed back and made contact with the rock hard surface. I felt the bumpy concrete scrape the skin off the back of my bare thighs as I plunged feet first into the watery abyss.

    The raging water swallowed and propelled my body beneath it. I was paralyzed to do anything but allow my body to be plummeted forward. It seemed like minutes until I finally emerged much further down the river than everyone else. I had swallowed a huge mouthful of water on my traumatic entry and I was gasping for air. The swirling, mighty Maitland was dragging me down. I was wearing all my clothes, including shoes. Down I went sputtering and gasping. Up I forced my head to gulp in some air. I mostly just took in more water and down I went again. I was drowning. 

    In my many years of swimming lessons the biggest takeaway was that I must remain calm or I would die. I tried. It wasn’t working. My terrified eyes locked onto Will who along with a few others were laughing and joking. They might have been laughing at how far I was carried out. It felt like I was miles away. He noticed my terrified gaze and saw that I was going under and under. Without a moments’ hesitation he dove into the violent water. He reached me in seconds, it seems. He spoke to me calmly and reassuringly. He told me I was fine and to put my hands on his shoulders. I could have dragged him down with me. You often hear of drowning people pulling their rescuers down and both people dying. His presence made me feel serene and I was able to stop panicking. I just left my fate in his hands. He swam to the bank of the river with me clinging like a baby animal on it’s momma’s back while speaking to me in a soft soothing voice. 

    I don’t think I even l thanked him that day but from then on he was my friend. We didn’t hang out together but we had a bond that lasted a few years. I was not afraid of him anymore. He was my hero and protector. I trusted him. I knew if I ever needed help he would be the one to do it. He appeared rough and angry but I knew the truth. He was caring and self-sacrificing. 

     I admire people who have learning problems and overcome them. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to go to school every day when you don’t feel you can succeed. The behaviour that these students exhibit is a cry for help. They need someone to assist them. They deserve the same opportunities that everyone has to be educated. 

     I now work with kids who have “special needs”. I’m an Educational Assistant and I work in a High School. Some of these special kids are the Will Rocks of the world. They swear and act out as a means of gaining the attention they so desperately need. When reading can be very difficult they have laptop computers that read to them. Often we “scribe” for them by reading questions aloud and writing the answers they tell us for tests or exams. Many times they graduate and go on to apprenticeships, college or even university. 

     I don’t know where Will is or what he has done since I knew him so many years ago. I’d like to think he got a good job and has had a happy life. I’d like to say thank you after so many years. I’m not even sure he remembers that day or realizes the impact his courage has had. All I know is he became my lifeline that day. I might not be here if not for his quick thinking and heroic efforts. 

    I have lived my whole life as a “fraidycat”. I still shy away from any physical challenges that I’m presented with. I once thought I would love to try skydiving but I never did and the desire quickly passed. I don’t ski, climb mountains, go deep sea diving, bungie jump or zip lining. I don’t like boats or swimming. I like water to look at but not to enter. My whole family is going on a cruise and I’m not going because of my fears. I’m terrified of heights. I’ve climbed up stairs only to have to sit down and bump my way down. I’m paralyzed when I realize how high I am. My husband wants to do the CN Tower walk. Even watching people do it on TV causes me to cover my eyes. I’ve lived my entire life saying no to anything even remotely adventurous.

      I’ve finally decided that I’ve said “no” too many times. It’s time to be brave and face my demons head on. I’m going to challenge myself to a year of yes. When someone asks me to do something that scares me I will stop myself from immediately saying no. I will say yes. Then I will go on the zip line, the cruise and the CN walk. Maybe I’ll even try skiing or deep sea diving. I’m looking forward to trying something that seizes me with terror. My confidence will grow. I’ll begin to believe in myself and know I can do things I never thought possible. My self esteem will soar. I will feel empowered. I will feel strong and capable. I know I can do it. Who knows? Maybe I can be courageous like my old friend Will. 

16 thoughts on “Swimming With My Clothes On

  1. As an autistic person, my own struggles led me to enter the field of counseling, and to not judge anyone else who is struggling. You are wise to only compete against yourself. The CN Tower walk is something I’d do, and I have been in several gondolas going up and down mountains. Narrow trails don’t bother me at all, but sheer drop-offs from bare rocks do.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This email has been waiting a few days for me to read as it was so long but so glad I read it, I’m in the same boat as you a scared cat, at seventy-six maybe I should jump in the boat also, get on a plane, boat, the things I’m afraid of.
    All the best to your future challenges.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is an amazing story, Cathy!

    I can relate, my anxiety has prevented me from doing a lot of exciting things. Sometimes I can find the courage to do something, even though my body is screaming at me, “NO!” Other times, I give in to the anxiety.

    Liked by 1 person

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