We’re going under the water now; I’ve got you.” The words "I've got you" seemed a bit superfluous, the little girl was clinging to me, her swimming iunstructor, like a leech. She began protesting—loudly. “That’s good,” I commented. “But when you’re underwater, you’ll need to close your mouth. You can cry as much as you want when we come back up.”
Standing in the water with this unhappy, frightened child, I suddenly recalled a childhood image: my best friend’s sister, standing in front of her mother, waiting for her morning hair combing. As her mother began combing through the fine, snarled hair, the child’s wails reached a crescendo. I stared, transfixed, never having witnessed this amount of energy expended by mother or daughter to get hair combed, certainly never at my own house. One snarl smoothed, our nieghbor stopped combing her daughter's hair as the wailing continued. Drawing attention to the fact that nothing was happening, her mother told the child she needed to stop crying. The crying stopped. Her mother then noted, “Ah, there’s another snarl; you’d better start crying.” Her tears turning off and on like a fire hose, or more aptly, like a well-trained actress. The drama promised to continue. Tearing myself away, I was amused, but intrigued.
Recalling where I was, I looked down at the child in my arms, warned, “Here we go, better close your mouth,” then held her as we went under the water. She gulped and clamped shut her mouth. Back at the surface, invoking the hair combing scene from long ago, I echoed, “OK, you can start crying.” The child's tears flowed freely, and I thought to myself, “We’re staying on script so far.”
After uncounted trips under the water, with copious tears each time we came back up, we emerged together, and once again I said, “You can cry now.” But this time something was different. Looking around in bewilderment, the unwilling swimmer blurted out, “The tears won’t come.” I looked at her and laughed, and soon her laughter was louder than mine. From then on, we were writing a new story.
This newly confident child’s pride and delight were boundless as she learned to float, blow bubbles with abandon, created great waves with her kicking, and finally discovering that she could move easily in the water. Her grandparents stood at the side of the pool, smiling from ear to ear.
Becoming the most determined of students, she arrived first, left the water last, playing and reveling in her new-found freedom. From fear, with some hand-holding (and body-clutching), she moved to joy.
There are times that a feared activity is exactly what is most needed; reluctance, a signpost, a clue that there may be something important beyond the fear. Being offered a firm hand can make all the difference; permission to be unhappy through the process can be a gift; a dash of imagination may provide exactly what is most needed. And the blessings--they never go in just one direction.