I loved everything about teaching swimming except cold water. I loved the kids who eagerly followed my every direction: putting their entire heads underwater to blow bubbles; flailing their arms ferociously through water and air; thrusting themselves off the dock without fear, even if time and again their bellies hit the water before their heads. I loved the serious young swimmers who could transform their strokes at a single suggestion and understood that you don’t need to rear your head out of the water to breathe, just tilt it slightly to the side. Most of all, though, I loved the kids who were scared, the ones I had to coax in, toe by ankle by knee, the ones who were terrified to lift their feet off the bottom, who screamed and clutched at the very thought that I might take away my supporting hands, the ones who couldn’t believe it when they realized I had indeed taken those hands away and they were doing it on their own.
I loved teaching swimming because it’s fun to splash and play and move through the water. I loved teaching swimming because kids got so excited when they learned and the rewards were so easy: a game of Marco Polo, a trip to the deep end or the raft, a penny snatched off the bottom of the pool. And I loved teaching swimming because it was a tangible skill that not only gave kids new possibilities but had the potential to save their lives.
Could the connection to reading be any more transparent? Fun. Organic rewards. New possibilities. Even saved lives. If my friends and family have heard me say once that every child needs to learn to swim and read, they’ve heard me say it a thousand times. It is one of my core beliefs. But it’s not always that simple.
My children learned to swim as easily as they learned to read. Eva taught herself both. The summer she was four, she thrashed through the water with determination, developing a stroke that convinced every adult who saw her that she was drowning, even as it moved her safely, if unattractively, across the surface. The Sunday before kindergarten began, as we sat in the big purple chair in the living room, she suddenly started reading sentences to me, where moments earlier I’d been reading to her. Mara’s progression was more traditional, though equally successful: a summer of swimming lessons, half a year of first grade, and she was a pro with both water and words.
But my children were predestined. We have pictures of the first time each dipped a toe in lakes and oceans, tiny babies held up by their armpits. We put picture books in front of their barely-staring eyes before they could even hold up their heads. Unhampered by fear or disability, they forged ahead on the paths we charted for them.
It was different for the teenager from Brooklyn who had never seen a lake when she arrived at summer camp in Vermont. First we sat on the dock, kicking our feet in the water. Then we stood waist-deep and ducked down till the water brushed our shoulders or bent till our faces touched the surface. Clinging to kickboards, we moved slowly from one dock to the other. I held her while she couldn’t believe she would float, and finally she swam a clumsy few yards into my arms. I bet they could feel our Vermont thrill in Brooklyn.
Then there was the 9th grader I worked with at a tutoring center in Berkeley. He read at second grade level, had never learned phonics, never loved a book. We plowed through long vowels and short, digraphs and syllable breaks. We read articles about animals and weather, answered comprehension questions, and finally read an entire book about basketball, then a mystery, and he confidently headed off toward the rest of his life.
I wish it was always that easy. I wish every child had opportunities from birth and every child who struggled to learn had an adult who could work with them one-on-one, get to know them, assuage their fears, meet their needs, and celebrate their accomplishments. But it’s not always like that.
The fundamental disconnect of my life is that I work in a struggling urban public school system and my children attend great suburban public schools. There are children who are flourishing and children who are failing in each, but every single day I come face to face with the consequences of privilege and poverty on children’s learning experiences, especially when it comes to reading.
This disjunction came especially clear to me on two days last December. One day I was at work, planning a grant proposal that would begin to address the reading needs of our immigrant high school students, some of whom have hardly been to school in their home countries, many of whom have hardly any books at home, few of whom read for pleasure in their own language, let alone in English. We have dedicated teachers, but that’s not enough. We need a viable assessment of student reading skills, a schoolwide set of reading strategies, a reading coach and tutors, dictionaries and books. The list went on and on, overwhelming the capacity of any single grant.
The next day, I was at Eva’s school for the fourth grade character project. Each child had chosen a favorite book character and prepared for a week, creating a character portrait, writing a character description, planning a costume, and practicing. Now, in small groups, surrounded by doting parents, they presented their characters and answered our questions. What traits did they share with their characters? How would their characters get along on a desert island?
Our group featured Eva as Constance from The Mysterious Benedict Society, along with Harry Potter, Fudge, and Percy Jackson. The children were confident and excited, sure of their character’s favorite foods and eager to share the Venn diagrams they’d made to show how they were similar to and different from their characters. And they didn’t just know their own characters, they’d read each other’s books and could speak about them with authority. And it wasn’t just the avid readers, it was every child in the room, all of whom attend a school filled with books, with a reading support program that begins in kindergarten, hours a day set aside for literacy, and lots of involved parents to volunteer in classrooms and supervise homework.
We talk about character traits with my high school students. We take them to the library and sign them up for library cards and help them find books they want to read. We read aloud and listen to books on tape and teach them to annotate as they read and decipher new words from context clues. We are teaching them what Eva and her friends have already learned, not because they are smarter, but because they are lucky.
When I read, I don’t think about character traits or phonemes. When I swim, I occasionally consider my stroke, but mostly I just feel my body moving through the water. For me, reading and swimming are two of the great pleasures, taking me away from the world as it is, into an ideal world of my own imagination and body. But in fact, reading and swimming are deeply implicated in our world as it is, markers of the great inequities that characterize our society today. That is why teaching them, not just enjoying them, is my greatest passion.