I’m an outlier, a black female who swims. There are a few of us, you know. I grew up on the south side of Chicago. There were no public pools back then, but out school found a way. We were required to take swimming, and being on your period was an excuse that went only so far. I did not become proficient then. I just have the most vivid memory of jumping in the deep end my senior year and holding onto the edge of the pool wall for dear life. I was one of the few who actually went into the deep end. I remember feeling slightly suicidal that day. But I didn’t drown.
On to the University of Wisconsin. There I not only actually learned to swim, I learned to like swimming. Crawl, backstroke, sidestroke (not a competitive stroke, but I swear it’s a lifesaver, one I can do even if exhausted). I only regret I never learned the dolphin kick or butterfly. At college, I was not only one of the few black people in the swimming class, I was still one of the few on the entire campus. We always spoke when we met each other. You had to, it was such a rarity. I also learned to dive. To prove how active my suicidal thoughts were, I actually dived off the platform. After watching a kid, probably a faculty members child, climb that ladder and jump off, repeatedly. Me, college student, decided if a skinny kid could, so could I. I joined the line waiting for their turn, climbed to the platform, looked over the side, and bam, heart attack city. (Did I mention I am terrified of heights)
I was too big a coward to go to the line of people on the ladder and ask them to move aside to let me climb back down. Especially because the kid was right there on the ladder waiting for her turn to go again. So, with one final prayer to the Almighty, I dove off the end. And then I hit the water, and I was still alive. And it had all been…fun.
That was almost forty years ago. I no longer do much diving, but I still like to swim.
Which brings me back to the point.
These days I’m no longer seeking out a public swimming pool in Chicago’s south side, or walking into ice cold Lake Michigan water. I live in a predominantly white suburb and pay monthly dues to a club with a pool. Actually, two pools, one with five lanes for lap swimming, another warm water pool for therapy and exercises. Plus a sauna.
It’s the kind of club I didn’t even dream of belonging to when I was a kid. My monthly dues means I should have no trouble swimming year round. When there are swimmers, we double up. Two people two a lane. In extremely busy times there may be three people “circle swimming”. I hate that one, I was never a fast swimmer, and over the years my speed has declined. Inevitably I end up with two speed demons.
Equally inevitably, I am the only black person I have ever encountered in the pool. And I do draw stares. Some obvious, most covert.
But today there was only one person in each lane. So I climbed in to lane number one and waited for a swimmer who was just as slow to arrive so I could tell her I would be sharing the lane with her. I didn’t have to sat anything, but it felt like common courtesy.
No, she informed me. She didn’t share. I needed to go to a different lane.
Or I could wait. She claimed she only needed five more minutes of swimming. Alone.
I’m not going to say this was racial. She might have done this to anyone. Doesn’t matter, she would still have been wrong.
One of the lessons we should get out of Kindergarten is how to play well with others. How to share. The fact that this woman did not get the message changes nothing. I was not going to stand around and wait because my time was valuable too. and I was not about to move to another lane because I saw no need to. Her presence did not bother me. If she did not want to share, she knew what she could do. In the meantime, I started swimming, carefully keeping myself to half the lane.
When I completed the lap, I stopped, stood, and looked back. She was still standing there. Thanks to being nearsighted, I could not see her expression. I did a second lap, stood, and saw her climbing from the pool.
I guess her five minutes were up.
There are lessons we all need to learn. One big one is that you can’t always get what you want. You can’t just push other people aside because it’s convenient for you. You can’t expect people who have the same right as you to let you dominate them.
As for me, my lesson was that I have my rights, and I get to voice them. Ten years ago, even five, I would have stepped back. Fumed in silence. Allowed her to have her way.
Now I have swimming to do. Anytime I want.