Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Like a fish in water

on March 15, 2014

Every winter, the St Sebastien Elementary School would organize a ski trip for two weeks. It so happened that the grade level that got to go that year was the one I left behind, the 8eme. Sigh! Promotion to the 7eme caused me to miss going skiing. However, that same year, two major disasters happened in France. Two separate school trips to a lake and a seaside ended up in a shipwreck where most of the students drowned, the teachers having been unable to save all students. As a result, the Ministry of Education decreed that every single school child in France had to learn to swim, as part of their elementary PE curriculum.

So it was, that in the middle of the year, we started going every Wednesday to the municipal swimming pool, two classes at a time, by metro. I was overjoyed that I could finally learn how to swim! For back in Jeddah, despite our frequent weekends on the Red Sea, I was just playing around in shallow water, not really swimming. The smell of chlorine mixed with French armpit sweat was a bit off-putting at first, but I soon learned to bear it and grin. Let’s swim! Let’s swim!

Well. May I say, very politely, that the French are not good at all at teaching swimming. The system doesn’t make any sense at all. I really admire other facets of French education, and I will make sure to mention those later, to give credit where credit is due. But really, the Americans teach swimming so much more effectively!

First, we were divided into three groups, the beginners, the intermediate and the advanced swimmers. I cannot speak for the latter two groups, since I could only observe them from afar, but I really tried very hard to follow instructions and learn as a beginner. We first spent many hours on the floor, learning and practicing the arm and leg movements for breast stroke, called “brasse” in French. “One!” join the hands under your chin like you are going to pray (Catholic style). “Two!” push the joined hands straight forward as far as they will go. “Three!” flip the hands so they are now joined back to back. “Four!” pull your arms outward until you form a T shape. “One!” you pull your hands back into the praying position. And repeat again and again. A similar drill was taught for the legs. Then we got to lower ourselves into the water, on the shallow side, of course. Holding onto the edge of the gulley, we would practice the leg movements, and then we would stand up and practice the arm movements. Eventually, we got to swim across the pool, width wise, heads sticking out of the water, first with foam boards, and then finally one day, without any swimming aid. We would look a bit like frogs, heads out, arms drawing circles, and the rear end and legs sinking at various slants into the water. It was slow, but we would be able to get across to the other side. I wasn’t doing too badly — or so I thought —  and was quite proud of myself, though I didn’t understand why Saadia got promoted to the Intermediate class but not I.  And Annie Paumier, who started in the Intermediate class, was also promoted to the Advanced class.

breast stroke on deck

Then one day, our coach disappeared and a new substitute coach appeared. This young man was very strict and very angry most of the time. I wonder what they told him we knew, but he started something totally different from where we were at. First thing I knew, he said, “You will swim across to the other side, head under water, three strokes, take a breath while gliding, then repeat.” Since I had never seen anyone swim a real breast stroke before and did not know that the head was supposed to be in the water normally, I did not grasp what he was saying and did what I understood. Which is, I did three strokes the way we had always done them: head out of the water. Then I would stick my head in the water and glide, then repeat. Happily I reached the other side, the last to do so, grabbed the edge of the gulley and looked up. The coach stood right there above me, big thick hairy legs in front of my eyes. He was NOT amused. Arms angrily crossed on his chest, he thundered, “Vous vous moquez de moi?” which can translate as, “you are mocking me?” or “you are making fun of me?” Meaning of course, that I intended to be disrespectful and disobedient and did something to show I knew better than he did. Which of course, couldn’t be further from the truth. As usual, good students are not to reply. I bowed my head, cheeks flaming, and kept quiet. From then on, it was very obvious he did not like me. At all.

Another day, instead of starting class on the shallow side, the coach lined us all up and told us to march to the deep side, and stop by the diving board. Don’t you just love having to guess what the lesson plan or lesson goal is? You are never told, so you just have to guess. The girls, at first, had fought about who would be first in line. But when they realized we were going to dive, they all chickened out and started furtively running to the back of the line. By the time the coach turned around, I ended up being the third in line. He explained the pencil dive: just jump in straight, feet together. Then swim to the side, and come up the ladder. Sit down in a line, criss cross apple sauce, and wait. The first two did just that. It seemed a piece of cake. I can do this. My turn. I walk to the end of the board and look down. Oh. My. God. I wished the water had not been so clean, so pure. Because I could see clear through to the bottom, which looked like a few stories down. Am I supposed to jump? I glance back hopefully. Forget about it. The coach is wearing his angry face, arms crossed on the chest, a hateful look across the frowning eyebrows. I look at the first two girls, hair dripping, who are sitting cross legged, quietly watching me. No help there. I look at the line of girls behind me, nervous and edgy, fearful. No help there either. The coach thunders, “Jump! Now!” All right, dying is better than facing the coach. And if I drown, he will have it on his conscience. Well, it is his job to save me. Serves him right! I jump. Amazing. The beautiful turquoise water flowed upwards past me, until I slowed down and stopped. Then it started flowing down until my head popped out back into fresh air. Wow! I swam to the edge and climbed out. Such a wonderful experience!

diving board

As I watched one by one the girls jump in, I started to relax and even get a little bored. But then the last girl reached the board. Having scooted down the line to become the last, she had already worked up her anxiety level to an all-time high, and bordered hysteria. She walked to the end, took one look, and turned back. No, she was not going to jump. The coach walked to the board and blocked her way. “Go back! Jump!” She refused. No way. She tried turning around to face the water, but that was too much for her. She started crying and begging, but the coach kept his arms crossed, a statue of inflexibility and one step at a time, forced her to back up to the far end of the diving board. She was shouting and wailing by now, but to no avail. The coach was adamant. “Jump!” She fell on her knees now, sobbing and yelling. “I beg of you! Please! Let me go!” She started grabbing the coach’s feet and legs, dripping tears and snot on them. He seemed annoyed, and kept pushing her slowly with his feet toward the edge. Eventually with all her frantic movements and his pushing, she tumbled off the edge, but still hung on to his feet, screaming in terror. He shook her off his feet and she finally fell in the water. But by the time her head bobbed back out of the water, she took one long breath and hollered at the top of her lungs, arms flailing. The coach kept sternly telling her to swim to the ladder, but her ears were deaf. She was totally hysterical now, and shrieked, “Au secours! Au secours!” Help! Help! We all knew she was able to float or swim, but she had forgotten that in her panic. She kept on swallowing water, choking, crying, and screaming. The entire pool hall resonated with her howls. Everyone was now watching the show. The coach threw her a foam board, but her flailing arm threw it away. He threw more and more and she managed to hit them all, like a good tennis player. He started throwing swim rings, but all were also knocked out of her reach. He eventually had to jump in among the dozens of foam boards and rings, and pull her out, as she finally showed signs of  tiring, and possibly drowning.

To pass the first stage, we had to take two tests. One was the Brevet de Sauvetage #1, which consisted of saving an unconscious person  floating on the water. And the other was to swim fifty meters, no time limit. The saving part was not difficult. One girl had to act as the victim and lie quietly on her back, waiting to be saved. The one acting as a lifeguard would then pull her under the arms while doing the frog stroke, oh sorry, the breast stroke with the legs. The 50-meter seemed easy at first. Just swim forward from a certain point 3/4 of the way along the length of the pool, on the deep side, toward the shallow end. Touch the end, turn around, and swim back to the deep end, touch the side. Done.

Well, easier said than done. I had forgotten I had a bad health until then. The wonderful French climate had cured me of my previous debility, almost. I had begun showing some plumpness in my cheeks, and my paleness had turned a bit rosy. Cool weather obviously was good for me. But I realized that I still did not have enough endurance, a bit too late, while I was in deep water. I was so tired I was pulling maybe a stroke every five seconds. Many a time, I almost turned to the side edge to call it quits. Only the fear of that angry coach and the mockery of my classmates kept me going. I decided that dying (again) was better than facing that. So although I was by then completely dizzy and almost in darkness, I moved forward somehow until, after what seemed like hours later, my fingers touched solid land. I hung on, for a few more minutes. Thank God Coach was busy timing the next girl.  Then I managed somehow to reach the ladder. And minutes later, I managed to haul my tons of body weight out before collapsing face down on the deck. I lay there for an eternity, until I was able to move something again. The coach never asked how I was. It was incredible. I was still alive, and had achieved my fifty meters.

The 50-meter certificate, which I earned at the risk of my life. Which is why I have religiously kept it for all these years.

The 50-meter certificate, which I earned at the risk of my life. Which is why I have religiously kept it for all these years.



Now, you might ask why I still say that the French swimming system is no good though I did learn to swim. The fact is I have now seen my children learn to swim the American way. First of all, there is no terror involved in the teaching method. Secondly, they start by accustoming the child to have his/her head in the water and get used to the swishing of water on the face before anything else. For good swimming is done with the head in the water, coming up only for breath. Like a fish or rather, a dolphin or a whale, or a penguin. Or even a frog. But what good is it to teach one to swim with a completely incorrect posture, head out of the water, only to then unlearn it and relearn how to keep the head in the water? And finally, today, any teacher or coach would be informed beforehand of a child’s health condition, and not push one to her physical limit through sheer terrorization.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *