When Gracie was Three

Remember your first swimming lesson? Water-winged, life-jacketed, and terrified to even dip a toe in the water? Or maybe you lived for the pool, diving in head-first every chance you got. Swimming instructor Laurent has seen it all. Follow him as he faces his toughest, fiercest, most stubborn swimmer yet: three-year-old Gracie.
Shimmering blue water
PHOTO BY: ARTEM MILITONIAN VIA UNSPLASH
“Alright everyone, it’s time for swimming lessons.” I projected my voice as best I could so everyone in the park could hear from where I stood on the outdoor pool deck. 

The families stood up from the grass and walked toward the pool. Parents wearing swimsuits carried their two-year-old toddlers towards Michelle’s Duck class. At this age, they were still accompanied by their parents in the lessons. I taught the Sea Otter class, the first level where kids swam without their parents. Two other children walked in holding their parents’ hands. The adults bent on one side to reach their children’s short arms as they waddled on the concrete.

I knelt down to the children’s height. “Hi, what’s your name?” I asked a young girl who stood beside her grandmother, gripping her hand. The girl was bright-eyed and enthusiastic. She wore a teal swimsuit and her strawberry blonde hair was pulled up into pigtails.

“Gracie,” she replied. 

“How old are you, Gracie?” I asked.

“I’m three,” she tried to say, though it sounded more like free.

“Hi, and what’s your name, Buddy?” I asked the boy next to her. 

His mother behind him had to nudge him to answer. He had yet to lose his baby fat and his tummy stuck out like an inflated balloon. He looked at me straight in the eyes and said his name, and yet I can’t remember what it was. I remember what he looked like, but I would often forget children’s names as I taught them, referring to them as “Sweetie” or “Buddy.” This was standard with other lifeguards, and no one else ever seemed to mind or notice.

“Who wants a high five?” I asked.

I barely had the time to raise my hand and Buddy was already leaping bounds to get to me. Our hands made a large clapping sound. 

“Wow! You got me good, Buddy,” I said.

Gracie slowly loosened her grip on her grandmother’s hand.

“Would you like a high five too?” I knelt in front of her, waiting patiently and trying not to lose my balance.

Without letting go of her grandmother, she took a step forward, and gave me a high five. Her small hand graced mine softly without making a sound.

“Super,” I said.

She gave a small smile.

“Let’s go see Mr. Sea Otter.” I led the kids over to the exterior white brick wall of the pool building which had animals painted on it. Each one corresponded to the preschool swimming levels. “We’re sea otters too,” I told them. 

Buddy’s mother had gone back onto the grass behind the chain-link fence to watch. Gracie, still clutching onto her grandmother, joined Buddy and I in giving Mr. Sea Otter high fives on the wall. Gracie let out a giggle.

The outdoor pool was rectangular and shallow. It was two steps down to get into a foot of water, then the pool gradually descended to its maximum depth of one metre. We gathered at the water’s edge.

I went in first, inviting them both to follow. Buddy was so eager to get into the water he almost couldn’t contain himself. He immediately dunked all the way under. Looking up at her grandmother, Gracie was still unsure.

“Why don’t we sit down on the edge?” I suggested. “We can just dip our toes in.”
Gracie let go of her grandmother’s hand, sat down, and dipped her tiny feet in the water. Her grandmother retreated, leaving her with me. I was struck by the difference between the two three-year old’s comfort levels with the water. We had to start at Gracie’s comfort level while still making it fun for both her and Buddy. 

All three of us sat on the first step in the pool and sang songs. With a sponge in hand, we sang, “This is the way we wash our toes, wash our toes, wash our toes….” We started at our feet and worked our way up to our knees, tummies, hands, arms, shoulders, chin, and hair. Buddy didn’t say much but he loved anything that had to do with water. On the other hand, Gracie loved to sing. She laughed and started to enjoy herself. Her baby voice was so adorable that my nervous energy changed to reflect the joyous expression on her face.

The next day, we sang the same song, sitting on the stairs, but we used buckets filled with water instead. As we made our way through the song, Buddy and Gracie poured buckets of water on me first. Then it was Buddy’s turn. He enjoyed every second of it, especially when we poured the water on his head at the end. Gracie didn’t want the water on her head, but she was willing to pour water down her chin and she liked the rest of it. 

I sprinkled plastic animal toys at the bottom of the pool. As we played, we picked them up together. Buddy would dive and try to find them with his eyes open. He tried to pick up so many at once that I had to pull him up to make sure he would breathe before he went back down for more. Gracie searched the bottom without putting her face in the water. She got a couple that way but wasn’t able to get the deeper ones. 

“Look, it’s a cow!” she said.

“What sound does a cow make, Gracie?” I asked.

“Moooo!”

It wasn’t so much about picking the toys up for Gracie as it was about lining them up one by one on the poolside. Buddy didn’t care what he got. He just wanted to grab them by the handful underwater. He brought them to me and I threw them back in without his knowledge so he could keep going.

“Can you put your chin in the water, Gracie?”

“No,” she said.

“Why not?”

“I’m scawed,” she said. Gracie always stumbled on her R’s.

“Do you want to do it together instead?”

“Okay,” she said.

I let her take a hold of my hand and we bent our knees until her chin reached the water. 

“You did it!” I exclaimed. She was so happy that we did it again.

After mastering putting our chins in the water, we learned to blow bubbles just like blowing out a birthday candle. We held hands and walked in a circle singing, “Motorboat motorboat go so slow, motorboat motorboat step on the gas.” Then we moved faster. “Motorboat motorboat go so fast, motorboat motorboat had a big crash!” I blew bubbles with Gracie while Buddy jumped up like a whale and belly flopped on the water. 

I learned to accommodate both childs’ needs to improve their skills in the water. Buddy didn’t need as much help. He did front floats and back floats by himself, while I did back floats with Gracie. I held her up as she leaned her head back onto my shoulder and she stretched out like a starfish. She trusted me to hold her, and we submerged her ears while we looked up at the clouds. 

Then came the day for Gracie to try to put her face in the water.

“I can’t do it,” she said.

I was running out of songs, games, and anything to say to her by this point. I could see that she wanted to, but she struggled to make the leap. 

“You can do it,” I said

“I can’t,” she said again.

“But can you try?” I said. “Say, ‘I can try.’”

“I can twy.” She took a big breath and shut her eyes tightly, then she knelt down and dunked her chin and mouth in. 

“I did it,” she said. Her brown eyes were wide with excitement. 

I was a little unimpressed, but I didn’t have the heart to tell her she hadn’t put her face in all the way. “You did it,” I said. It was a good improvement on her part. Her attitude changed there, and so did mine. We continued on for the rest of the week, slowly putting a little more of our faces in the water, and each time I would say, “You did it!” 

Each encouragement came with its very own high five. I had started a game with Buddy where he would give me his biggest high five, so big it would push me over and I’d fall backwards into the water. Buddy liked me giving him high fives just as much so that he could fall backwards too. This made Gracie laugh uncontrollably. She also loved to high five-push-me-over. When I gave her a high five, she did a little jump backwards.

By the last day of that week, Gracie had gained a lot of trust in me. She might still have been scared of the water, but she sure wasn’t scared of me. 
We had the usual “I can’t do it” debate, but this time I told her to say, “I can do it.” She gave me a big hug as I counted down. Three, two, one … we dunked underwater together. She clung to me tightly as we came back up. 

“You did it!” I said.

“I-I did it.” Gracie stumbled on her words. Her eyelids fluttered as if she couldn’t decide whether to breathe out of her mouth or nose.

The next week, we played with animal toys at the bottom of the pool again. This time, I gave them both magic goggles to see underwater. We made circles with our fingers and put them over our eyes. Buddy didn’t need his magic goggles but loved it just the same. Gracie, on the other hand, was still uneasy. She could put her face in now and move her hand against the bottom until she found one, but she hadn’t opened her eyes yet. 

Same story. 

“I can’t do it.”

“You can do it,” I said. “Say, ‘I can do it.’”

“I can do it.” Her voice trembled as she spoke. She put on her magic goggles and hovered a centimetre above the water, looking down.

“You did it!” I said after she stood up, even though she didn’t get her face wet. She was so proud of herself.

It was time for a different approach. I hid one of the animal toys in my hands. Buddy went underwater and I opened my hands so he could see the toy I was hiding. Buddy and I did the same for Gracie’s toy. I asked Gracie to say “I can do it” before her turn. She put her magic goggles on and closed her eyes. She took a deep breath and put her face in the water. 

A few seconds later she stood up. “It’s a lion, it’s a lion!”

“It is a lion. You did it Gracie!” I said.

“I did it,” she repeated.

That was a great day. She had opened her eyes underwater and had overcome so much. I realized how much I had improved too. I was always great with children but never like this. Little three-year-old Gracie wasn’t just scared of the water, she was scared of what she didn’t know she could do. In our two weeks together, it wasn’t only about the swimming. Here, she learned to be independent and to believe in herself. There was no greater gift to me than to watch her grow in these lessons. By the end, if she said I can do it, then she could do it. Words are so powerful. I still think that Gracie taught me more than I taught her. 

The next summer, Gracie came back to my Sea Otter class again. By the end of these lessons, she swam as well as Buddy did. She completed the level and we said goodbye to Mr. Sea Otter on the brick wall. I held her up so that she could give a high five to the animal from the next level. 

“What are you now Gracie?”

“I’m a Slamander!” she exclaimed.

I bought my first car at the end of that summer. As other lifeguards had done before me, I named it after my favourite swimmer. Her name was Gracie.

Laurent Lemay
Contributor

Laurent Lemay is a third-year Creative Writing student. He is a queer writer, editor, designer, and professional daydreamer. He earned a Writing and Publishing Diploma from Okanagan College and was the Managing Editor for Ryga Journal's 2023 issue. He is a Poetry Editor and a member of the Social media team for the Portal 2024 issue, where his poem and review of The Whole Animal will be published.

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