Failing sucks and to fail absolutely, sucks absolutely. This was my experience last year when Olivia, aged ten, failed spectacularly to get into Junior Guards. I’m not proud to say that it was my failure, not hers… in so many ways.
For those of you who do not live in sunny, Southern California, Junior Guards is a wonderful program built for local kids where you are in a type of beach camp over the summer – I now probably have Life Guards all over the world tutting at me – Summer Camp indeed, this is serious stuff. And you know, my blog is super popular with Life Guards. But I digress. Jr. Guards is a strenuous program where children from nine upwards are taught the primary skills of being safe in the ocean. They learn about rip tides, they build endurance by swimming out to a buoy in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean – (they may have to swim to Hawaii and back) I think it’s really about a 1/2 mile out. It sure looks far to me and I’m not sure that I would ever tackle it, but of course my kids can do it. In Jr. Guards they run a lot – no more commentary needed! They also play lots of beach games and “everyone” does it. By everyone, I mean it just seems like everyone. “Hey, what are you doing this summer?” “Junior Guards – morning, afternoon, El Segundo, Manhattan, Hermosa?” These words sing up and down the mommy pick up lines as the dreaded “TEST” approaches. The test involves swimming 100 meters in a pool in 1 minute and 50 seconds.
So I sign Olivia up to practice in a group with a swim coach, whom she grows to despise as he haggles and pushes her to swim faster. God bless this child as she keeps trying to break through this time barrier. She finally gets it down to 1 min 53 secs and the time will not budge. And I’m there pushing and wrangling her with the coach. Kick faster! Move your arms quicker! All around me the moms are quietly preening as their kid breaks the time barrier. “Oh, Jackie just swam a 1.49.” That’s it, I’m never talking to Jackie’s mom again! As we all sit by the side of the pool, anxiously watching our kids battle with the seconds, we discuss this insanity and then yell Faster!
Olivia swims the TEST in a slower time than she swam the very first time she got in the pool, 3 months before the test. Did she shut down? Was she just done, and making a point? Was she just not ready yet? Any which way you look at it, the latter makes sense. She also fired her coach personally at the test – which was one of the few amusing moments on that day of failure.
Then both Olivia and I had to bear the sympathy of all of our friends. The hushed moments of excitement over who would go with whom to Jr. Guards, as they gathered for lunch as groups after the day of swimming was over. Oh, it’s so much easier to be the mommy giving out the sympathetic advice. “It’s not a big deal. There’s always next year!” The failure was there, solid and unyielding – a big knot to be worked out in the kink of my daughter’s growing up armor and my own stressed out back.
So now what! Apparently, I’m not ready to give up yet. Olivia was ready to never step foot in any form of water sports ever again. Get her in the ocean?! I could barely get her in a pool. What was most frustrating about this whole process, she was now a great swimmer – perhaps not the fastest but a strong, polished swimmer with phenomenal endurance. As I look back, I really do wonder why it was so important to me not to give up. So swimming wasn’t her thing, so many other sports and activities excited her. Perhaps, I felt that if I allowed her to give up on this, I was teaching her that failure was acceptable. Perhaps, I’m just a helicopter mom and push my kids too hard. I like to think that what drove me to encourage her to keep working on her swimming and her time was that failure is a challenge – a challenge in this case of breaking through the wall of a few seconds. It was such a clean challenge that had been presented for us – no other people involved, no huge educational leaps, just swim until you snap those seconds off, one, two three.
You’d think it would be easy, just go to the pool and swim! Hah! If you just thought that, I doubt that you’re a mom or a dad. There are moments in writing this, where I can see why I have resorted to living in the Land of Imagination – just disappear into another world where you are not dealing with the heartache of your child thinking that they are just no good at something and everyone else is.
It was like taking a PTSD victim back to the scene of the crime. My friend Carol, has a pool. It is a small pool. She offered to swim laps with Olivia. That got her back into the water. When my courageous daughter finally figured out a flip turn after months of trying, and being convinced that if she went upside down that she might drown, Olivia turned to me and said “Mom, if I can do that… I can do anything!” A little redemption? When we got to the big pool, every time I tried to convince her to let me time her, she would push herself into the smallest being that she could be and hide in the corner of the pool. With her mirrored goggles on she looked quite Greta Garbo – I want to be alone! Why am I doing this to her?… I asked myself for the umpteenth time. Olivia asks me too. “Why is this so important to you?” There is no success without failure – I want to tell her, but she can only see the failure. Success is the fun part, the icing on the cake. You just don’t get it without failing. I think this is a question of hindsight and there was no hindsight ‘cos she’s only ten years old.
We keep trying. I promise that I will not time her. So now, the next test is coming up, we are a year later. She may be swimming the time, she may not, no one knows. I have a friend ask me, why don’t you secretly time her? Because I don’t ever want to be in a position of lying to my child. One Friday afternoon, Olivia finally lets me time her. She swims a 1 min 51 secs. I am so proud there are tears in my eyes. Olivia looks at her time and bursts into her own tears. According to her, she has failed again. What have I done to my child!!!! Time passes, the test gets closer and closer – the mommies are singing the Jr. Lifeguard liturgies up and down the mommy pick up line. I try to stay out of it.
Now Tallulah is practicing for the Jr. Lifeguard test too. She is a strong swimmer, who wants to be constantly timed – a different child, different challenges. Olivia is having none of this. “Fine, time me too” whisper the mirrored goggles. “What! Er.. Okay. Are you sure?” “Shut up before she changes her mind!” says the voice in my head. She swims the laps calmly, the stroke strong and beautiful, the kick powerful. I don’t care if she makes it. She’s a great swimmer. Oh, I care. I don’t care. She’s worked so hard – why do those seconds even matter? I care so much. I look down at the dreaded time, on that dreaded iphone stopwatch, that dreaded green time…time stops…1 minute 44 seconds. I smile. I turn the clock to face those mirrored goggles in the water. She says to me, “you look happy.” Then Olivia smiles, a radiant smile! “I crushed that time, mom!” she says as she lifts up the mirrored goggles and I see eyes aglow with success and redemption.
P.S. She passed the Jr. Lifeguards TEST on Saturday. Now it is time to turn the mommy spotlight on Tallulah! Lucky girl.