…like a woman watching her special needs son have a nervous breakdown in his adapted aquatics swim lesson because the instructor was 18 minutes late.
For a half hour class.
On the first day of class.
But first let me give a little background about me and fury.
I rarely have any.
I am one of those people who just doesn’t get very mad. Or if I do get mad it’s short lived and quickly dismissed if there is a good explanation on hand. I hate feeling angry. I’d rather things be pleasant. It’s not that I’m this sunshiny type who thinks every day is a big ice cream sundae party or anything (and I have the prescription to prove it) – but anger and drama just exhaust me. Kind of like walking around Home Depot. It sounds good when I first walk in, but then I get overwhelmed and want to run back out the door.
I have a good friend who is married to a British man. She jokingly complains about how exasperating he can be with his emotionally detached way of avoiding or ignoring tension and conflict. And it makes me think that I’d be very good at being British… Or even just a WASP. I could totally do “let’s just pretend it never happened darling – be a love get me another cocktail, will you?“
Alas – neither has been my lot, and instead I am married to a very emotionally evolved and passionate sometimes-hothead and have three children who operate on levels ranging from unpredictable to full on CRAY-CRAY. So as you can imagine, I spend much of my time looking like a deer caught in headlights.
Then I just “keep calm and carry on,” good Brit that I am.
But back to my fury. It does happen sometimes. And it almost always has something to do with one of my children. This time it was Oliver, my six year old.
Two Saturdays ago, he had one of the worst first time swim lessons I could have possibly imagined.
Here is why it shouldn’t have happened:
1. Oliver LOVES the water. He is a natural swimmer and taught himself to dog paddle and swim under water last summer. He leaps in without any floatation devices and would be thrilled if you threw him in (he’d be happy to push you in as well – for future reference). He has no fear when it comes to the pool.
2. I took Oliver and the twins to the rec center where his lessons would take place several days in advance. Since he wasn’t used to that pool, I thought it might be a good idea to make sure it was familiar and had good memories of fun times with his family. I probably didn’t even need to do this as he was practically IN the pool by the time I had stripped down to my bathing suit.
3. I spoke with someone at the aquatics center to learn more about how the lessons were handled. And I was assured that unless parents felt they needed to be present, it was always best to just hustle the young students in and then quickly disappear. Since Oliver does best with authority if I’m not around to confuse matters, this sounded perfect to me. And I could go upstairs to watch from an observation room.
4. We arrived at the lesson five minutes early so I could chat with the instructor – give her a little background on Oliver’s communication delays and his current level of ability in the pool. Since she wasn’t there when I arrived, I gave my speech to the assistant manager (a.k.a. one of the people with clip boards) and then to the volunteer, who showed up right around the start time of 11 a.m.
5. Oliver was lying by the side of the pool and literally rolled in when we told him it was finally time to start the lesson. He barely glanced in my direction as I gave him a brief wave and said I’d be “up there” watching.
6. For a full ten minutes I watched my water baby splash happily around with kick boards and other teaching aids. He was having a great time. He didn’t miss me or feel the least bit threatened by the notion of a lesson or wary of the new people and other little girl sharing his class time.
This should have been a fabulous start to his swim lessons this summer.
Here is why:
1. The actual instructor was late, so the volunteer had to try to keep the two students busy in their one small area until the class could start.
2. Ten minutes is a long time for a special needs child to stay content in a small space with no structured activity. My son is not sedentary. And he likes to do his own thing. So if he’s in a teaching environment, it is absolutely imperative that there is an authority figure with a plan running the show. Fifteen minutes is far too long to wait for that.
3. The above describes pretty much ANY special needs child.
4. The above describes pretty much ANY CHILD.
5. When Oliver did try to swim out of the official lesson area, he was pulled back and essentially told that he needed to stay put. This would make no sense to him and would inevitably be perceived as aggression.
6. ….aaaaannnd that’s when he would start looking for me. The last person who was obviously in charge. And I wasn’t there.
I was in the observation room. Watching Oliver being dragged back into the water again and again by the kind volunteer. And as he became more and more agitated, his confusion transitioned into defiance and then frustrated tears, AND THEN body shaking sobs like I’ve never seen before (he hardly EVER cries). And I slowly transformed from proud mommy to concerned parent to horrified onlooker to absolutely furious mother who wanted to charge downstairs, pull my wailing son from the pool and demand to know what the fuck kind of special needs class this was?!
But I stayed put. Unlike Oliver, I understood that I had to stay in my small designated area.
He is young and still learning the rules, but I am old and I know them all too well. While he needed to wait for the instructor in the area of the pool assigned to his class, I needed to stay out of the way. To let the professionals do their job. And if they had a rocky start, I still had to let them try to pull it together. They had to win his trust without any interference from me. The minute I appeared, Oliver would learn that if he cried and made a scene, mommy would come and save him. And they would lose all credibility.
So I watched.
I watched the instructor arrive and try to engage with my hysterical son. After a few minutes, it was obvious that he wanted nothing to do with her and she moved on to work with the other (easier and more compliant) student.
I wanted to hug the volunteer – she stayed with him the whole time and I could see the concern and sympathy on her face from my perch one floor above.
Fifteen minutes later at the end of the half hour lesson, I walked stiffly into the pool area to collect Oliver. I could barely talk to the clipboard people, but somehow managed an incredulous, “what happened?” I don’t think I even heard the apologies or excuses about being understaffed and assurances that this particular instructor is NEVER late.
You know what? I get it. Mistakes happen. People have personal emergencies and get stuck in traffic behind ten car pile ups. Volunteers are left alone with two students and do their best to keep them entertained as long as they possibly can. Management calls cell phones and leaves messages on voice mail and starts to put on their own bathing suits to fill in for the missing instructors.
But in the fifteen (by my watch, eighteen) minutes that all of those good intentions transpired and/or were thwarted, my son – my beautiful, incandescent son with his all consuming love of swimming – suffered.
And that made my blood boil.
I asked the volunteer what happened and then told her exactly why it shouldn’t have. I also thanked her for doing the best she could – but that didn’t diminish my all consuming anger. My fury.
Then I held my son for a while and comforted him. I calmed him down. I promised him a visit to Dairy Queen. I suggested that we might try again next week. I told him that I was proud of how well he did. That I watched him when he was swimming and I was so proud. I agreed that he could get changed and that we would leave.
I silently cursed the whole comedy of errors and its seemingly inept cast for ruining swim lessons for my son in less than 30 minutes.
While waiting for use of the family changing room I talked to the assistant manager, got more information about what happened (little more than I already knew – that this particular instructor had never been late before) and pointed out that this was the worst time to be late – on the first day of swim lessons for special needs children.
As Oliver calmed down and became more interested in the ice cream I promised and less concerned with the drama that just unfolded, I also found myself relaxing. I was still mad, but I didn’t feel like actually throttling anyone.
I wasn’t furious anymore. I was weary. I wanted to turn back time and go get my bathing suit – even though I didn’t think of it until the last minute and we had to leave immediately in order to be there a few minutes early to talk to the instructor. I wanted to be able to get in the water with Oliver while we were waiting – to help the volunteer keep him busy until the instructor arrived. I wanted him to have a fun lesson. I wanted him to leave the pool smiling – not sobbing.
I wanted to pretend that it didn’t happen. To just carry on and make things pleasant.
I just didn’t want to deal with it anymore.
And at that point, there wasn’t anything more I could do. I got mad, said everything there was to say and saved my child from misery. What else was there?
Only one more thing. I walked Oliver back to the pool to thank the volunteer and say goodbye. I thought they both needed that.
Later while watching Oliver finish his ice cream cone, I realized that I wasn’t furious anymore. I still thought it was a complete disaster and wasn’t at all happy about it…but I was already thinking along the lines of damage control.
I knew that we had to go back to that pool as soon as possible. To make it fun – a place where he would want to go. And I would have to get in the pool with him for the next lesson. To make it feel safe. I would have to interact with the instructor who had filled me with rage less than an hour earlier. I would have to make it work. For Oliver’s sake.
And I did.
We did visit the pool as a family the following day. And we made it fun. Then I brought Oliver back for his lesson last Saturday. And I wore my bathing suit.
When we saw the volunteer, he looked at her and (miracle!) said, “do you want to swim with me?” Then we all got into the pool together. I chatted with the instructor and told her about Oliver. I didn’t mention the previous week.
I watched Oliver have a wonderful time and then moved away to the whirlpool – where I could still see him, but have less of an obvious presence.
And it was fine. After 20 minutes, Oliver said he was tired and wanted to leave, and we all decided to call it a win and not enforce the full 30 minutes. Next time we could firm. This time it was better to just end on a good note. Which we did.
Frankly, I was amazed by how well it went – that Oliver was so easy going about everything and needed very little coaxing from me to get in the pool with the volunteer and the instructor.
But that’s kind of the way he is. His drama is brief. He recovers quickly. And he moves on without lingering remorse or grudge holding.
Maybe he’s like me. Maybe he just wants to keep everything pleasant.
If that’s true, he’ll be a better person for it. He faces so many challenges now, and there will be plenty of others later. He doesn’t have an easy path to follow, and an even temper may serve him well.
He may also find life somewhat wearying because of it…I know I do often enough. But he’ll innately know how to put the best face on things, keep moving forward and not sweat the small stuff.
He’ll be a survivor.
At best? He’ll be happier than most. At worst? I’ll just move to England with him and we can be emotionally detached expats with the rest of the Brits. Hopefully we can find a place with a pool.