One of the first columns I wrote and published was about teaching my friend Jernae to swim at the Emeryville Public Pool. I described how I was the only adult in the water, and how children surrounded me, wrapped their skinny arms around my neck and hollered at me to watch them as they did multiple cannonballs in my face. Most of the kids did not know how to swim and were therefore relegated to the shallow end of the pool. The deep end was empty, serene, and placid; the three-foot section was crowded, wild and noisy. Within the middle of this storm I attempted to instruct Jernae on the finer points of the doggie paddle.
It wasn’t easy. Jernae was cold and scared, and distracted by the other kids who were creating enormous waves, and splashing and shouting at one another. Her small, thin body was stiff as a board and she had a difficult time relaxing. She insisted on holding her nose, which made it impossible to perform the Dead Man’s Float.
But we persevered, and day after day we went back to the pool and started over. Little by little there was improvement, until Jernae was finally floating on her back and stomach without my assistance, then later jumping into my arms, and paddling to the edge of the pool. I wrote a column about her progress and received several e-mails after it was published. One of those e-mails chastised me for being a naïve, do-gooder racist. The writer insinuated that as a middle-class, middle-aged white woman, I did not have the right to teach a black child how to swim. “We can teach our own,” she said. “We don’t need or want your help.”
Her letter made me question my intentions and values. I had always thought that swimming was a skill everyone should know. It’s easy to learn, develops self-confidence, and promotes safety. Plus, it’s a fun, wholesome activity. I knew that I was teaching Jernae to swim, in part, for my own personal satisfaction, but I also felt it was something she should know how to do, and that it would serve her well in the future.
I ignored the letter writer but I discontinued writing about the lessons. When, a year later, Jernae was finally able to swim across the width of the pool, I didn’t bother telling anyone. When she jumped off the diving board for the first time, I didn’t write a column about it, and when she recently swam the entire length of Willard Pool and was permitted to go anywhere within its waters, I didn’t announce it to the readers of the Daily Planet.
But now I do have something I want to say. A few days ago Jernae called me with some news.
“You won’t believe this,” she said. “I am so cool.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“I’m about to tell you,” she said.
“Go on,” I answered.
“Well,” she drawled, “I’m at school, right?”
“And I go to gym class, right?”
“I think I knew that,” I said.
“And you know that we go to a pool once a week, right?”
“Get to the point,” I said.
“Well,” she shouted. “I’m the only one who knows how to swim in my class!”
“That’s great,” I said. “I’m proud and happy for you.”
“I’m happy, too,” said Jernae. “Now if only some of the other kids could swim, then I’d have someone to hang out with in the deep end, right?”
“Right,” I said.
“So I’ve got this idea, right?”
“That you and me could teach ‘em all how to swim, right?”
“I see where you’re going with this. Bring ‘em over to Emeryville, and we’ll teach them together, right?”
“Righteous,” she replied.
“What did you say?” I asked.
“Righteous,” she said again. “You don’t know what that means, right?”
“Wrong,” I said. “I bet it means cool, right?”
“Righteous,” she answered.
“Do you mind if I write a column about this for the paper?” I asked.
“Righteous!” she replied.