94: The Diving Lesson

94: The Diving Lesson

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teens Talk Middle School

The Diving Lesson

People never forget that helping hand especially when times are tough.

~Catherine Pulsifer

Back in grade school, we had Phys Ed class once a week. That averaged out to about thirty-six times a year if you take into account winter holidays, spring breaks, and the occasional day off. A person can stand anything if he only has to do it thirty-six times a year. Back when I was younger, I actually enjoyed Phys Ed. We had a ton of kids in our class and we rarely had to do anything hard like climb a rope and try to touch the ceiling or walk on the balance beam. Our teacher was okay too in elementary school. She was kind of goofy and fun, and I didn’t mind Phys Ed in those days.

Then I got to middle school, where we had Phys Ed every day. Every single day. To make things even worse, I was scheduled to have it first thing in the morning. This wasn’t bad when the school year started and we were doing soccer outside but when September turned into October and we were still going outside for flag football, I started hating Phys Ed.

The teacher I had didn’t help with my dislike for Phys Ed. Ms. Jefferson was shorter than most of the kids and although she looked nice, seventh grade was the year I learned that the old saying, “Looks can be deceiving,” was absolutely true. Ms. Jefferson was meaner than a coffee fiend on day seven of caffeine withdrawal. Ms. Jefferson didn’t care if you were sick or your stomach hurt or if you’d been hit between the eyes with a football. She expected everyone to participate and if you didn’t, you were forced to write a research paper on whatever unit we were doing. By November, I felt as if I were going to throw up every single morning.

Little did I know that things were going to get a whole lot worse before they got better. After the school finally decided that it was cold enough to let us have Phys Ed indoors, we started the swimming unit. Swimming. For an entire six weeks. First thing in the morning. Is it any surprise that half the class came down with sore throats the very first day the swimming unit started?

Not that Ms. Jefferson cared. She made us all get into the pool, swollen tonsils or not, and had us swim laps. After we swam about two hundred laps, she informed us that we’d be working on the crawl, the backstroke, treading water, and diving. I wanted to drown myself right then and there because of those four water-related things, the only one I could do was tread water. Barely.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to swim; I just hated putting my head under the water. I hated how my ears felt when the water rushed into them and I couldn’t stand feeling water go up my nose. I’d taken swimming lessons back when I was really little, and as hard as I tried not to get that panicky feeling whenever I had to go all the way under the water, it never worked.

I made it through learning how to do the crawl and the backstroke and I got to be a master at treading water. Finally, the last week of swimming arrived and we all had to get up on the diving board.

Nervously, I waited for my turn to come while I watched everyone else leap off. Some of the other kids were pretty good divers but a lot were really, really bad. I knew I was going to be the absolute worst. My stomach started knotting up as it got closer and closer to being my turn, and I kept swiveling my head between checking out what time it was and watching whoever was on the diving board. “Maybe I won’t have to go today,” I thought. “Maybe class will be over before it’s my turn.”

“Hank, you’re up!” Ms. Jefferson’s voice brought me back to reality. “Hurry, you’re the last one and then it’s time to hit the showers.”

Slowly, I climbed up onto the diving board, the knots in my stomach growing tighter as the board wobbled beneath my bare feet. The aqua-colored water looked to be about half a mile away, and it took every bit of control I had not to turn around and run back off that board. But I knew I couldn’t do that. Not only would I look stupid, but Ms. Jefferson would undoubtedly make me get back up and start all over again.

I was halfway down the board when I glanced over at Ms. Jefferson, holding her clipboard and staring up at me. I couldn’t believe it—she actually looked like she felt sorry for me, as if she knew what I was going through. “Hold on a second,” she said, looking down at her watch. “Class, time has run out today. You’re all dismissed.”

My legs turned into raspberry Jell-O. Shakily, I turned around and started back toward the ladder that would take me down from the board and back to safety. Ms. Jefferson stopped me. “You’re scared to death, aren’t you?” She spoke softly so none of the other kids could hear her. They were all heading toward the locker room anyway.

Reluctantly, I nodded.

“Don’t you know how to dive?” she asked.

“Not really.”

Ms. Jefferson chewed on her bottom lip for a second or two. “What class do you have next?”

“Study hall.”

“Perfect,” She said. “Get back up on the board.”

“What?”

“I’m going to teach you how to dive, Hank. Believe it or not, I know how you feel. I couldn’t dive until I got into college. But if you just do what I tell you to do, you’ll be fine.”

Getting back up on the diving board the second time was slightly easier. It was also easier without the rest of the class standing around watching me. But diving was still hard. Ms. Jefferson worked with me for half an hour and while I can’t say I was an expert when we were through, at least I didn’t feel like I was going to throw up into the pool.

“It just takes practice,” she told me after we finished. “You can do practically anything if you practice long enough.”

Nodding, I picked up my towel and started toward the locker room. Halfway there, I turned around. “Thank you, Ms. Jefferson,” I said. “You really helped me.”

And then, for the first time since school started in September, Ms. Jefferson smiled. “You’re welcome, Hank.” Suddenly she didn’t seem like the worst teacher ever. Maybe I still didn’t like her, or like putting my head under water very much, but I no longer hated her. Walking the rest of the way to the locker room, I realized that I didn’t hate Phys Ed anymore either. Even if it was every single day.

~Hank Musolf

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