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Stories from school and college

There Must Be Something In The Water (Besides A Skinny Kid)

, , , , , , , , | Learning | April 12, 2023

I am now in my early sixties, still skinny, and do not like cold. I can swim a bit but usually don’t because even the look of our large local lake in summer gives me hypothermia. I exaggerate a bit here, but the story of this failed swimming lesson is etched in my memory and is perhaps why I don’t like swimming. 

My parents put me into swimming lessons. Good for them because that’s an important skill. Unfortunately, the small town I grew up in didn’t have a pool (that came later), so the Red Cross swimming lessons were held during the summer at a local beach. There was not much “beach”, but there was a long dock where they held the lessons. This beach dropped off quite sharply and was known to be much colder than any other on the lake.

Our “teachers” were girls in the Red Cross program. They were about fifteen to seventeen years old compared to my eight years old, so they were old to me. As was the norm in the late 1960s, parents would drop us off and pick us up instead of being helicopters, and I was told to obey my swim teachers. 

I was already uncomfortable because I was a really skinny boy. Skinny means not much body fat, which means heat loss, which means cold. Whales have blubber for a reason. So, having stuck my toes into the frigid lake before getting onto the dock, I was nervous.

How did the swimming lessons go? Nothing like when I took my sons to the pool and watched them discover what they could do. Nope. For someone who had never swum, I was reluctant to get into what felt like ice water to me. But the swim lessons were held off the dock, and it apparently didn’t matter what your skill level was; the only option was to jump off the dock into deep water, and I did not want to do that.

Problem solved: the teenage girl in charge just picked me up and threw me in. There’s a thing that I think is called the diving reflex, but whatever, it saved my life. I do not remember hitting the water, but I do remember slowly sinking down to rest on the lake bed, legs crossed for some reason, and looking up at the way the sun was rippling across the waves. It was so beautiful and I can see it now. I was strangely content sitting about fifteen feet underwater.

As a skinny boy, unlike those with adipose tissue, I was what they call a “sinker”. I don’t know how long I was sitting on the lake bed at well over my depth, and the sense of peace I was feeling was only interrupted by the girl who had thrown me in dragging me off the bottom and throwing me back on the dock.

I am pretty sure the episode scared her more than me and, hopefully, she learned that throwing a nonswimmer into water does not make them an instant swimmer. I’m not mad at this girl (now probably in her seventies), but I will always wonder if she realized that she’d screwed up or if she just tossed it off as a kid who couldn’t just magically swim and ruined her day by making her actually get in the water. (That was the first and only time I saw any of those girls get wet.)

I’ve never been much of a swimmer since. Even civic pools are too cold for me. But I have this distinct childhood memory of the ceiling (the lake surface above me) gently rippling and throwing beautiful light all over, and that experience of what could have been my drowning remains clear and strangely comforting. Perhaps that is what the brain does when death is near, but it remains the most calming and peaceful memory I have. Strange.

Narrow It Down, I Beg You

, , , | Learning | April 10, 2023

I work in the registration department of a community college. I have a conversation like this at least once a month.

Customer: “Hi! I’d like to enroll.”

Me: “Great! Are you in a program?”

Customer: “No. What does that mean?”

Me: “That means you enroll in a program of study and you can get a certificate, diploma, or degree.”

Customer: “Oh, I don’t want that. I just want to take classes.”

Me: “All righty, then. What do you want to take?”

Customer: “I don’t know… Normal stuff, I guess?”

Me: “Like math and English classes?”

Customer: “I guess.”

Me: “Okay, sounds good. You’ll need to go to the testing center or provide ACT or SAT scores in order to get placed properly.”

Customer: “No, that sounds too hard. Can’t I just take whatever class I want?”

Me: “No, there’re prerequisites that need to be met so we can make sure you find a class that fits your skill and comprehension levels.”

Customer: “Well, what doesn’t require test scores?”

Me: “I could try to find something in a subject you’re interested in… How about…”

I proceed to name off a dozen subjects only to get a blank stare in return.

Customer: “I just want to take a few classes.”

Me: “…”

They Have A Fellow Fellow

, , , , , , , | Learning | April 7, 2023

I’m from the USA, but I took a position teaching at a university in Australia. On my first day in Australia, one of my new colleagues asked me if I knew anyone in Melbourne.

Me: “One of my fellow Ph.D. candidates was from here. His name is [Candidate].”

My new colleague paused for a moment.

Colleague: “We’re having [Candidate] and his wife over for dinner tomorrow. Would you like to join us?”

We shared a mutual jaw drop over that coincidence.

Giving Thanks For Good Principals With Good Principles

, , , , , , , , | Learning | April 4, 2023

I worked as a part-time aide at my children’s elementary school. It had been a tough year. I was divorced in August and my ex married a family “friend” in September, which confused my children greatly.

My mom passed away in November, causing my youngest not to want to go to school. She figured that since Daddy and Grandma were gone, I would be next. I would walk her to school while holding her tightly and place her in the arms of her principal while walking away. He would take her to the school nurse to calm down and then she would go to class.

A few days before Thanksgiving, the principal called me into his office.

Principal: “Your family may not be the most financially strapped family in our school, but you are certainly the most emotionally vulnerable.”

He then handed me the ingredients for a complete Thanksgiving dinner. No words can describe how his kindness uplifted my spirit.

Things got progressively better, but I never forgot how much his gesture meant to us.

This Is Your Brain On Autopilot, Part 4

, , , , , , | Learning | April 2, 2023

When I was in high school, the student government president made the morning announcements over the intercom. My senior year, the president worked the drive-thru at a local restaurant.

One day, we were greeted with this.

President: “Welcome to [Fast Food Chain]! May I— OH, MY GOSH!”

Silence fell for a moment.

Vice President: “Here are today’s announcements…”

This Is Your Brain On Autopilot, Part 3
This Is Your Brain On Autopilot, Part 2
This Is Your Brain On Autopilot