Swimming lessons

In the 1970s there were no special swimming lessons for kids with disabilities in Edmonton. My brother loved the water, so my parents registered him for swimming lessons. The staff looked at him and said that the teacher wouldn't have him in the class unless a family member was there to help Leo. My parents looked at me. I knew they wanted me to say I would sign up for the same class, and be Leo's helper. I told them what they wanted to hear. This story is about why I never learned to swim.

Swimming lessons
By Sophia Isako Wong

I am afraid of the water. Clutching the side of the pool, I edge my way along, hoping the teacher won't notice me. All the other kids are in the middle of the pool; I am the only one who can't keep up.

"Come on, Sophia! Let go of the wall and kick your legs!"

I transfer one hand to the flutterboard, a thin slice of blue Styrofoam that doesn't support my weight sufficiently.

"You can do it! Both hands on the flutterboard, and kick your legs straight out!"

I take a deep breath and start kicking my legs. Maybe if I can get my legs going first, I'll be able to let go of the wall.


Without looking, I know what has happened. My brother Leo has done it again: a big cannonball into the pool, gleefully creating a big noise and splashing all our classmates. The teacher calls my name. I wave my arm to show I've heard her.

"I'm coming." I pull myself out of the pool, drop the flutterboard, and make my way to my brother. Eyes shining, he watches me approach him with a huge smile on his face.

"Hey Sophie, did you see me? I made a big splash! That was fun!"

"I know, Leo. I saw you, and I heard you. Did the teacher ask you to do that?"

"No, it was my idea! I made a big splash!"

"Leo. Look at me. This is not play time. This is swimming-lesson time. Can you listen to the teacher, please? The other kids don't like it when you splash them."

He is crestfallen. "Oh."

I give him a big hug. "We'll play in the water after class, I promise. Can you do just swimming for now? Just until the end of class?"

"Oh.... ohhhhkay."

I point toward the teacher and look from his face to hers, until his eyes focus on her. I return to the edge of the pool. Now the kids are doing a different exercise and I've missed the instructions. Shivering, I grab my flutterboard, get back into the cold water, and watch them. I’m still afraid of the water.

Sophia Isako Wong is an associate professor of philosophy at Long Island University in Brooklyn, New York. Her brother Leo has Down syndrome. Here's what she said about the photo above: I don't have any photos of us in the pool, but here's one of us in the bath -- another activity in which I routinely supervised my brother while my parents were out of the room. I think our expressions show the way we feel about water.