Great Lake swim lane

The swim lane in Lake Michigan, © 2013 Celia Her City

Swimmers stroke the summer waters of Lake Michigan, in the designated lane running along the Drive from above Navy Pier.  To be a distance swimmer in a Great Lake is no small thing.

In fact, the sight of such swimmers brings back a sad memory, of a blistering day on a south-side beach when I was in college.  All Chicago was sweating, and the beach was packed. There were hundreds of kids bobbing up and down in the shallows, enjoying the relief our cold lake can give.  I was swimming back and forth in deeper water, where I could enjoy being clear of the crowd.  It was such bliss!

When I stood up, two kids nearby, who were staring, accosted me and asked me, “How do you do that?”  Their eyes were wide.  They had been trying to figure it out by inspecting me.

Looking carefully again at the kids in the water, I realized that almost none of them knew how to swim.  Their parents, who were mainly black and poor, probably did not know how to swim either, so there was no way to learn.

The two boys so curious about my swimming were about 10 years old.  Neither of them knew how to float, though they intrigued and elated when I showed them how.  It was a poignant thing to realize that a skill I took for granted was something so novel and precious to them.  Being a child of the suburbs, and a strong swimmer from years of lessons and whole summers spent almost entirely at neighborhood pools, I never thought of the cultural investment involved in my knowing how to float or crawl.

Somehow, thinking of kids not knowing how to swim is almost sadder to me than the thought of a person being hungry, because I so associate swimming with innocent joy.

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