Stroke, stroke, breathe. Stroke, stroke, breathe. My legs burn as I push myself to kick a little harder; my fingertips slide into the water as I try to rotate my arms just a little faster. I aim for the wall, swimming hard all the way in.
About a month ago, I joined a swim team. My kids both swim, and I discovered that the team offered an adult practice at the same time, so I signed up too. Now, I say “team”, but let’s be clear that it’s mostly practice with a coach. I am pretty sure there are no races. At least, I hope there are no races because right now I am slow.
I swam competitively through high school, but the last time I was in the water with a coach was 28 years ago. And it turns out that having a coach is daunting. He creates sets, decides what we’re working on and determines how fast we should go. Last night he insisted I could swim “on the :30” – translation: that I could swim fast enough and rest long enough to start again every 30 seconds. I told him exactly how crazy that was, but he was adamant, and I was pleased and proud when I touched the wall on the last lap having hit the 30 every time. On the other hand, two weeks ago we swam nothing but backstroke, and I took a break when an old shoulder injury flared up. The coach was fine with both results.
On this team, I am precisely in the middle. I am either the slowest swimmer in the fast lane or the fastest in the slow lane. Week after week, I have to choose my lane. And week after week, I hem and haw then pick the fast lane, where I find myself touching the wall just as the first swimmer – significantly faster than I am – starts the next set. I gasp for breath, curse the system that allows the fastest athletes the most rest, and push off from the wall again.
I wonder why I keep choosing this. Am I getting faster? I can’t tell. I feel constantly less-than; I am continually trying to keep up. I’m embarrassed to say that sometimes I have to check my jealous thoughts about the faster swimmers, as if somehow they are to blame for their speed, as if they are less nice because I am less fast. Other times I catch my thoughts drifting to self-doubt: should I be here? Should I move to the other lane? What am I learning? Surely if I swim in the other lane I can work more on my technique? If I just move to the slower lane, I’ll improve my stroke, right?
But it’s not that easy. When I swim in the slower lane, I am also out of place, noticeably faster than the other swimmers. I find myself passing people, and I know that I am not pushing myself as much as I could. I am not, in fact, working on my technique. In the slow lane, I slack a little.
What I want is a middle lane, but there are only two tracks. I have to choose. My choice is to swim up. For me, right now, struggling to keep up is preferable to cruising.
Which makes me think about my students – not the ones struggling to read or the ones who I worry won’t make it to graduation – no, as I swim, I think about the students who have chosen the slow lane. I think about C and about J, both strong readers and writers whom I suspect could succeed in the higher track “Academic” English course but who have chosen the “Applied” course. Often I push them: “try this (slightly harder) novel”, “add another detail to that paragraph,” “I bet you could write that essay.” I want them to keep their options open, to reach higher, to see where they could go. Until this swim team, I was confident that I was doing them a service.
But swimming has reminded me that the faster lane is a lot of hard work and there are plenty of good reasons to slow down. If I were dealing with an injury or using swimming as down time, or even if I just needed a break, then I would choose the slower lane. There are joys in the slow lane, too, joys in taking your time, in being where you are, not where you might be. I think of C, unhappy in Academic English last year, and I realize that she is happy right now. She reads what she wants, and she has plenty of time for creative writing. When she speaks, others listen. She’s a leader in our class. Perhaps my role is not so much to push her to a different level but rather to make sure that she develops in the lane she has chosen.
It all comes back to why I chose a team this year rather than free swim: the coach. In some ways, the coach sees my potential more clearly than I do – he was right to insist that I could swim that fast set – but he also trusts me to know what I can and cannot do – I was right to take a break when my shoulder ached. This is the balance I want in my classes. For C and J and all of my students, I want to hold onto the vision of their potential while I honour the choices they make (for reasons they may not disclose to me and that they may not even know). There is no middle lane, so we’re all going to need to practice.