The families grieve
Teens’ deaths become a tragedy of mass proportion in an area where there’s immense suffering
By Joy Childs
Sentinel Contributing Writer
In the wake of the drownings of six Black teens from two families while on a family outing near Shreveport, LA, this weekend, I could hardly contain my own sadness when I saw the unimaginable pain on the faces of those who watched helplessly as the children succumbed to the water. And then when it was reported that none of them–not the kids nor their parents–knew how to swim, I was absolutely mortified.
That would never happen in L.A., because all Californians know how to swim, right? Or, if you believe many a Black comedian, ‘Black people don’t know how to swim.’ That would be me. My inability was born in the early ’60s, when my parents arranged for me and my sister Kirsten to take swimming lessons at L.A. High School. I looked forward to those lessons with a good measure of anticipation and excitement–after all, by the time the series of lessons ended, I fully expected to be able to swim ‘like a fish.’ Ahhh–being able to swim from one end of the pool to the other–I couldn’t wait.
So off to lessons we went. Lesson 1, held in the shallow end of the pool, was a cinch; lesson 2, no sweat. There was just one problem: My sister and I happened to have the meanest-no, as my sister has said, “the most sadistic”–swimming teacher ever. Somewhere around lesson 3, our teacher announced that we’d be jumping from the high diving board that day. He marched our swimming class from the shallow end of the pool to the high diving board. Remember: This was lesson 3-and I hadn’t even learned how to swim well–and here I was climbing to the high diving board. I recall feeling like I was walking the plank. And here was this idiot teacher was yelling at me to ‘jump, jump.’ And I was petrified. I remember looking at my classmates, one by one, jump into the deep blue water. I remember when I got to the end of the board looking down and thinking, ‘I’m never gonna come up. I’m gonna drown right here and now.’ And when I did come back up, even though it was easier than I thought, I vowed I would never do that again.
And that’s where I’ve been stuck ever since. Years later at UCLA, there was a pool party in the dorm and some of my ‘friends’ threw me into the pool for a laugh. In the water for what seemed like an eternity (I later realized I couldn’t have been in there more than a few seconds), I again thought I was drowning. But I wasn’t–I lived. Stuck.
I’ve tried to learn. I’ve taken swimming lessons so many times over the years: several times at Dorsey High School’s pool and other public facilities and even private lessons at the Glendale YMCA about 7 years ago–a “Swimming for Adults” class where the pool’s water temperature had to have been 80 degrees–and I did learn how to float, even on my back, and even learned all the strokes. But nowadays if I’m invited to a pool party, I’ll “swim” near or in the kiddie pool or, if I want to challenge myself, I’ll hold onto the side of the pool in the deep water. My conclusion: I can’t swim.
For those of you who really do know how to swim, who’ve experienced the sheer joy of doing laps and cannonballs in your neighbor’s pool-or have even ventured out into the ocean–my hat is off to you. And now in the wake of this horrific tragedy, I think it’s time for me–and maybe for some of you–to get unstuck. Not that I’ll ever swim in the ocean or go scuba diving or snorkeling or water skiing. But since I hope to go to the Caribbean next summer, I’m going to learn to swim this summer so that I can experience all that that region has to offer.