How to swim
My sister casually picked up a dark blue book from 1940, The Bluejackets' Manual, from a shelf at the antiques store. The page that caught my attention was this one:
It's from a chapter entitled "How to Swim", one of fifty-nine chapters in this exhaustive resource covering everything from the semaphore alphabet, to photos of what one's hammock and other belongings should look like when laid out for inspection, to the basics on ship weapons, to opinions on leadership and morality.
"This tenth edition," states the forward, "has become necessary by the Navy's adoption of the U.S. Army's drill regulations and the desirability of new type setting for clearness of print."
The "How to Swim" chapter is the only chapter with a guest author: one Mr. Graham Curry from the YMCA of San Diego. This just goes to show that it's damn hard to teach grown-ups to swim, so much so that even the Navy has to get someone else to do it.
But I adore this depiction of one man trying to teach another man to swim using both the comforting support of his own hands and an underwater chair.
"The instructor should do everything in his power to prevent the beginner from getting strangled," is the first line of advice. Which I also appreciate: no one gives bottom line up front like the military gives bottom line up front.
Then our dear Mr. Curry offers this:
The more you understand and sympathize with his fear of the water, the more you reason with him, the more confidence he will have in you and the more quickly he will learn.
In other words, the more the instructor understands and validates his student's fears, the better the student will be able to learn because he will trust the teacher.
What is so profound here is that the first step in teaching someone to swim has nothing to do with swimming and everything to do with tapping into our own fears and vulnerabilities as teachers so that we may validate what our students are facing.
Can you imagine if all the Naval Institute chapters read like this?! The more you understand and sympathize with his fear of killing others and of his own mortality, the more quickly he will learn rapidity of loading, of sight setting, and of pointing and training.
Yeah, well, maybe not.
But see here where Mr. Graham offers a script for his would-be swim instructor:
Presently I am going to walk backward through the water as fast as I can, drawing you forward through the water on your stomach. Do not be afraid. I promise you that I will not let you get any water on your head. Straighten and stiffen your body into a straight line; take a deep breath. Here we go; that's fine.
Excellent underwater photography and even more excellent 1940s bathing suits aside, note how much of teaching is telling the student what's about to happen, promising to hold him safe, and reminding him to breathe.
My yoga teacher says that how we practice yoga is how we do everything. I think it's fair to say that it's also true that how we swim is how we do everything.
I am discovering this also works in reverse: when we change how we do everything, we also change how we practice.
After describing the various swim strokes and how to do them, Mr. Graham concludes with this advice for the naval swimmers of 1940 who want to get faster at swimming: "Practice often on your style [of swimming]." That seems sound.
But. If we go back to what Mr. Graham says about the naval swim instructors of 1940, I think we have to conclude that instructors who want to get better at teaching must start with a very different kind of practice: They must practice understanding their own fears so that they may better sympathize with the fears of their students. Once we deepen our own internal practice, once we can get really curious and really honest with ourselves, then we may practice sympathy with another. From this foundation of shared vulnerability, then we layer on "reason," or the step-by-step instructions that provide a rational structure for learning the swim strokes. Only then—from this place of sympathy and rational structure—may we finally inspire confidence in our students, enabling them to quickly learn.
The good news is that, like swimming, good teaching is not magic; it's a skill we can improve with practice.