When I was at the University of Oregon for graduate school a few years ago, I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to take swimming lessons, but for two years I was so intimidated by the thought of appearing in a bathing suit in my mid-60s in front of 20-year-olds that I shunned swimming class. Finally I told myself that that was ridiculous. If I wanted to swim, I should swim.
But if I were going to swim, I would need a swim suit, since swimming in the nude is fine when I'm alone in the wilderness but not so appropriate in a college class. Just before the first term of my third year in graduate school, I swallowed my pride and marched into the swimming supply store close to campus to buy a swim suit.
I was glad to see no other customers in the store. Skulking around the young salesgirl (probably a UO student and maybe even someone I would see in swimming class, too, I thought in panic) and then hiding behind the clothing racks, I looked for something appropriate. When I found a bathing suit I thought would do, I took it to the dressing room and wiggled into it. Then I took a deep breath and stepped in front of the mirror.
I was horrified. I looked like every middle-age woman who ever poured herself into a bathing suit – the bulky figure, the rolls of fat. There was no way I was going to appear in a college swimming class looking like this. I flung off the swim suit, dropped it on the bench, and fled the store.
It took me another year for the desire to swim to overcome the embarrassment of my figure and my age, but before fall term the next year I bought a swim suit in a department store in town, where other women my age and my look might be buying swim suits. When I got to campus, I signed up for swimming.
I tried to look nonchalant as I entered the women's locker room the first day of class, but that part wasn't too bad. I could dress in a private cubicle, and students were dressing and undressing hurriedly, having to get to class, so no one was paying attention to anyone else. But then I had to walk through the door into the pool room, and then I had to walk in front of the cluster of students on the bleachers to find a seat. The students were all, of course, decades younger than I, and, of course, they were eyeing each other, those young men and young women. I felt completely out of place and conspicuous, but I WANTED TO SWIM, so I stubbornly reminded myself that I had every right to be there and that I was there to swim, not to socialize or impress anyone. It's the swimming that's important, I said to myself, tucking my hair inside my swim cap and slipping into the pool with the other students.
Swim class was, in the end, one of the best things I did in grad school. My instructor, Dan, the erstwhile coach of UO's erstwhile swim team, enjoyed having me in class – because I was an unusual student and because we were, after all, the same age. After I gave him a copy of my book with the essay about swimming in Crater Lake, he liked to tease me about swimming in cold lakes. Most of the students ignored me, but to my surprise one or two every term were as friendly to me as to anyone else. They ignored my age and related to me as a fellow swimmer. It didn't take long before I was comfortable in class, bathing suit notwithstanding. I wasn't the worst swimmer, though I always swam in the slow lane. Many of the students had been on swim teams in high school. They didn't give me the time of day, but I didn't care. We were all there to swim and to learn something about swimming, both those who snubbed me and those who were friendly. I took swimming every term until I graduated and then all during the following year, when I had a post-doc for teaching at UO. I loved swim class.
For obvious reasons, there are no photos to go with this post.