The pool brimmed with eighth-graders goofing around and awkwardly wearing swimsuits in place of our modest school clothes. We splashed each other and played with kick boards and shouted polo to somebody’s marco. The smell of chlorine seeped into us and would follow us around for days.
Once the life guards opened the diving board, we ran to get in line. Shelly dropped in to whoops from poolside spectators. Tobie performed a hilarious and concussive cannonball. Alan did a full spin.
I shivered and shuffled closer.
I felt the judgmental gazes of my peers. I worried that my front flip would fail, but sometimes we acquiesce to an imperative born in that mysterious social space between human beings. Bravery is all.
I ran, stuttered my steps, and timed a final jump to the end. Beyond my knees, the world blurred past. Years of training told me to release, to reach with my toes. Cool water engulfed me, feet to shoulders. Success!
The pool was an adolescent madhouse, full of kids high on the speed of hormones and youth. We jumped. We swam. We laughed.
And we didn’t think much of it as shy Victoria Jennings stepped onto the diving board. Victoria, clad in a poorly-fitted, cream and polka-dotted bathing suit from the sale rack, paused at the end of the board looking down into deep water.
“Come on!” somebody yelled.
“What’s taking so long?” asked another to giggles.
Victoria pinched her nose. Her toes gripped the edge of the board. She stared down into fifteen feet of aqua blue. And she stepped forward into the abyss.
Here’s the thing about drowning victims: they don’t usually flail about like you might imagine. They don’t scream. Instead, the instinctive drowning response is quiet and too often unknown. According to maritime safety expert Mario Vittone, “of the approximately 750 children who will drown next year, about 375 of them will do so within 25 yards of a parent or other adult. In 10 percent of those drownings, the adult will actually watch them do it, having no idea it is happening.”
An immersed person in distress will not yell. They may be unable to move in a safe direction, grab onto something, or wave for help. A distressed swimmer will struggle at the surface for 20 to 60 seconds before submerging.
An attentive life guard flew past me, dove in, and swam powerfully out to wrap an arm around Victoria. He pulled her toward the ladder. Two chaperones helped a coughing Victoria out of the water.
As we all looked on, the life guard, furious to learn that Victoria couldn’t swim, bellowed, “Don’t ever do that again!”
Why? Why would someone who has never learned how to swim jump into the deep end?
I don’t know. But I can guess.
Perhaps she sensed the judgmental gazes of her peers. She felt like the only one who hadn’t leapt off the diving board that day. Perhaps Victoria Jennings jumped into that pool for the same reasons I did. Sometimes we acquiesce to an imperative born in that mysterious social space between human beings. Throughout elementary school, Victoria never had the right clothes. Maybe she didn’t shower enough or earn good grades. But by God, she could drop into water like the rest of us.
Bravery is all.
Unfortunately, she owned no prior experience on which to rely. She hadn’t attended Red Cross swimming lessons. Her backyard featured railroad tracks instead of a pool. She and her friends didn’t ride their bikes to Highland Lake every day throughout the summer to play on a secret rope swing.
Victoria didn’t even have a bike.
That day at the pool haunts me with two truths.
First, though our fates vary, our social needs are alike. Victoria yearned for her peers’ acceptance and admiration. This drive is strong enough to prompt teens to do stupid things like drive recklessly. It might make the best of us back down from what we know is right. It’s potent enough to lead a vulnerable girl to the end of a diving board and beyond.
Second, though we may exhibit skills unique to each of us – in athleticism and computational ability and artistry – material inheritance counts for a lot. Simple swimming lessons could have prevented this entire episode. Yet for Victoria, it wasn’t only about swimming lessons. Poverty had robbed her of good nutrition. She owned only a few pieces of clothing. She trudged home to a lonely trailer every day after school. Nobody read to her as a toddler or helped her with her homework or cared about her grades.
With the right experiences, she might have been an athlete. She could have excelled in some or all of her classes. She might have been a swimmer.
Today, I honor Victoria for knowing that she’s worthy of our respect and admiration. She took a brave leap into the deep end, a leap that humbled my privileged front flip. I vow to never forget. I will look out into our schools and neighborhoods, into our economic policies, into the eyes of each human being – and I will pay homage to Victoria Jennings.
Daniel McNeil is the director of Grand Area Mentoring