There are a few universities and colleges in this country from which I could never hope to graduate. These schools require matriculated students to pass a swimming test. I do not know how to swim. And I am terrified of making my way into water in which I cannot stand with my head above the surface.
Before the Second World War, passing a swimming test was part of the curriculum in many U.S. universities and colleges. But by 1982, passing a swimming test was mandatory in less than 10% of those colleges. My daughter is matriculating at one of these hold-out schools. Not a problem for her. I made sure that both of my children learned to swim at a very young age.
And yes, I'm aware that in the old-fashion parlance of the Talmud, a father is required to teach his son three things: The Torah, a trade and how to swim. That's as great a blueprint for success as I could have hoped to come up with. It doesn't get better than presenting a child with opportunities for spiritual fulfillment, financial security and self-protection.
My girl has to swim a few laps and then off she dives into her college career. I can remember the first time she put her face in a pool. She was four and my husband wisely said it was time for her to learn to swim. Off went my little girl to summer camp where she'd have proper lessons. I never went to summer camp and we all know the consequences of that missing link in my life.
I wasn't so sure I wanted my little girl to go to a big kid camp. But it was a camp that had a pre-K division with the sweet name of Owls' Nest. Within days she was proficient in the survivor's float. (Someone wised up and changed the name from the dead man's float). Soon enough, she flipped over and floated on her back. I was amazed. I was relieved. My kid could swim. Almost.
The next summer my daughter graduated to two hours a day of instructional swim. Rain or shine -- barring thunder and lightning -- she was in the pool learning the breaststroke and the crawl. This was one way I measured that my girl was getting bigger and stronger. And then one day she got in the car and verbalized my worst nightmare: "Today my counselor jumped into the pool with his clothes on to save me." Then she asked me something mundane like what was for dinner that night.
When I got home there was a message from the camp. My daughter was never in danger. Her counselor saw that she had ventured into the deep end and scooped her up before she was literally in over her head. The word "save" was not mentioned. Later in the evening my girl started grumbling that she didn't want to go back to camp and she certainly didn't want to swim. I, the non-swimmer, knew she had to get back in that pool.
I'm reliving the arc of my child's swimming story because it mirrors my feelings about my first child going to college. Once upon a time, swimming was completely new to her. It was a skill that challenged her and, at moments, frightened her. She ultimately triumphed and now, like the old cliché, she swims like a fish. As for me, at the time, I thought the camp was trying to cover up that my child almost drowned. But I quickly realized that she was never in danger. It just looked that way. So much parental worry stems from emotional perception.
Thirteen years later, my little girl is going to a big school. I daresay she'll pass her college swimming test. To say this is a time of transition for our family is a bit like thinking of Moby Dick as a big fish. But I have made sure she can swim. Take that as you will and apply it to other skills. I believe that my husband and I have invested in her academic success by supplying her with an education in which she has been challenged and has ultimately thrived. So, I suppose you could say that we're well on our way to teaching her a trade by giving her a college education.
On the spiritual side of things, all we can do is hope that her Jewish day school career will emerge at various flashpoints during her college years. You can't teach a child to be observant or to take the Torah into her heart. You can only instruct her in Torah so that she can make meaningful choices about her religious options.
And so it began with the doggy paddle in the shallow end of a pool at a preschool summer camp and ends with swimming laps in an Olympic-size pool in a large university. That's as good a metaphor as any about parenting a child who is leaving home.