Akira Zap


I always ask my six-year-old friend Akira if he has the stuff he needs to go swimming, plus a couple of joke items for fun. Today:

Me: Got your goggles?
Akira: Yep.
Me: Got your swimsuit?
Akira: Wearing it!
Me: Got the money?
Akira: Yep [waves it]
Me: Got your butt?
Akira: [Nods solemnly and points]
Me: [Noticing he has nail polish on] Got your nail polish?
Akira: Yes! And earlier today I had paint all over me, and my face was all white!
Me: Oh, were you doing some miming?
Akira: [Serious] No, I can’t do any miming. I don’t have an invisible wall.

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I go swimming most Friday evenings with my six-year-old friend, Akira. We started about a year and a half ago, calling it “swimming lessons.” Now we just call it “swimming.” It has been a joy to watch him learn to swim, just the way I think people should learn to swim: Having fun in the water, discovering new skills and games at whatever pace feels right. It took him almost exactly a year before he actually swam. He had slowly gotten comfortable putting his face in the water of the hot tub, and then found that when he did, he could lift his feet off of the bottom and float, which he started doing for 15-20 seconds at a time. Then one night he just started swimming, face down, slowly and relaxed, all the way across the hot tub. When he came up for a breath he was so excited. “Nathen! I don’t even have to swim! The water holds me up and all I have to do is pretend to swim!”

He is swimming three times a week now, and looks like a real natural–complete comfort in the water. You would never guess how nervous and circumspect he had been about water. He wouldn’t even blow bubbles for eight months–the bubbles popped uncomfortably close to his nose and eyes.

I am also getting to watch him grow up, which is mostly delightful. He is getting confident and funny–not surprising, since his parents are two of the funniest people I know.

Tonight, we were in the hot tub with another kid Akira’s age, and that kid started trying to make friends. “What’s your name?” “Can you do this?” Stuff like that. He seemed like a nice, friendly kid, and Akira was playing along. At a certain point the kid made an awkward move, standing too close and smiling too much. I realized later that he was going to try to lift Akira up out of the water a little, like he had seen me do. It created this awkward moment, though, and Akira said, “Weird.” The kid’s smile turned a little anxious, but he didn’t move away. Akira said “You’re weird. Get away from me.” The kid followed through with the lifting-up move, but instead of the original, playful feel, it ended up feeling aggressive, like, “This is what you get for calling me weird.”

I had an impulse to intervene, to stop the misunderstanding somehow. I had thought of this kid as a potential friend for Akira. I just didn’t think of anything to say besides, “Stop!” or “Don’t be mean.” Neither of those seemed right. The kid’s dad was there too, watching, and he didn’t say anything either. Akira started staying close to me, making a game of walking over my lap. I realized that he was nervous, that when he had said, “You’re weird,” he had been uncomfortable, a little scared.

Then it hit me what a powerful tool “You’re weird” is to a kid. Weird is the worst thing you can be at that age, the doorway to isolation and bullying. Being able to say “You’re weird” with enough poise shows where you stand in the hierarchy and rallies the troops of conformity to your aid. It is also a way to avoid vulnerability: A year ago, Akira would have just retreated, outwardly scared and confused. He would have whispered in my ear, “Can we go to the cold pool now?” Saying “you’re weird” was standing up for himself, a six-year old’s way of saying, “The way you are standing close to me is making me uncomfortable. Please stop doing that.”

So partly I was proud of him, and partly I was sad about the struggle he is entering into. It takes constant vigilance. Don’t be the weird one, the one who cries, the one who stands too close, the outcast, the one you can safely tease. Then, a few years later, don’t be the uncool one, the awkward one, the kid who gets beat up with impunity. Then, a few years later, don’t be the unhip one, who doesn’t quite know the right music in time, who has to pay close attention to stay on the tail-end of trends, the wannabe. For God’s sake, don’t let yourself be vulnerable! Every action must shout invulnerable and in control. And inside it’s, “Please believe me. He is the weird one. Not me. Him.”

I think conformity is a stage, unavoidable unless you are truly incapable of achieving it. I think it has to be negotiated by the kids, between the kids, for the most part. When Akira told me, “That kid is weird,” I said, “Well, I think he just wants to be friends,” but I couldn’t tell if it sunk in. And I don’t know how useful it would be if it did. Maybe the sooner he masters conformity, the sooner he can reject it and start exploring the joys and pain of vulnerability again.

I still swim with Akira most Friday nights. He’s doing great. He swims around with a pool noodle tied around him and gets really excited–big grin, wide eyes, and “I’m swimmin! I’m swimmin!” I almost cried the first time, I was so proud of him. He’s getting more independent, too. He’ll send me away sometimes, “OK, you go north and I’ll go west. Go ahead, go over there.” His technique is all his own. He “swims” completely vertical, making running motions with his legs and periodically stabbing forward with his hands like knives. “I swim like a wolf,” he says. He’s a lot more comfortable with the water. He blows bubbles, no problem, unless he gets water in his nose or eyes, and he loves to get towed around the shallow end at top speed. Here’s some photos.

Showering Off

I'm Swimmin! 1

I'm Swimmin! 2

Obstacle!

Taking a Break

Later That Night, Akira and Miriel

I don’t know when the last time I wore a Halloween costume, so I thought I’d document it. I even made the hat from two other hats and a Christmas stocking. I spent $6 at St. Vincent de Paul’s on it. I expected my youngest friends, Miriel (who was Little Vampire on the Prairie) and Akira (who was her pet turtle) (very sorry I didn’t get photos of them), to be delighted but they just seemed perplexed. Maybe even disturbed. Everyone over 20 recognized it as Waldo immediately.

Nathen as Waldo

And I went to a Halloween get together with my CFT cohort at Sam Bond’s Garage. It was fun to get to hang out in costume outside of the classroom and not talk about school… Well, we actually did talk some about school, but not because we had to. And drink. (You can just see my glass of water behind Cher/Lorin’s arm.) And daylight savings meant I still got eight hours of sleep.

CFT Cohort Halloween

My gift to many friends and family members last Christmas was four hours of labor. Most have still not taken me up on it. (Better get me before I start grad school!) I helped my brother Benjamin move a huge load of trash and I helped Grandpa Bob learn how to get on the internet. My friends Mo’ and Vangie pooled their hours and asked me to give their four year old son, Akira (known to friends as Zap, or Zapper), swimming lessons.

I didn’t learn to swim until I was nine because some dummy coerced me into putting my face under water when I was four. It freaked me out. When I did learn to swim it was by hanging out at a pool with my parents, playing with them and Ely, slowly testing my limits. So I teach swimming by playing with kids. I do not push past comfort zones. I appreciate how clearly Akira communicates his edge. If he gets a little scared, he has me take him to the side or he gets out for a minute, with no sense of embarrassment. He is a sweet kid. I love spending time with him. Already we have several games that he really likes: finding each heater jet in the shallow end, playing firehose with a pool noodle, having me tow him slowly around by a pool noodle (“OK, now go west… now north… Oh! That’s north?”), and today, pushing off the ladder to me. Today was our third lesson. These photos are from our second. There aren’t any action shots because I’m in the pool with him whenever he’s in water where he can’t touch–except the photo of him up to his lips. That may not look like an action shot, but that was him pushing himself to the limit.

 

Akira In the Car

Akira In the Car

Walking In 1

Walking In 1

Walking In 2

Walking In 2

At the Cold Pool

At the Cold Pool

Warm Pool 1

Warm Pool 1

Warm Pool 2

Warm Pool 2

Up To His Lips

Up To His Lips

Warm Pool 3

Warm Pool 3

Warm Pool 4

Warm Pool 4