Change

Some of my swimmers dabbing at practice. I love these kids.

When I walked into the pool area yesterday, one of my swimmers was waiting for me. She looked up at me with doleful eyes. The corners of her mouth were turned down. Way down.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, crouching down to talk with her.

She pressed her lips together and I could see her lower lip quivering.

“Is this because you moved up?” I asked. Technically, she wasn’t my swimmer anymore. She had moved up to the next group.

Almost imperceptibly, she nodded yes.

“Aw, Genna*,” I said, “we talked about this the other day. You are so ready to be part of the Orange group. Plus Coach Katy is super-fun, so much more fun than I am.”

She looked up at me doubtfully.

“Don’t worry about the warm-up. Coach Katy will tell you what to do,” I told Genna. “It’s different from ours, but you can do it.”

I was running out of encouraging/reassuring things to say to this sad little girl who obviously didn’t like change.

“Coach Sally,” she finally said in a tiny voice. I leaned in to hear what she had to say. “Coach Katy doesn’t have lollipops like you do.”

I laughed. At the beginning of the season, Genna had hung back, hesitant to try anything.

“What can I do to motivate her?” I asked her sister one day.

“Candy,” she replied.

I bought a bag of dum-dums. They were magical.

Yesterday I whispered to Genna, “I’ll give some lollipops to Coach Katy. Would that be good?”

Immediately her face brightened and off she went with her new coach. I sighed and headed to my lanes where my swimmers were already warming-up.

I studied the swimmers who were in the water. “Where’s Bern*?” I asked.

Bern had just moved into my group. Katy spotted him and brought him over to me. He stood shivering beside me, chewing on his goggle strap.

“They’re finishing their warm-up,” I told him. “You can get in and do 100 freestyle. We’ll be moving on to something else soon.”

He didn’t respond. His expression was inscrutable as he stared at the water and chewed his goggles.

“Do you know any of the other kids in this group?” I asked.

He took his goggle strap out of his mouth. “I don’t want to warm up,” he said.

“Warm-ups are important,” I said, and was about to launch into a mini-treatise on warming up when his mother came into the pool area and called him over.

Bern went over, stood in front of her, and immediately burst into tears.

I backed away. I had a dozen or so kids in the water who needed attention. Mom could talk to Bern.

I handed out kickboards and explained what we would be doing.  The kids started their kick set. Every so often I looked back at Bern. He and his mother were having quite a têteà-tête. Finally I saw Bern drying his tears.

Soon his newly-dried face wouldn’t matter because he jumped in the water and started swimming. He did fine.

At the end of practice his mother told me, “Bern doesn’t like change.”

“Neither do I,” I told her.

She said, “He told me, ‘I don’t care about swimming fast. I just want to swim with my brothers.'” His two younger brothers were still in the group he had graduated from.

With that, I appreciated Bern so much more.

We all hold onto things that are sweet and dear.

For Genna, it’s candy.

For Bern, it’s his brothers.

For me, it’s a thousand little things I want to freeze in time instead of watching my father age.

But time marches on, and change comes with it.

It will be okay.

 

*not their real name

 

 

Coaching Imogene Herdman

Yesterday I made a girl cry.

The head coach told me, “You did the right thing.”

When I told the story to one of my sons, he said the same thing. “That was the right decision,” he said.

Still, I went to sleep thinking about her and woke up thinking about her.

Basically, I’m coaching Imogene Herdman. If you’ve never read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. The opening line in the book is, “The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world.” Imogene is all Herdman.

In fact, I’ll call my swimmer Imogene for this post.

She’s mean. A real bully. Lots of name-calling. Shoving. Swimming over top of other kids. Always late — when she shows up at all. Mouthy.

I’ve said to my co-coaches more than once, “I need to figure Imogene out. Where does the mean come from?”

A lot of kids these days are from broken homes and blended families, so I don’t want to assume that’s the root, but I think it plays a part. She’s been displaced by a baby half-brother in her home. She’s a hers, but he’s a theirs.

My group of swimmers is developmental. They’re mostly around 10 years old and still learning the strokes. We practice Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

On Tuesdays, however, I coach a different group, a higher level group, because their coach can’t make Tuesdays at all.

A few parents of swimmers from my group have asked about having their child practice on Tuesday with me. Piano lessons and other activities make it hard to make it to all the practices. I’ve answered that on a case-to-case basis.

Imogene showed up last Tuesday.

“Can I practice today to make up for some of my missed practices?” she asked.

I paused. “Can you be nice?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, looking up at me so hopefully.

“Can you listen and do what you’re told?” I asked. She often doesn’t.

“Uh-huh,” she said, and gave me a please-please-please smile.

“Okay, we’ll give it a try,” I said.

She made it about 40 minutes before she started pushing and swimming over top of other kids.

The next day, she didn’t come to practice. She went to the locker room, though, and told the other girls, “I’ve been moved up to another group.”

“Was Imogene moved up?” my saintly swimmers asked.

“No,” I told them.

She came Friday in full-on bully mode, skipped the meet on Saturday, and then at Monday’s practice told me that she was coming on Tuesday.

“No, Imogene,” I told her. “Coming on Tuesday is a conversation I need to have with your parents. You can’t just decide that you’re coming.”

But she came.

And I made her get out.

“We talked about this yesterday,” I said to her.

“I have a note from home,” she replied, but didn’t offer to show it to me.

“I’d like to have a conversation, not a note,” I told her.

She stared at the deck.

“My problem, Imogene, is this,” I continued. “You aren’t always nice to the other swimmers in your lane. You don’t do what I ask you to do. You skip practices. You skip meets.”

Tears filled her eyes.

“I can’t go to swim meets,” she said, her lower lip trembling. “I have a baby brother.”

“Can you ask some of your friends for rides to meets?” I suggested, but as soon as I said the words, I knew the answer. She doesn’t have many friends.

The tears rolled down her cheeks. I thought of Amanda Beard’s memoir, In the Water They Can’t See You Cry. On deck, standing in front of me, I could see the tears.

“Tuesday practices are a privilege for our group,” I said. “I need to talk with one of your parents.”

With that, she left.

And I felt like crying.

“You did the right thing,” the head coach said. “She can’t run the show. You feel badly because you’re kind.”

I didn’t feel kind.

I felt like I had kicked Imogene Herdman out of the Christmas Pageant. At the start of Advent.

For me, swim team has always been about a thousand different things other than swimming. Now it’s about a Christmas Pageant bully.

How do I reach Imogene?