by TODD JOHNSON
It was the best of lessons. It was the worst of lessons. At one end, it was a grand culmination of 47 years of teaching mastery; at the other end an amateur tragicomedy—It was, Dear Reader, a fine exhibition of perfect lessons by a true a conductor in chlorine, a black belt of bobbing and breathing and basic swimming technique. At the other end was yours truly, a rank amateur, a poser, who was simply lucky to keep young swimmers from drowning in the unforgiving Caribbean Sea.
The best of lessons took place in a hand-built, backyard pool in Great Falls, Mont. The pool is the watery bailiwick of Bob McKinnon, the aforementioned swimming maestro, going strong at almost 80. Bob’s career began when Bob’s father Gus took a job with the YMCA teaching swim lessons in Great Depression. Gus followed with a lifelong, hugely successful career of teaching and coaching of his own. And then there’s me: on the little-known island of Nevis in the West Indies of the Caribbean, offering the worst of lessons. Why? Because of my own shameful lack of expertise driven by my fantasy to get Nevisian kids swimming even though I had no swimming pool to use and had no understanding of the island’s cultural fear of water. And when I say lack of experience, I mean that I hadn’t taught swimming in 30 years. But McKinnon had been my coach on two state championship teams and was a good friend for almost 50 years, which gave me confidence and motivation.
I also thought that if I was successful on Nevis, I might return to my hometown of Great Falls and offer to buy McKinnon’s lessons business when he retired.
When I imagined my Nevis swim lessons, I thought of the thousands of lessons McKinnon gave in his pool, where he taught thousands of kids to swim and thousands of parents to relax, changing the consciousness about swimming (and water) along the way. And when I pictured his lessons, I pictured one of the recent masterful lessons, and it was really something.
Outside the McKinnon’s glassed-in backyard pool, there’s a veritable storm of Cottonwood Tree fluff filling the Great Falls air and covering the Great Falls ground. The parents who’ve just driven to the residential pool are now sitting on the cotton-filled porch, looking at their phones, wiping the slowly falling cotton from the screens. But inside the pool, McKinnon stands alone with his six attentive swimmers, aged between 5 and 7, three boys and three girls, free from distraction. Free.
First, the master of aquatic ceremonies grabs their attention with a direct “good afternoon, boys and girls,” and they all, to a child, respond with respect, admiration, and perhaps a hint of anxiety that he nips in the bud with a funny face, a spit of water, or the simple command: “Bobs, every one.”
Bobs are part of an intricate scaffolding of skill and confidence building, and they are so fundamental, the other parts of the lesson’s scaffold would not be possible without them, for it’s the controlled rhythm of breath that dictates all swimming success. Moreover, just knowing how to bob could easily save a child’s life.
From bobs, goes on to blowing bubbles with whole face in water, touching the bottom with each hand, sitting on the bottom, floating face down, and floating face up, all which the almost-octogenarian aqua-man demonstrates with entertaining grace that gives not only the instructor but the pupils and their parents parents an essential peace of mind to take part in the act of swimming, immersing oneself in the primordial soup.
“Mr. McKinnon, my goggles are leaking,” tall, lanky Hannah complains. And instantaneously a new, perfectly fitting pair is pulled out of the magician’s hat while watching that the other five kids continue with the lesson.
“Mr. Bob, can we use the kick boards?”
“Are you ready for the boards?” asks the Piaget of the Pool.
“Teacher, can I pee?” little Mariah asks.
McKinnon, the former high school English teacher says, “Yes, hurry back.”
And on it goes, and the maestro has a spontaneous, appropriate answer for everything.
“My skin is wrinkling,” a kid complains
“Wait til you’re my age, kid,” The master answers
All while proceeding through the success-building series of exercises, which would be a lot for any single teacher to handle in any given half hour, but remember, McKinnon is almost 80, and he still does this for half a day all summer. And he’s done it thousands of times, all while secretly battling chronic pneumonia, allergies, arthritis, and other ailments that would end the swim teaching career of most instructors. That picture of McKinnon’s lessons and the reality of my own on Nevis are very different. Night and day as the Cole Porter goes, but without the lovely, danceable melody. Allow me to elaborate:
Nevis: An Island in the Caribbean. It’s just shy of 9am and already so hot that I am sweating out of every pore as the dew point red lines the humidity scale above 85 percent. My first-day-lesson kids are avoiding me as they are huddled in a circle 30 yards down the beach. They’re hovered over a shark’s carcass. I can’t see the shark, but as I approach, I hear the kids say with glee and dread, “Shock! Shaahhk, Todd Uncle! Come see I know that means the lessons are not going to be the best.
Not only do I not have control over what washes up on shore, I can’t control what’s under the surface just off shore where I attempt my lessons. What I can’t control includes star fish, little underwater crabs that pinch little feet, dark green sea grass that reaches up to a foot tall and feels “funny” and “scary,” sea bottom sand that squishes like soft muscle, sea glass, conch shells, and waves.
As I try to teach the two young boys and three young girls who’ve come to be in the sea and learn how to swim, my lack of control over my nervousness makes for the beginnings of a bad lesson, but I start with the kids in a circle, water up to their waists (about two feet), bending over blowing bubbles, which I thought was safe. Two of the five refuse to put their faces in the water, and the other three get quickly bored and begin to break the circle and wander off. “Kashvi, Azahri, Sklya, come back please,” I say, but their ears are under water.
I keep holding on to the other two, Manu, and Jada, and they aren’t happy with me and try to get free. Kashvi pops up with a big smile. “Todd Uncle, the sea is a vast mystery that we know only 10 percent about. Can we go out farther?”
Obviously, I’ve got a group placement problem, with three kids who are too advanced for the lesson I planned and 20 more minutes of trying to figure out how to solve the mismatch. The parents are watching not far away.
Suddenly, a two-foot wave surprises us, knocking the three outside of the circle down to the sandy bottom and scaring the two in my hands, who have taken quite a swing with the water’s force. Manu and Jada hang on while the wave pushes them toward the shore, tugging at their tiny shoulder sockets. They both start to cry. I about join them, thinking it couldn’t get much worse.
Instead, I call out to the young body-surfers who are looking for their next wave: “Guys, wait right here. I’ll be right back,” I say, carrying Manu and Jada back to their parents, trying to think of something brilliant to say about ending the class so early. All I come up with is, “The water’s too rough.” The parents look up from their phones, nod, say something to the wet kids, and go back to their phones.
I go back to the other three, trying to think of a new plan for the rest of the lesson. “Bobs,” I say over the sound of the waves, “let’s do some bobs.”
“What are bobs, Mr. Todd?” asks Azahri. “Bobs are the coolest thing ever. Watch.” I begin to demonstrate, and all three follow along as though they’ve done thousands. Skyla begins counting on the hops above the surface, and the others chime in, continuing to count even as the waves come up to their chins. When we reach 20, it starts to rain. Hard.
Still compelled to teach, I tell them that we’ll go out a little deeper, so they can float on their backs and see how many rain drops they can catch in their mouths while floating. I do my corniest “Singing in the Rain” imitation, until the water is to my waist. The kids laugh, which makes me think the last 15 minutes will be doable.
As I am beginning to demonstrate, Skyla stops me. “Mr. Todd, Manu. Manu go come,” which means that Manu is coming.
I turn, and, sure enough, one of the young boys I have left with his parents is walking out toward us, patting the water, and waddling like a penguin. He is smiling, determined to join us, but the water quickly climbs up his body and is soon at his chin.
I race toward him as his face changes from determined to scared.
“Stop, Manu! Stop,” I say over the sound of the waves, but he keeps coming, his face filled with fear.
As I reach him and grab one of his arms, a wave hits us and briefly engulfs him. I lift him out of the water.
“I’m scared,” he says.
“It’s okay. You’re fine.”
The other three kids soon join us, and we all walk to the shore together.
“I think that’s all for today, kids,” I say as the sky cleared.
As you see, Dear Reader, I failed to teach the five pupils much of anything, but it could have ended even more tragically. But through my failure, learned something. McKinnon is truly a master, and it takes a master to give the best of lessons and to keep giving them for 47 years. This last summer of lessons at the McKinnons’ backyard pool may be the last for the master, but for 47 years, Bob and his wife Suzy have exhibited the utmost in preparation along with character to match their success, and they have much to be proud of.