At the pool where Grace swims, and where she learned to swim, I keep being mystified by the inscription that’s visible from the water and the gallery.
“A parent is obligated to teach a child Torah, a trade and how to swim. Talmud, Kiddushin 29a.”
The first time I read it, years ago, I chuckled. What an unexpected combination: the Torah and “how to swim” in the same sentence? I have stared at and thought about the words many times. Now accustomed to them, I try to imagine a history in which the group of three represented the bedrock of a life: scripture, livelihood, and refreshment (or survival?). I’m not sure about the third thing.
Entering the Jewish community center yesterday, Grace said she’s disappointed in one aspect of the swim team: “They’re not teaching us anything.” What do you want them to teach you? “The side stroke,” she answered. Because she doesn’t know the side stroke yet, I guess that by “teach” she means “to introduce to something new.” Perhaps the new is what’s noticeable to her.
As I, however, sat on the bleachers on the pool deck and watched Grace swim with 24 other children, I marveled at the skill of the coach. He structures the hour; he gives directions; he explains the strokes as he demonstrates the moves with his own body; he repeats what he just said; he responds to questions; he encourages the swimmers to keep moving, moving, moving; he gives on-the-spot feedback like “Kick from the hip, not the knee”; he keeps order; and he walks the perimeter, offering encouragement: “Grace, that’s a beautiful stroke. Keep going. Move. Finish on the wall. Everyone, finish on the wall.”
That’s teaching in action. (And isn’t it a pleasure to watch others teach?) The swimmers practice what they know, become more deliberate, deepen their knowledge, and persist, lap after lap.
As I write this, I wonder, suddenly, if the third thing — “how to swim” — has to do with the teaching of the body. Teaching the Torah seems to be an intellectual and spiritual task. Teaching a trade has something to do with the practical. And learning how to swim is about conducting the self, the physical one, buoyantly and alone.