Monday, December 5, 2011

Swimming lessons

In the 1970s there were no special swimming lessons for kids with disabilities in Edmonton. My brother loved the water, so my parents registered him for swimming lessons. The staff looked at him and said that the teacher wouldn't have him in the class unless a family member was there to help Leo. My parents looked at me. I knew they wanted me to say I would sign up for the same class, and be Leo's helper. I told them what they wanted to hear. This story is about why I never learned to swim.

Swimming lessons
By Sophia Isako Wong

I am afraid of the water. Clutching the side of the pool, I edge my way along, hoping the teacher won't notice me. All the other kids are in the middle of the pool; I am the only one who can't keep up.

"Come on, Sophia! Let go of the wall and kick your legs!"

I transfer one hand to the flutterboard, a thin slice of blue Styrofoam that doesn't support my weight sufficiently.

"You can do it! Both hands on the flutterboard, and kick your legs straight out!"

I take a deep breath and start kicking my legs. Maybe if I can get my legs going first, I'll be able to let go of the wall.


Without looking, I know what has happened. My brother Leo has done it again: a big cannonball into the pool, gleefully creating a big noise and splashing all our classmates. The teacher calls my name. I wave my arm to show I've heard her.

"I'm coming." I pull myself out of the pool, drop the flutterboard, and make my way to my brother. Eyes shining, he watches me approach him with a huge smile on his face.

"Hey Sophie, did you see me? I made a big splash! That was fun!"

"I know, Leo. I saw you, and I heard you. Did the teacher ask you to do that?"

"No, it was my idea! I made a big splash!"

"Leo. Look at me. This is not play time. This is swimming-lesson time. Can you listen to the teacher, please? The other kids don't like it when you splash them."

He is crestfallen. "Oh."

I give him a big hug. "We'll play in the water after class, I promise. Can you do just swimming for now? Just until the end of class?"

"Oh.... ohhhhkay."

I point toward the teacher and look from his face to hers, until his eyes focus on her. I return to the edge of the pool. Now the kids are doing a different exercise and I've missed the instructions. Shivering, I grab my flutterboard, get back into the cold water, and watch them. I’m still afraid of the water.

Sophia Isako Wong is an associate professor of philosophy at Long Island University in Brooklyn, New York. Her brother Leo has Down syndrome. Here's what she said about the photo above: I don't have any photos of us in the pool, but here's one of us in the bath -- another activity in which I routinely supervised my brother while my parents were out of the room. I think our expressions show the way we feel about water.


Thank you for sharing your story. I feel for you, I really do. I'm sorry that your parents expected you to look after your brother so much. I can see how that can make a huge effect on a person.

However, I guess I see things a little differently. I didn't have a sibling with a special need growing up but my family was poor, my mom was always working and it was always just me and my sisters at home. By the time I was 12, I had to buy my own food. I was thankful when I could finally get a job at 16 so that I could actually have a decent amount of clothes, as before that I had about 3 outfits all together, which I would have to wear interchangeably through the week. I wanted to take piano lessons, swim lessons, ballet, etc. but instead I wasn't able to do any of those because my mother never had any money. On the other hand, my older sister was able to take piano lessons for a short time even though she didn't even want them! I was bitter about the difference in the way my mother treated the three of us for a very long time, but eventually had to let it go. If I want to learn something, it is up to me now as an adult to go and learn it and do it. This is not to say that I don't look back at my childhood and regret the fact that I wasn't able to do these things then, or wonder how my life would have been different had I been able to live the life I thought I should have had. However, eventually I had to move past that and just accept that my childhood was not the way I wanted it to be and decide where I was going to go from here.

It sounds to me like you are working through that process. I wish you lots of luck and goodwill in doing so.

I do appreciate were your coming from in your story. I did have a brother with physical and developmental disability. I loved it everytime my mom said "go get this for your brother" or "do this for your brother" or "can you watch your brother." It made my day and made me feel good and like the 'older' sister. Maybe I missed out on things, but it didn't matter then and it doesn't matter now, I was never jealous or angry about it. I loved every opportunity I had and with him, he was my brother and maybe sometimes, I was even cocky about it.

I totally see what you what are saying. I just thought it would be nice to know there is the other side of being a sibling, as I now see your side too.