Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Vulnerability and Bravery: (Swimming) Lessons

By Laura S. Logan

I’m honored to have been asked to contribute to this blog. Lynne’s Brave Project is a source of inspiration and comfort to me. Although I am not engaged in a “Brave Project” per se, I am engaged in a process of deliberate personal and professional development. To that end, one of my goals this summer was to learn how to swim.

Why swimming?
I’m an overweight 50-year-old college professor who spends a good bit of time sitting at a desk or hunched over books to read and stacks of papers to grade. One of my goals was to find a form of exercise I’d enjoy. Swimming is good exercise and I thought it would be fun or relaxing. It’s also a form of exercise that’s easy on the body, relatively. I wanted to exercise but I wasn’t keen on taking my large sedentary body out for a run – yet I wanted something more than walking. I also wanted to do something that would require me to leave the house, wear some kind of exercise gear, and otherwise take deliberate and unfamiliar action aimed at improving my physical health and managing my stress. Finally, I selected swimming because I wanted to learn something new to me, to be a student and have a teacher. In the college classroom, I am the teacher. To some extent, I wanted to place myself in the position of my students. Each semester, I ask students to learn new material, to push themselves to think more critically, to see more of the world’s complications, to imagine more sustainable and equitable ways of addressing the world’s challenges – and to display not only what they know and what they are learning but also what they do not know, what they are still learning, and what they don’t understand. As someone with years of college education, I know firsthand that being a student is often an exercise in frustration and vulnerability. I suspected learning how to swim would put me in touch with those feelings, would foster even more empathy for my students. I wanted to be not only a learner but a vulnerable learner. So I decided to learn how to swim.

What did I learn?
My first couple of lessons were focused on getting comfortable in the water and learning how to submerge and breathe without panicking when I got water up my nose. But there were many lessons unrelated to the pool. For instance, I never played sports in school and had little experience with a locker room or exercise facility. Although others may find these things easy to navigate, it was challenging to figure out what to bring with me, how to dress when I left the house, and how to carry a wet swimming suit home without drenching my car seat. I learned those things largely through trial and error. On my first day of swimming lessons, I wore my bathrobe home because that seemed like a good idea (it wasn’t). I received more than one surprised glance from other swimmers and early morning exercisers as I dripped home in my wet suit and my overly large, floor-length bathrobe. More than once, the lessons outside the pool prompted me to imagine what it must be like to leave home and come to college, to learn not only how to think critically in my sociology courses but do so while figuring out how to navigate the new environment of the college campus. I felt a sense of awe about and appreciation for my first year students, especially.

As I mentioned, my first swimming lesson goal was to get comfortable in the water and learn how to submerge and breathe without panicking when I got water up my nose. Once I learned how to blow bubbles, which I do at the start of each lesson, my instructor asked me to show her what I do know about swimming. I laughingly (nervously) told her that I knew how not to sink but she had me show her how I do not sink and then she told me that I was doing a stroke very close to the breaststroke so that’s where we began. I learned that we sometimes know more than we know we know.

I learned the breaststroke first, which requires thinking about how I use my arms and legs at the same time. Whew! Thinking about how my body moves in this way was so new to me! It’s quite the challenge! Through the lesson and my practice sessions, I can now comfortably (if not also gracefully) do the breaststroke. I have also learned how to do the flutter kick and freestyle swim, and I am working on the backstroke. Here’s something interesting about the flutter kick. It starts at the hip, not the knee. I didn’t know that. But it makes a world of difference in how efficiently and quickly the body moves through water. If one kicks from the knee, the body is working hard and moving relatively slowly. If one kicks from the hip, the body is working hard but moving relatively quickly.  To the untrained or unobservant eye, both ways of kicking look the same. There’s more than one lesson here. What must it be like for my students who know how to complete a paper but who do not know how to do so without inordinate and exhausting hours of labor? Metaphorically, are my students doing the flutter kick from the hip or from the knee, I wondered. I vowed to be more observant and make sure I was as good a teacher for them as my swimming teacher was for me.

I’m still working on breathing while swimming, which is surprisingly difficult for me. I’m not used to thinking about breathing. I just breathe, right? In some ways, swimming is a somewhat meditative practice because I don’t think about anything except my breathing and my body movements. I don’t think about what I need to do that day, or what I look like, or about the long list of people I will see and think about that day. I don’t even think about others in the pool. I am more in the moment while swimming that I can recall being at any time in my life. Yet each lesson and each practice session builds me into a better swimmer, connecting those moments that seem so singular at the time. I am simultaneously swimming and learning how to swim. I wonder if my students see themselves as learners who are becoming learners, if they are immersed in moments of learning but also aware of how they are building knowledge and skills moment by moment.

Final Thoughts
I don’t know all the ways that these lessons will ultimately benefit me personally or professionally but this experience has been about pushing myself beyond my own boundaries as well as some boundaries that are imposed by external social and structural forces. Ultimately, my swimming lessons are about learning. Necessarily, they are also about trying and failing. I can’t even count how many times I’ve sucked water into my nose or mouth; or how many times I swim a crooked lap; or how many times I fail to pause long enough to glide when I am supposed to do so; or how many times I forget to kick from the hip. So much beautiful failure accompanies my lessons, my practice, and my learning.

In the earliest days of my lessons, I thought often about how hard it was, about how much I hated water in my nose, how frustrating it was to try to coordinate my legs and arms only to forget one or the other as I fumbled across the seemingly never-ending expanse of the pool. I admit that I silently grumbled about the list of things to remember as I dashed from the house each morning and that sometimes I didn’t want to go to the pool at all. Am I brave? I’ve never thought of myself that way but reflecting on my life as a leaner and my recent experience with my swimming lessons, I have come to at least one conclusion. To learn is to be vulnerable, and to deliberately learn despite being vulnerable might well be the very definition of bravery. For me, this means we are all brave because we are all learning something. As I prepare to greet students this week, I will look upon them with new eyes. I will see their courage.


  1. Great example of bravery. I too learned to swim this Summer. My next thing is riding a bike. So very true that we know more than we think. Thank you for writing your experience.

  2. You are brave! Your adventure as a swimmer took me back to my first swimming lessons (in a lake) where I was thinking more about the fish in the lake biting my legs than I was the task at hand. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Awesome, Laura! Love how you used your own experience to be compassionate about your own students. Keep on being your brave self!