This is likely my most foundational myth. I share it now because of its relevance to my last post. Click on the “My Myths” page above for more info about what these myths are all about.
Most expats in my community headed back to the States during the lazy summers of High School. The ones who remained were at the pool everyday. Among them were Coach Harris and his progeny, who at the time numbered five. They couldn’t afford seven plane tickets anywhere, so instead they kept us in business. Everyday I watched them swim from my perch atop the lifeguard stand.
I think the main reason why some people did not like Coach Harris was because they didn’t know what to do with him. He had all these cute kids, but he himself was big, bald, buff and scary. He appeared taller then he really was. He kept his head shaved because he had started to go bald in his early twenties and didn’t want to deal with it. He taught high school math and was intelligent, but he was also quite emotional, dramatic, and judgmental. He wasn’t mean, brutally honest to a fault perhaps, but not mean. Once he screamed at me when I lost a big wrestling match and called me an idiot, but I don’t hold it against him. He was caught up in it. I think most people did not like him because he neither said hello nor smiled when he passed you on the sidewalk. But his intensity and the fear he inspired kept us wrestlers in shape and his four little boys in tow. Now his wife had just given birth to their fifth: a girl. Some people feared for her. How would this guy raise a daughter?
Once or twice I wondered this myself as I watched the Harris boys jump off the boards. They loved the diving boards. Coach would often join them, teaching them how to make big splashes, dive, and do flips. But for hours after Couch would retire to his big towel shared by his wife and little daughter, his sons’ ceaseless jumping would keep wet a closed circuit on the pavement from the pool to the boards.
The three eldest took great pride and pleasure in jumping off the twelve foot high dive. But the youngest was still too scared. Elijah was four, scrawny, and ridiculously cute. One day he turned his over-sized head and cast his big brown eyes on the high dive. He wanted to join his brothers.
“Daddy, can I jump off the high dive?” he asks, staring up at the board.
“Are you sure son? It’s pretty high,” says Coach.
“Yeah, but I want to.”
At our pool nobody is allowed to climb down the high dive ladder. It is too long, wet, steep, and slippery. Of course, most lifeguards, myself included, were not martinets about it. But Coach squats down, looks his son in the eye and says, “It’s your decision Elijah, but I want this to be clear: if you decide to go up the ladder, the only way down is jumping. It’s the rules. Are you sure you still want to do this?”
“Great. If you think you are up to it, I think you are too.”
Elijah slowly starts to climb the ladder. Caleb, the eldest, looks concerned.
“Are you sure Elijah?” he says. “Won’t you be scared? It’s pretty high.”
“I can…do it,” Elijah mumbles.
The steps on the ladder are too big for him, but after some awkward climbing he arrives at the top and beholds the world from twelve feet up. His eyes pop. There is no place higher in all the world.
After a few short seconds he musters his courage and begins to inch his way slowly down the board. His arms are not long enough to reach the railings on both sides so he grabs the right side with both hands and walks woodenly sideways in his sopping red swim shorts. But he quickly runs out of railing and faces the board’s lonely extension into oblivion. The panic starts.
“Dad, I’m scared,” he said.
“You can do it,” Coach calls back, “I believe in you.”
Elijah’s brothers join his dad on the side.
“You can do it!”
With knees wobbly, Elijah slowly lowers himself to his hands and knees. He painfully relinquishes the metal rail and starts to crawl forward.
As the line behind the high dive grows, I worry that being the lifeguard on duty I might have to expedite matters. But impatience thaws as those in the line become invested in the delightful drama of this little guy’s jump. They join the cheering crowd.
“Come on buddy!”
“You can do it!”
As Elijah journeys down the board, his crawl becomes slower and slower, and he hunkers lower and lower, until he is finally lying face down, at the end of all things. With his nose pressed into the sandy-textured surface his eyes peep over the edge.
“Daddy, I don’t want to do this!”
Coach replies, “You have to buddy. Now stand up.”
At this point, patrons from around the pool find themselves congregating around Coach, adding their voice to the encouragement. Through the power of cheer they hoist Elijah to a crouch. Then they start the “one-two-three-jump” routine, but when they get to “jump” Elijah remains motionless, tense, his big eyes staring at the water. After a few disappointed seconds they start again, but at “two” they stop. Elijah has burst into tears.
“Daddy, Daddy,” he says through chortled gasps, “don’t … make …me …. do … it. I’m scared, I don’t …want to.” His knees now shake uncontrollably, and his nose is running. The mood of the crowd begins to alter.
“Ok, that’s enough. Get him down now,” an older man barks.
Coach whips him a look that shuts him up, but as time ticks on those looks become less effective. Some of the crowd’s cheers for Elijah become muttered jeers against his father. I feel that it might be gracious to provide an opportunity to end this. I began to speak, “Elijah, its OK. You can climb…” but coach gives me a glare, and my voice trails off. He was scary and bald.
But Elijah still won’t jump. The exciting and uplifting drama that had brought in the crowd and stalled the impatience of those in line was now becoming the grotesque sight of an ill-tempered father needlessly torturing his son. The crowd thins. Many give up on jumping off the boards in order to escape. I feel it too, the way you want to hide in your chair when someone on stage is embarrassing themselves, the way you want to turn the other way when a child is being spanked in public. Those who stayed either donned a grim face suitable for watching parental inadequacy or became vocal hecklers.
“Why are you doing this to him?”
“Somebody needs to get that kid down.”
As Elijah continues to sob, the crowd focuses on Coach, and as Coach’s looks grow increasingly ineffective, he turns to his son.
“I believe in you Elijah. You can do it. Jump!”
But when chokes and sobs progress to delirium, the crowd turns from Coach to me. The second time I open my mouth Coach raises a hand, “Please Jeremy,” and while looking up he says,
“Son, I love you. You made a decision to climb up that ladder knowing that you would have to jump. I am going to hold you to your word. You can do it.”
At several points during this entire spectacle Elijah ran back to the railing, once as far as to the top of the ladder, but he always came back. When his Father says these last words Elijah is at the edge of the board again. Elijah responds by taking a few breathes and calming himself a bit. Then, during a lull in the cheering, while most are focused on denouncing Coach and I, while I am absorbed in figuring out how best to salvage my own reputation in the situation, Elijah crouches a little lower. Then, with body tense, hops lightly off.
Splash! The crowd goes wild. Elijah himself comes up out of the water with a grin big enough to match the size of his eyes. Pure joy. His brothers help him to the side. “That was so cool!” Elijah squealed as he clambered out. His father kneels in front of him.
“Son, I’m so proud of you. I knew you could do it.”
“Thanks Dad,” Elijah squeaks and quickly pulls away.
“What? Where are you going?” Coach asks confused.
Elijah turns as he runs, “I’m doing it again!”
Elijah spent the rest of the day jumping off the high dive. The crowd dissipated. Coach and even Elijah’s brothers eventually left him to make his own closed circuit on the pavement. But I stayed at my post until the pool closed watching this child and pondering his transformation. It seems to me that my graciousness and the crowd’s compassion would have had Elijah ashamed, crying, huddling with his mommy and baby sister, wrapped in a towel and sucking pulpy juice through a straw while silently watching his brothers jump off the boards again and again without him. It seems that only his father really loved him, and that enough to stand up to the crowd, to stand up to the lifeguard and, above all, to stand up to his own son’s tears. What is love which damages its object? What is love when it is motivated by the immediate gratification of our emotional “philanthropic” insecurities?
What is love?
I pondered all this and more high aloft in my sun-baked, concrete tower.