The summer after my first year of college I taught swimming lessons, and one of my students was a five-year-old kid named Matthew. Matthew couldn’t swim. At all. He and his classmates spent the first week in the shallow end, putting their faces in the water and floating on their backs. On Friday, Matthew came up to me at the end of class.
“I can swim a whole lap,” he said, beaming.
“You can?” I asked. “Show me.”
Matthew marched sturdily down to the deep end. He curled his toes around the edge and – dove would be an overstatement – launched himself into ten and a half feet of water. He churned his arms and splashed around with his feet. He’d gotten about a third of the way down the pool when he started to drown.
I jumped in and pulled him over to the edge. We sat on the side of the pool, our legs dangling in the water, and I wrapped him in my towel and rubbed his back while he spluttered and coughed. He looked up at me, scrubbing the chlorine from his eyes, beamed again, and said, “I’ll do it on Monday.”
On Monday, Matthew tried again, and once again, I went in and pulled him out.
Life takes more than persistence. It takes courage – courage to constantly challenge yourself, to face your own demons, whatever they are. I’ve taken the easier road plenty of times, too scared, too unsure of myself to risk – not death, not injury, but failure – trying the harder path. You need courage to climb Everest, sure. But you also need it – and maybe you need it more – to do things like follow your own dreams, or to love people. In spite of your weaknesses. Your fears. Your failures.
By the end of Matthew’s second week of lessons, it was pretty clear that he was going to fail beginner swimming. But every day, he’d trundle down to the deep end after class – he never once started from the shallow end – and start swimming. Maybe it wasn’t the Red Cross’s idea of swimming, but it was Matthew’s.
He never made a full lap. He never even got to shallow water.
The last day he made it to the halfway point, twelve and a half yards – the farthest he’d ever swum. And then, like every other day, he started to drown, and I went in and got him.
Matthew flunked beginner swimming, but he taught me plenty. You wouldn’t think you can learn much from a five-year-old. But I did.
Matthew taught me about courage. About commitment. About trust. Keep trying. Start with the most dangerous part. Never doubt that you’ll get there someday, no matter how much it scares you, no matter how much it risks. And trust that someone will be there to come in after you if you get into trouble.
And one day you’ll get there. This is what I believe.
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