An ode to the swim club where I grew up
As far as I’m concerned, the first day of summer isn’t on the summer solstice. When I was growing up, it took place when the neighborhood swim club opened for the season. I started going to the pool when I was an infant, and I spent nearly every summer afternoon there until I turned 16. My friends and I never went to summer camp, so we had to learn the value of friendship and the joys of summer at the swim club. And as everything else in my adolescent life was constantly changing, the pool was there for me. It’s where I grew up.
Even though I loved spending time at the pool, I didn’t know how to swim for an embarrassingly long time. By the time I was 11, I had already taken two summers worth of swim lessons, and I was still afraid of putting my head underwater. But that 11th summer was different. My friends’ parents were letting them go to the pool unchaperoned. Since I couldn’t swim, my parents were too worried to let me go to the pool alone, so I either had to learn how to swim or risk missing out on a summer of fun. I chose the former.
With brand new determination, I started my third year of swim lessons, and it wasn’t long before I was doing flips underwater and swimming the breaststroke. My parents agreed that I was capable of going to the pool without them. Not only could I handle myself in the water, but everyone working at the pool had known me since I was a baby. They weren’t going to let me drown.
With the independence that came from parent-free afternoons at the pool, my friends and I became fearless. In the regular world, I was a shy, neurotic mess, but in the mini-world of our swim club, I was confident. Just a few weeks after learning to swim, I was jumping off a diving board into ten feet of water. I was singing boy band songs for everyone to hear on karaoke day. I flirted with lifeguards who were nearly a decade older than me. The pool had become my domain.
We didn’t go to the pool on weekends because that’s when our parents were there, and that would have been totally uncool. Besides, we needed those days to catch up with our friends who weren’t members of the swim club. But Monday through Friday we were back at the club. We played various iterations of “guess what I’m thinking” pool games and made up synchronized swimming routines until our skin pruned. When the PA system announced that it was time for adult swim, we raced from the water and secured our spot at the top of the treehouse jungle gym. One of us would throw a towel over the entrance so little kids knew not to come in, and we’d take turns going to the snack bar for Sour Patch watermelon slices, mozzarella sticks and sparkling water (which we called Fizzles). We sat in the treehouse playing card games and staring at the cute guy with a mohawk doing flips off the diving board until a lifeguard blew the whistle to signal the end of adult swim. We’d continue playing silly games until it was time to go home. We said our goodbyes every evening knowing that we’d pick up right where we left off the next afternoon.
When I was 14, I decided that I was ready for a summer job. But I didn’t want any old summer job. I wanted to work at the pool snack bar. Whenever I bought snacks, I was envious of the person behind the counter. They were being paid to eat and hang out at the pool all day. It was my dream job. My mom called the pool manager, and I was all set to work a few afternoons a week that summer. There was no application or interview process, and I didn’t even make minimum wage. It probably wasn’t a real job, but I felt so adult as I entered the behind-the-scenes world of the swim club. I got to gossip with the manager and crack jokes with the lifeguards. I could go into the pool office without getting kicked out. I even had access to the PA system, although I never actually needed it; it was just exciting to know it was available to me.
As the snack bar attendant, I was responsible for stopping by the pool treasurer’s house to pick up the cashbox, so I walked into work every morning with my hands already full of money. I carefully went through the list of opening duties. Raise the picnic table umbrellas? Check. Water the plants? Check. Turn on the fan so I don’t melt in the heat? Check. Make myself a cinnamon soft pretzel and wash it down with soda and ice cream? Not on the list, but check!
There were times when the job wore me down. Adult swim was terrifying, as every child at the pool ran up to me waving dollar bills in my face and shouting lunch orders. I had to make change, and the calculator only sometimes worked. And it was so hot back there, even with the fan blowing directly into my face. Sometimes I stuck my head in the freezer to cool off, or, if there were no customers, I would run to the water for a quick dip.
But it was all worth it just to see my name under the list of employees posted by the menu. I was practically a swim club celebrity! Also, I got all the free candy I wanted! And any job where you can spend the whole shift hanging out with friends is pretty spectacular. After I opened the snack bar in the morning, I would stare at the parking lot and wait until I caught a glimpse of one of my friends making their way inside to entertain me. I even made new friends. Classmates I had known for years but never talked to would hang out with me at the snack bar. Even if they were only in it for the free sour peach rings, it was nice to have the company.
Once the school year started, things changed. Pool friends were different from school friends. All the inside jokes we laughed about around the picnic table were no longer funny. At school we were more stressed, more guarded, more insecure. We weren’t in the mood to goof around like we did in the summer. If we saw each other in the hall, we would smile, maybe wave. There were promises to hang out soon that we all knew we wouldn’t keep. Couples that formed at the pool broke up before our tans faded, and only members of the swim team stuck together at school. Us average pool-goers had moved on.
The summer after my freshman year of high school, I resumed working at the snack bar, but my friends didn’t visit me as often. They had older siblings with cars and new high school friends. They had outgrown the pool. Occasionally they’d pick me up from work so we could hang out, but we never swam together anymore. Even I stopped going to the pool on days I didn’t have a shift. The next year, my parents didn’t renew their pool membership.
I didn’t know that was my last summer at the pool. Although, I’m not sure what I would have done differently if I had known. Steal extra candy? Swim a goodbye lap? Grab the microphone to the PA system and sing Sarah McLachlan? No, I’d definitely exit the same way. I would still roll down the door to the snack bar and walk past the pool, past the rows of empty white lounge chairs. I’d still drop the cashbox off in the office and hop into my mom’s car. Nearly eight years after leaving the swim club, I still miss it. But I’m thankful for all that pool gave me. Whenever I think of summer, the swim club will always be there.
[Featured image from The To Do List via CBS Films]