Joseph Mills, Swimming Lessons
Because I come from a family of swimmers
and my wife comes from a family of swimmers,
we expected to have a family of swimmers,
and we’re surprised when our daughter refuses
to put her head underwater. If even a drop
touches her face, she cries out and gropes
for a towel. Nothing we suggest helps her
overcome this, so we sign her up for lessons.
The instructor, Mrs. White, quickly gets her
away from the curbing, and by the last class
our daughter is swimming entire pool lengths
as I watch and wonder what I could have learned
from my parents if they hadn’t been my parents.
Afterwards, she asks, “Did you see me, Daddy?
Did you see me?” and I swing her up, not caring
her suit soaks my clothes. As I pat her face dry
with my tie, the instructor approaches, smiling,
and says, “She has a very good black… Her black. . .
I’m so sorry… Her BACKstroke will be good.”
She looks distressed, and I understand.
A white parent and a black child can knock
the most well meaning people off balance.
Since Mrs. White is black herself, I want to laugh;
but instead, I say, “Thank you for helping her.”
My daughter senses something has surfaced
unexpectedly then submerged just as she feels
something is odd when people look past me
trying to locate her parents, or when they ask,
“Is she yours?” and “Where’s her real daddy?”
Someday she’ll know more about the currents
around us and she’ll understand why we insisted
she know how to swim, how to hold her breath,
and how to deal with the drops that hit you
as you try to navigate the waters of this world.
Author’s Comment: Although I often write about my children, I don’t often write about race. In part, this is because it’s difficult to do well (which is also why I haven’t written many romantic poems). It’s also because I write to discover what I think, and, mostly, I know what I think about certain issues. Here, however, rather than having something to say –“racism is bad!,” — I have an intriguing interaction to explore. I withheld the key aspect “white parent, black child” until halfway because doing so may disorient readers, and their surprise may mimic the surprise of the moment.