Swim Teachers? No, Folks Floundering In Hard Times When writer Lori Gottlieb couldn't afford to take her son on a vacation to Hawaii this year, she signed him up for swim lessons instead. Gottlieb knew times were tight, but nothing prepared her for the parade of part-time swim instructors she met pool-side.
NPR logo Swim Teachers? No, Folks Floundering In Hard Times

Swim Teachers? No, Folks Floundering In Hard Times

boy in swimming lesson

Like a lot of families hit by the economy this summer, we decided back in May not to go on vacation this year. Instead, to keep costs down — and our preschoolers busy — a few moms and I signed up the kids up for weekly swim lessons. The lessons weren't cheap, but they were a lot cheaper than, say, a week in Hawaii.

I tried to get my son on board with this change of plans. "It's better than Hawaii," I told him, "because Hawaii only lasts one week and you'll get to take swim lessons for eight weeks!"

He bought this. That's the beauty of being three. In fact, he was psyched!

At the first lesson, their teacher, Grace, spun them around in a circle the whole time, yelling, "I'm a big washing machine!" The kids laughed hysterically.

Okay, I thought. She's getting them used to the water.

But at the next lesson, they spent the first half doing the washing machine, and last half doing what Grace called "Defeat the giant!" The kids would sit on the steps and splash her, and she would yell, "You're defeating the giant!" and pretend to be knocked into the water. The kids thought this was hilarious. We parents were less amused. These lessons were expensive.

"Can you teach them to kick or blow bubbles or something?" one of the moms asked. "It's fine to make them laugh, but this is their time to swim."

So Grace held one of the girls in the shallow end and told her to kick and move her arms. But instead of showing her how, Grace told knock-knock jokes as the girl thrashed around. It seemed a little weird.

Lori Gottlieb's new anthology is The Secret Currency of Love: The Unabashed Truth About Women, Money, and Relationships. Courtesy of Lori Gottlieb hide caption

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Courtesy of Lori Gottlieb

Lori Gottlieb's new anthology is The Secret Currency of Love: The Unabashed Truth About Women, Money, and Relationships.

Courtesy of Lori Gottlieb

When it was my son's turn, he said, "No," and Grace said, "Yes!" and Zachary yelled, "I don't want to!" and Grace got an evil smile on her face and said, "Oh yes, you do!" and picked him up and DUNKED him under water.

It happened so fast we were all stunned. Suddenly Zachary was crying, "Get her away from me!" and Grace was laughing maniacally and saying, "See, the giant defeated you!"

In the car on the way home, Zachary informed me that this was definitely not better than Hawaii.

I called up the swim school and the owner was horrified. Turns out, Grace was a stand-up comic, not a full-time swim teacher. No wonder she was so sadistic.

"It's the economy," the owner said. "We can't afford to pay our regular rates to teachers. And with so many entertainment people out of work, we've had to hire them."

He promised to send me a real swimmer next time. Her name was Lindsay. She'd recently qualified for the London Olympics and by the end of the lesson she'd taught the kids to float on their backs. We were thrilled, but a few days later, she was gone.

"Michael Phelps called," she explained, "and when Michael Phelps calls, well...."

We understood. Who were we to compete with a celebrity?

So then we got Robert.

Robert was a writer who said he'd taught swimming in college. He was pale as a vampire, overweight, and didn't look like he'd been outdoors in 10 years. When he took one kid into the deep end, Robert gasped for breath and struggled to reach the side.

That was it. We canceled the lessons. We'd had enough of Hollywood's underemployed.

"Only in Los Angeles," one mom said, but in today's recession, I realized this could actually happen anywhere. Your swim teacher might be a laid-off autoworker in Detroit, a banker in New York, or a real estate agent in Chicago ... because no matter how bad the economy, there will always be summer jobs for swim teachers.