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Has not, I hoped, “dried the sap out of [his] veins, and rent spontaneous joy and natural content out of [his] heart.” (William Butler Yeats, “The Fascination of What’s Difficult”.)

I decided this summer that Simon should start piano lessons this year. He’s got the attention span and hands for it, he likes music, and I don’t want him to be the musical ignoramus that I am. I think he’ll be a natural. But I’m not going to find out until next year at the earliest, because I’ve instead enrolled Simon into the Lenny Krayzelburg Academy and Tumblebus for swimming and gymnastics, respectively.

He’s not a natural at either of these activities. In fact, both involve very real challenges to Simon’s physical and mental makeup. He’s a little timid, he’s nervous about trying to move under water or climb on his own, he’s not at all buoyant, and he’s gifted with neither great flexibility nor balance.

So why am I doing this? Well, several reasons actually. With the swimming, it comes down to safety and momentum. I want Simon to learn to swim, and he made great progress in his brief Red Cross classes this July. As of August, the JCC moved over to a new, year-round program called the Lenny Krayzelburg Academy. Founded by the Olympic medalist of the same name, the Krayzelburg Academy started in the LA area and is expanding to JCCs across the country. The emphasis is on safety and a specific swimming pedagogy: first floating, then survival floating, then kicks, then strokes. Whereas the Red Cross classes had Simon working on his “ice cream scoops” arm and hand movements right away, it could be six months or more before Simon does anything similar in this program.

He loves it way more than I expected, despite the fact that he’s in a class with a two-year-old who can swim rings around him. He’s working hard, the teachers make it fun, and he’s heavily invested in earning the stickers that come with each added skill. Want another sticker? Well, kiddo, you are going to have to do something new to get it. After a few hesitant weeks, Simon has grown more confident, is trying more skills, and is earning more stickers.

His progress is slow but measurable and steady. And besides the fact that Simon now looks forward to the classes and loves his teachers, there’s the added benefit of my having a chance to praise him for effort more than results. As much as I try to focus on effort and practice when it comes to say, baseball or learning his letters, it’s very easy to fall into the habit of yelling out things like “Look at you, Mr. Smarty!” or “You are awesome at batting!” which does nothing, and I mean nothing, to prepare Simon for things that are difficult or instill the notion that effort and practice are equally if not more important than natural affinity.*

Given how hard-won each swim skill has been, saying the right thing and imparting the right lesson has been easy. It’s never, “Look at you swimming, you little fish!” but rather, “I am so proud of you for how hard you worked to learn to float on your back. You had to try over and over again, you kept at it, and now look at you! What do you want to practice next?”

As for Tumblebus, well, that was his idea. When the rolling gymnasium first appeared at school, Simon was too young for it. He may have been old enough when he was 3, but the idea of putting Simon on a crowded bus with jumping and climbing kids was laughable in its inappropriateness. Ditto last year. When the enrollment forms came home this year, I pitched them into the recycling bin without giving it a second thought.

Then Simon came home talking about it after all the kids had a free trial run inside. Then his teacher told me he asked her about it. Then Shary, the school director, told me that if it was OK with me, she was going to send him gratis a few times because he was so eager to join the fun.

“Really?” came my incredulous reply. “Simon? I’d sign him up, but I had planned on piano instead and he can really only stay late one day per week.”

“Piano can wait” was the emphatic response.  “For this child, Tumblebus is way more important.”

My mother concurred. And after his first day, he reported to me that “I was a little quiet at first because I didn’t know what to do. But the teachers were really nice and showed me, and I hung from the monkey bars! Next week I’m going to learn to balance.”

We may already be seeing some results from these activities. There’s an artificial rock at a nearby park that Simon has watched kids climb for a few years now. The few times I’ve tried to help him, he’s gotten agitated and ended up in tears. Yesterday we tried again. He was still nervous, but he worked through it enough to let Matt show him the hand and foot holds. After one success, he went back for more. By the time we left the park, he had probably climbed on his own a dozen times or more, feeling confident and very much a “big boy” every time.

It’s amazing how far struggle can go towards building confidence.

*I’m exorcising my own demons here. After quickly discovering that ballet was boring and that I was hopeless at gymnastics, I grew into the competitive and perfectionist kid who was hesitant to try anything out of my comfort zone. With the exception of tennis, a sport I tried to learn at least three times with hilariously awful results, I stuck to what I knew I was good at. It wasn’t until I reached full adulthood that I began to get over fear of failure and try new things again.  I’d very much like to keep Simon from following in my footsteps in this regard.

4 Responses to “The Fascination with What’s Difficult”

  1. Amanda says:

    That’s interesting–when I learned to swim that’s what we did–floating, survival floating, etc. Years and years ago. Worked for me, I swim like a fish. Don’t give up on the piano (I know you won’t, but putting in my .02 cents)–being able to read music is a very useful skill and piano is good training even if one will never be very good (like me!)

  2. Jessica says:

    Hey Amanda, I’m glad to hear you learned this way. I learned to swim using the method where you began with the crawl, and I never got the hang of it. When I was asking the folks at the JCC about this new school, the LK academy rep said that in their research, some kids aren’t coordinated enough to learn kicks, strokes, breathing and floating at the same time and therefore never learn to properly swim. Which described me exactly! I know you are a fish, and I’m tempted to take swim lessons this new way myself. Maybe it’s not so hopeless after all.

  3. Amanda says:

    Naw, anyone can learn. My friend Kate who was a poor swimmer learned well enough to scuba dive this summer off the Great Barrier Reef. Hell, if you can run you can swim. And yeah, we started with blowing bubbles, ring around the rosie, floating, etc. I didn’t learn the crawl until way later.

  4. Amanda says:

    PS–but I could doggie paddle and float early on, so water safety was there.

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