I gather that most preschoolers don’t care too much about whether they know their teacher’s name, or the name of a new buddy at the playground, or anyone else. I know when I co-op at Zoe’s school most of the kids call me “Zoe’s mom” and that’s sufficient.

For Zoe, she feels a great sense of comfort and connection knowing someone’s name. If she makes a friend at the playground she will ask his or her name first thing, and usually ask it again when she leaves because she forgot it while they were playing. Then she can say “goodbye Jasmine!” as we’re heading out, and talk for the rest of the day about her new friend Jasmine.

So today, for the second time this week, there was a substitute teacher at swim class. Tuesday’s substitute was friendly enough and I asked her name and told Zoe what it was. I was surprised as I watched from the observation deck that she had a completely different style of teaching from the regular instructor, and at first I wondered whether they would actually learn anything, but then I saw that the kids were all practicing various skills on their own while the teacher worked with each kid individually. I could see they were having a lot of fun not sitting on the wall as usual. I was actually hoping that teacher would be there again today. Instead it was a different substitute, and it was just all wrong.

I made the mistake of not asking her name at the beginning. I guess I just forgot. There were only three kids (instead of usually six or seven) so I thought it might be good for Zoe to get some extra individual attention. But it wasn’t.

As you may have read in my previous post, Zoe has loved her swimming lessons and been very brave. I’m not sure how much she’s actually learned about swimming, but she’s gotten way more comfortable playing and using the various floatation devices and toys they provide. Today she was terrified. The teacher either didn’t understand that this was a class for beginners or didn’t care, and she pushed them to do more on their own than they’d ever done. Instead of working with each kid individually, she would hand them the floating barbells or strap them into the floating belts, and expect them to motor down the length of the pool themselves. She had them working most of the time in depths Zoe couldn’t stand up in. Zoe had no idea what to do. I watched from above with growing unease. I saw the two other kids (one of whom is six years old) doing what he was supposed to do with ease. The other little girl flailed a little more but still went for it. Zoe was panicking. The instructor would try to give her a little push and she would grab onto the instructor with a look of desperation. I knew what was happening but I didn’t know how to stop it.

About two-thirds of the way into the lesson, the lifeguard turned and looked up at me and pantomimed that Zoe was crying, so I went downstairs. The instructor told me Zoe was panicking, as if the instructor had never dealt with a scared child before. I talked to Zoe for a minute and calmed her down and convinced her to get back into the pool for the last five minutes of class, to practice blowing bubbles. Then the instructor asked the kids to go under. The other two did it and Zoe wouldn’t. She has allowed the other instructors to help her go under every class. But by this time she was totally shaken up. Finally, thankfully, it was over.

On the way home Zoe mentioned at least a dozen times that she couldn’t stop thinking about how scared she was in the pool, and how she was afraid the instructor was going to let her sink. I can totally understand how she didn’t feel like she could trust the instructor who she had never seen before and whose name she didn’t know, and who was asking her to do things in a way she’d never done them before. I would have been scared too. I asked her why she was so upset. She said she was afraid the teacher was going to let her sink.

I told her that no instructor would ever let her sink, and no grown-up who’s taking care of her would make her do something dangerous. I told her the floaties hold you up, even if your face gets a little wet. I told her that Randy or I would take her to the pool soon to practice some of what she was doing in class. Nothing she hadn’t heard before, but clearly she wanted a reminder. She said she didn’t want to go back. I asked the front desk person if her regular instructor would be back next week and he said yes. So we’ll go back next week. Hopefully the memory of today’s class will fade. But I still remember being in a pool when I was probably close to her age, and being sure I was drowning because I was under water for more than a couple seconds after losing track of the wall or my floatie or whatever it was that I had been holding onto. This is why I want her to learn to swim sooner rather than later. But she has to be able to trust her teachers to relax. I am often torn between the urge to advocate for my kid and give her the chance to advocate for herself. But in a pool when you’re terrified is not a time when you can easily speak up about what you need. Next time I’ll be sure to make a formal introduction.