For those not in the know, I teach music and sport to little ones during the week. By little ones, I mean 5 to 9-year-olds. It’s lots of fun. And mayhem. And exhaustion. And exhilaration. And the lessons you learn in the trenches with these little ones are lessons that are worth sharing.
There’s lots I don’t quite get right as a teacher. And believe me, those moments are sobering. However, every now and then… as teachers… everything falls into place. Please excuse the indulgence, but I’d like to tell you about one such story, about a 5-year-old boy. We’ll call him Bobby in this story.
Bobby was afraid of water. Swimming lessons are compulsory at Bobby’s school, and in the foundation phase he was expected to start the foundations of his life skills curriculum: sport – and specifically, swimming. ie. being able to survive in water.
The pool in this particular school isn’t very big by most standards: 15 metres long by 8 metres wide, and 1-metre deep. But if you’re 5-year-old Bobby, it’s a bottomless lake. Fear had gripped him. The first week of swim lessons, he “forgot” his costume. The second week, he flat-out refused to change into his costume. We spoke, and agreed that the following week, he was going to come to swim lessons in his costume.
I chatted to his teacher and asked what the story was. Bobby is the only son of a single mom, and loves swimming at his gran’s house in the “blow-up” pool. You know: those ones that are a mere 3 inches deep at best and hardly cover the knees of a seated, cross-legged little one. So I said to the teacher: “Chat to mom and find out whether there’s something else we should know about – some previous experience, some undisclosed event or anything that would make Bobby as fearful as he is about coming to swimming lessons.”
Nothing, was the response. Bobby should swim, mom said.
By the third week, his teacher sent me a text to say: “I need you to come and deal with Bobby. He doesn’t want to get into his costume.”
I love a challenge. Especially one dealt by a 5-year-old. Those kind of challenges are completely honest, unadulterated and raw. It’s all heart and no malice. It’s just, “I don’t want to!” and I love that – because in children it’s unfiltered. With adults, let’s just be honest: we often fight that battle in our own hearts. Every. Single. Day.
So Bobby and I were going to reckon with the condition of his heart, on this specific Tuesday.
I arrived at the classroom door to see the teacher with the entire class of 5-year-olds seated in their costumes, except for Bobby in the corner. His eyes were red with tears, knees up around his chin and hugged by his arms, as he rocked back and forth in a gentle, rebellious rhythm. I greeted the class who all enthusiastically greeted me back (except for Bobby of course) and asked the teacher if I could speak with Bobby outside privately. The teacher obliged, and told Bobby to step outside with me. But Bobby refused to move. “Bobby!” exclaimed the teacher, obviously incensed at the obstanance being demonstrated in front of a crowd of 20-odd five-year-old witnesses, who all were intrigued as to how this would now play out.
“Bobby, go with Mr Calder!” the teacher instructed firmly. Bobby shook his head under a scowling frown. The class went still, and you could hear a pin drop. These five year olds could see this was a showdown. And any teacher reading this will likely relate to an elevated blood pressure level, when a group or another individual simply refuses.
I could see immediately that I wasn’t going to pursuade Bobby ordinarily. I opted for a Danny Silk method. I spoke as clearly and as calmly as I could. “Bobby, your teacher asked you nicely. So I’m going to give you a choice: either you can come out the classroom with me by yourself or I can carry you.”
Bobby’s eyes widened and the frown disappeared. “You choose: walk or be carried?” I said.
He stood up and walked out.
We sat down on a bench outside the classroom and chatted. Chatting to him I could tell he was genuinely afraid. What we often diagnose as defiance has a story behind it, as any psychologist will tell you. Bobby was experiencing a heightened sense of emotion: anxiety, embarrasment and fear. I whispered a quiet prayer under my breath, because I could see this wasn’t going to be easy. Suddenly a thought popped into my head, from my varsity years. It was a cognitive psychology lecture on how you deal with fear. The answer? Little by little. Step by step.
“I really don’t want to swim in the pool,” Bobby repeatedly said.
“Okay,” I said. “What if you sit with your feet in the water? You don’t have to get changed into your costume… you can stay in your clothes and sit on the side of the pool and just put your feet in the water and watch your friends. How about that?”
He sniffed, and nodded. “Yes, okay,” he said.
He sat with his feet in the water, splashing his feet in and out and watching his friends up close in the pool. At the end of the lesson, I said to him: “Well done Bobby! Now next week, we’re gonna do the same thing ok?”
“Yes!” he said.
“Will you sit on the side of the pool in your costume?” I asked.
“But I don’t have to swim?”
“No you don’t don’t. But you can sit just like you have today if you’re in your costume, ok?”
The following week, Bobby got changed into his costume. And sat on the side of the pool kicking his feet in the water.
The week after that, Bobby hugged a swim coach like a petrified tree frog on a branch who carried him across the pool.
Each week, we made baby steps. And by the time the school gala arrived, Bobby was kicking himself across those 15 metres like a champion.
Fear is a real thing, but it’s surmountable. Sometimes it’s a big breakthrough moment. Often, I find… it’s one small breakthrough moment followed by another small breakthrough moment.