I shifted nervously in the stands as my seven-year-old son, Joshua, put on his swimming goggles and approached the edge of the pool. Around me the other parents chatted, but I was focused intently on my son, who was trying out for our neighborhood Y's swim team, the Flying Dolphins. Joshua suffers from severe Attention Deficit Disorder, and I always kept an eye on him in case he needed me. He had a lot of trouble concentrating. He stammered when he spoke, didn't sleep much, and couldn't quite master everyday things like tying his shoelaces.
I knew how my son felt. I'd suffered similar problems myself as a kid. Sometimes I felt that my parents were ashamed of me. Teachers usually banished me to the back row of the classroom. I'd survived by trusting in God, which had helped me trust in myself. We'd taught Joshua to rely on faith too. Still, I had vowed to protect him from the sort of humiliation I'd suffered.
So when Joshua showed interest in joining the swim team, I was worried, even though he was a good athlete and had long arms and a slim build that were perfect for swimming. I remembered his previous attempts at soccer and basketball, where he was instructed by people who just couldn't get through to him. I'd have to run along the sidelines, reminding Joshua which goal or basket to shoot for.
At the pool, I held my breath as a couple of coaches tried to direct Joshua to a lane. I could see he was confused. I stood up, ready to help, but then I saw him: a tall man, with a swimmer's angular build-not an ounce of fat on him. He walked with utter confidence. "That's him," one of the parents said. "Cesar. The head coach." Someone else said that he had been a champion swimmer in Venezuela.
"Wee're goin' to beegeen weeth the baackstroke," Cesar announced. Uh-oh, this would be bad. It was a chore for me to understand him. I could only imagine what Joshua was making of his heavily accented English echoing off the tiles of the swim center. One of the kids piped up, "Um, what did you say?"
"I'm sorry, Coach, what?" said another kid. I immediately felt embarrassed for Cesar, but he didn't seem the least bit bothered. He simply said it again.
Finally kids started moving through the water. Some of them, like Joshua, didn't know how to do the backstroke. Assistant coaches quickly explained the technique. But Joshua had trouble with the concept of front and back, not to mention up and down and left and right. Even so, he got in the pool and tried. He flailed his arms and treaded water. I fought the urge to jump in the pool myself and show him what to do. Better yet, I should just take him home before he has to go through any more humiliation.
Then Cesar walked over. "Watch," he said and started pantomiming the backstroke. Joshua observed closely as Cesar demonstrated. Then he copied his motions. Cesar nodded vigorously. Joshua pushed off and did something vaguely resembling a backstroke. I was surprised at how fast he got going.
We weren't out of the woods yet. The breaststroke was next. What the coaches called the oval movements of the arms bewildered Joshua. And he couldn't figure out how the words scissors and kick went together. Again Cesar came to the rescue. He painstakingly demonstrated the stroke using body language, making sure Joshua could follow. Joshua ended up doing a sort of doggie paddle across the pool. Not bad, I allowed.
Finally there came the freestyle, which Joshua had learned at camp after much trial and error. At the word freestyle, his face lit up and he zipped across the pool. At least he ended on a high note, I thought.
Joshua and I walked out to the car after practice. He looked up at me and said, "Can I come back here?" I didn't want to give him any false expectations so I said, "We'll have to wait and see, Josh."
I worried during dinner about how I'd tell Joshua he didn't make the team. The phone rang while Ellen and I were doing the dishes. The man was nearly incomprehensible. Cesar. "I'm sorry," I said, "could you repeat that?" My wife glanced over at me. "You did? You mean Josh made the team? Thank you, Coach." I put down the phone.
"He made it?" my wife asked.
"Cesar said he saw something special in Josh," I said, not quite knowing what to make of it.
"See, you worry too much," she said.
Suddenly I was more worried than ever. I didn't think that Cesar understood the extent of my son's problems. How will Josh keep up? I just didn't get it. Does Cesar feel sorry for him? I dreaded the first practice.
My concern was justified. The other kids had more experience than Joshua and they took direction well. Joshua would need plenty of extra coaching. Tons of it. Soon enough, Cesar came to him. I, of course, was ready to go over and show Joshua what Cesar wanted him to do. But then I caught a look of concentration in Joshua's eyes I hadn't seen before. He was riveted on Cesar.