School swimming was indeed like being banished to an outer circle of Hell sometimes.
Sometime before my generation, the adult world apparently decided that children are helpless morons who will happily and willingly drown if not forced to wear what was essentially a full body suit of inflatables to step into a couple of feet of water. The health and safety rules meant that we had to wear arm bands until we were somewhere approaching Olympic level, we had to tie our hair up with rubber bands that pulled at the roots and hurt our heads, and the lessons would mainly revolve around things that were blindingly obvious, like the fact that you sometimes have to move your limbs in order to swim.
So I think we were most excited, as children are, by the prospect of the bus journey to the swimming pool in town. I mostly loved to stare out of the window on my own (travelling on a bus was a bit of a novelty), but I also liked to lead everyone in one of those obnoxious obligatory chants. Whilst the prospect of thirty or forty children all rhythmically screaming, “I like be-er!” and “I like al-cohol!” makes me feel faintly sick now, and whilst the quality of the composition was mediocre at best, at the time I felt like I was leading some kind of heroic protest (the purpose of which was a mystery). The aim of this exercise was to prompt a teacher to march down from the front of the bus and shout at us to be quiet. This would be a moment of triumph.
Then, after getting off the bus and receiving dirty looks from the various child-hating patrons of the gym, you’d have to get changed in some labyrinthine changing rooms covered in used plasters and little blots of wet dirt from people’s shoes. We’d perfect complicated techniques to stop one another from yanking down our swimming costumes when we weren’t paying attention and see if we could fit into the lockers.
And the swimming itself…
But the main source of fury was the groups. The older kids (assuming they could swim) would be allowed to dive in at the deep end, sometimes even off the diving board, whilst everyone else was relegated to the shallow end, where the main activity seemed to be to hold onto the side of the pool and kick our legs. I was regularly moved to fury by the fact that my sister was in the same group as me. In Life of Pi (I can’t remember precisely where, or the exact words), Pi says something about how difficult it is to follow in the footsteps of a popular older sibling. The reason I find it difficult to have any sympathy for this is because, as I think my previous post demonstrated more than adequately, this is nothing compared to attempting to follow in the footsteps of a popular younger sibling.