It was one of those funny stories told to the incoming frosh, about how students would show up at graduation with wet hair because they had to take, and pass, a swimming test as a requirement for graduation. My son took the test during orientation week, assuming graduation would be hard enough without one more requirement. It was, he said, a hard test, but he passed.
Should everybody know how to swim? Of course. Along with how to drive and, as a corollary, how to change a tire. There are probably a few other things everybody should know as well, but they didn’t make the cut for a long editorial in the New York Times.
Every year in Harlem, hundreds of parents line up outside Riverbank State Park at dawn for an elusive prize: swim classes that they can afford for their children.
As the New York Times requires, every editorial must begin grounded in race or sex, for otherwise how would we see the systems of oppression at work?
From the mighty Hudson River to the rolling ocean waves of the Rockaway Peninsula, New York City is surrounded by water. But a surprising number of New Yorkers can’t swim.
A surprising number can’t do math, can’t read and go to bed hungry as well. Then again, it’s not as if the Times says what that “surprising number” might be, or has any cite for it. But since it’s only surprising, it means only that they’re surprised. Some people are easily surprised.
In New York, and throughout the country, nonswimmers are more likely to be black. In 2010, the U.S.A. Swimming Foundation found that 69 percent of black children, 58 percent of Latino children and 42 percent of white children said they had little to no swimming ability. Racial discrimination and poverty have limited African-Americans’ access to pools. Cultural fears about the water that can be traced back to slavery also persist. And so, black children drown at almost triple the overall national rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There’s a lot of conflict packed into this problem. Blacks have limited access to pools, a cultural fear of water and drown at almost triple the overall national rate. Drowning is a terrible thing, although the other points seem to suggest why that’s the case. So learning to swim, which would be a good thing in itself, was the subject of a study by USA Swimming, which likely is a big advocate of people swimming.
As part of the initiative, USA Swimming commissioned an ambitious study recently completed by five experts at the University of Memphis’ Department of Health and Sports Sciences. They surveyed 1,772 children aged 6 to 16 in six cities — two-thirds of them black or Hispanic — to gauge what factors contributed most to the minority swimming gap.
The lead researcher, Professor Richard Irwin, said one key finding was the influence of parents’ attitudes and abilities. If a parent could not swim, as was far more likely in minority families than white families, or if the parent felt swimming was dangerous, then the child was far less likely to learn how to swim.
Since learning to swim is important, and a valuable skill both for recreation and survival, the New York Times proposed two solutions. The first was free swimming lessons.
New York City, however, can turn this around for its own kids. If the city works with businesses and nonprofits, it can offer free swim lessons to every single New Yorker.
No doubt that swimming lessons cost money that poor people can’t afford. If you’re forced to choose between breast stroke and chicken breast, the latter has a distinct advantage. The second solution is to build more public pools.
Today in New York — with 8.4 million people — there are 51 outdoor public pools that are open, with two more under repair. That’s more than 150,000 people per pool.
For comparison, Houston has 38 public outdoor pools and just 2.4 million people (or about 63,000 per pool). Washington, D.C., has 22 pools for about 700,000 people (more than 31,000 people per pool). Philadelphia has 74 pools for about 1.6 million people (about 21,600).
On a hot summer day, who doesn’t want more public pools? Where to put them may be a problem, as is the allocation of space on a densely packed island, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t want them. After all, not everyone can go to our beautiful beaches.
The Times is right, even if the issue of drowning is more idiosyncratic than real,
Between 2008 and 2018, 45 people drowned at city pools and beaches, according to data from the city’s health department. That doesn’t include tragedies like the one in 2010, when Crystal Reyes, 15, and David Lee Luccioni III, 17, drowned in the Bronx River on a hot summer July afternoon.
Nor does it include the death of Kimani Brown, a 6-year-old girl from Queens who drowned at a resort in Mexico in 2009. Her uncle, Councilman Donovan Richards, said he is working to get a new city pool in his district in Far Rockaway to provide a place for his constituents to learn to swim. “This is personal,” he said.
Should everyone learn to swim? Yes. Of course they should. But is this another racist issue, another expense demanding immediate solutions, an overarching objective for New York to accomplish before, say, it can teach its students how to read before graduating? Is this where money needs to be put because learning to swim is a bigger issue than, say, the ability to speak in standard English?
And even if swimming lessons are made available, for free, will parents take them? Maybe the answer is that it should be a requirement for graduation from public schools that students pass a swimming test, and any parent who fails to have their children learn to swim be held accountable. After all, every child should learn to swim.