Facing My Greatest Childhood Fear: Swim Class

The Liberty School Pool as seen recently.  The school and pool are closed.  A special thanks to Kennedy Baughman for the photo.

The Liberty School Pool as seen recently. The school and pool are closed. A special thanks to Kennedy Baughman for the photo.

My elementary school years went fairly smoothly until fourth grade.  This is when we were introduced to swim class.  My greatest fear would be met head on, and I would lose the battle for several years.

Midland school didn’t have a swimming school.  Every Tuesday afternoon, we would take a school bus to Liberty school for swim class. The bus ride was the highlight of this most difficult time in my life. The bus driver always seemed quite cheerful and talkative; however, his cheerfulness couldn’t help ease the pain of my worst hour of the week.

Hank is the first one on the left. He is remembered by most of the students during my era.

Here are some of the bus drivers.  Seth is the one I remembered the most.

After arriving at Liberty school, we were introduced to our routine for the year. Mr. Munro, our teacher, told us that we were to totally undress. This was difficult for me because I had never done this before in public. What even made it more difficult is that we were not to wear swim trunks. We would be spending the whole time in swim class in our birthday suits. To this day, nobody has given a satisfactory explanation to this rule. The girls wore swimsuits during their swim time. Why didn’t my parents complain? Why didn’t any parent complain?! Why didn’t some newspaper expose the practice? I can’t imagine this happening today.

After we took off our clothes, Mr. Munro told us that we had to shower before we entered the pool area. After the shower, he would inspect each one of us by rubbing our collarbone area and our wrist. If no dry skin came off, we were good to go. Eventually, we learned that we only needed to clean our collarbone area and our wrist.

Now, the worst part would soon come.  We were to get into the pool.  The pool at Liberty, looking back, was not very large, but it looked like an ocean to me.  The largest pool I had ever entered was my bathtub.  I would have been quite content if it had remained that way.

When I entered the pool, I lived in the shallow end. I may have ventured out a bit with a board to keep me afloat, but I still didn’t go any further than where my head could stay above water. Mr. Munro probably taught many a boy to swim, but I wasn’t one of them.

There were many Tuesdays when I would come to school feeling quite well, but by afternoon, I would develop a stomach ache. I wasn’t making this up, I was so afraid of swim class that I would literally get sick. I would be sent to the nurse’s office and she would give me some kind peppermint to settle my stomach. The bus would leave and I was spared one week of agony in swim class.

When I arrived at Ford Middle School, I think Mr DeSantis, our swim teacher, took me on as a personal challenge. It seemed like I was the only student in sixth grade who couldn’t swim. Mr. DeSantis tried and tried to get me to leave the float board and start swimming.  Soon, he threatened me with an “F” if I didn’t start to swim. Finally, the day came when I actually swam the width of the Ford School pool. I had learned to swim! I avoided my “F”!

However, Mr. DeSantis was not done with me. In eighth grade, I had a new challenge.  Mr. DeSantis said that I must JUMP into the deep end feet first and hit the bottom of the pool and bounce up and swim the LENGTH of the pool. If I didn’t accomplish this feat, I would receive an “F”.  I don’t know how many weeks passed, but every time I would get to the edge of the pool, I would think that I would never survive the JUMP.

You also had to know that Mr. DeSantis was a bit overweight. Could he save me if I were to drown?  I had even asked him once: “Why gym teachers tended to be heavy?”  I do not know what possessed me to do this, but he chuckled and said: “When we were younger we ate a lot and we exercised a lot.  When got older we kept eating, but we didn’t exercise as much.”  I have not forgotten this lesson in my life.

Finally, judgment day came. If I didn’t jump, I would get a big “F” on my report card.  With great fear, I looked over the side of the pool. I looked at Mr. DeSantis, who said: “Don’t worry, you can do it.” I don’t know how I did it, but I jumped in and my feet hit the bottom of the pool and I bounced back up and swam the length of the pool. That was the last time I have ever jumped into a pool.

Even today, I am not much for the water, but I can swim a few laps in the pool, and maybe swim enough to save myself.  I am thankful for Mr. DeSantis and his great patience with me.  He helped me to finally meet my great fear and win the battle.

P.S. Please visit my other blog where I talk about spiritual topics such as: “Candid Thoughts about Crowds”, and “Five Great Promises as I Travel this Life”. The address is: http://www.markjemilbooth.com.

22 thoughts on “Facing My Greatest Childhood Fear: Swim Class

  1. Great memories; I learned to swim very well thanks to the Highand Park school system, I was always told that if a black guy could swim he must be from Highland Park, I still swim to this day and have a 30′ x 15′ pool in my yard; I did have a hard time learning to swim in the 5th grade at Willard School, but thanks to Mr. Hasty and the swim club and me being pushed in the deep end I learned to swim; I never understood why we had to swim naked and they would rub our collarbones wrist and ankles to make sure that we showered with soap and water; At Willard we had two pools connected by a wall which had 3 openings that connected the shallow end 3ft little pool with the 6ft. end of the big pool and we would swim thru these openings, we would also dive for these rubber coated bricks, at Ford School I learned all the strokes (side, breast, back and free style), at the high school I took the life saving class and got my first summer job at the Salvation Army Camp as a lifeguard; I Love to swim…

    • Gary, thanks for sharing your memories of swim class. Obviously, you did a whole lot better than I did. Yet, I did learn. I did the free style eventually and that was it. Also, I forgot to mention checking the ankles, but I don’t remember having that done too often.

  2. Man-o-man I cant believe this picture exists. On the other side of that door is the Boys shower room and lockers. The shower room was completely finished in small white one inch square porcelain tiles. Maybe six to eight shower heads where we would double up in to get warm. In the middle of the shower room was a large built in soap bar holder. The pool was only two freet deep in the shallow end and almost 6 feet on the deep end. Another test we had to pass to get the grade was to swim the length under water. Some of us to test ourselves further we would start on the deep end underwater to the shallow end and back on one breath. I remember coming up to the surface from deep on the deep end and making the touch to qualify taking in air… just before everything went black. One of only a few of us in the class who made it. Gary congrats on learning to swim Most Black guys had a real tough time with it. Some of them could not even put their faces in the water with their feet on the bottom. I can still picture MR Fortgang trying to help one guy get over his fear……… circa 1963-64

    • Ed, thanks for taking the time to read my article. Your description of the shower is right on. I was a bit foggy about this, but you have helped jar my memory. Though the memories of swim class were quite unpleasant, yet I am glad that I did learn to eventually swim. As for the photo, I had to doctor the photo. There are all sorts of desks and other furnishings in the pool. There is a group on Facebook called “Once a Parker Always a Parker” One of the members went through the old Liberty school and took several photos. They are on the site under the heading of photos. Again thanks for sharing your memories! BTW-Did you go to Ford Middle School?

  3. When I told my grandson that all our schools had pools, he didn’t believe me. When I told him we swam naked, he REALLY didn’t believe me! I never heard that this ever happened any place besides Highland Park.
    I liked swimming because it was the only thing we did in PE that I was actually good at. I also liked free swim–every once in a while, we got to spend the whole period just playing in the pool. That was one of the most fun activities in the whole school year.
    Between the school pools and Camp Rankin, I’m sure that almost every HP kid learned how to swim.

    • Richard, thanks for sharing your thoughts again. I have enjoyed going back and sharing some thoughts of my past while living in Highland Park. Nobody has ever explained the reason why we weren’t suppose to wear swim trunks. How did it happen? Hopefully with confirmation from the internet, your granson will believe you. Any way, I am glad that I eventually learned to swim.

  4. Oh the memories of growing up in Highland Park. Liberty school had to have been one of the best elementary schools in the country. My very first memory of course was my Liberty school kindergarden classroom.I started mid year and believe there were two kindergarden rooms and I gasp in surprise to be shown to the one with the huge slide concreted into the floor.I also remember the pool later on was just to cool.Liberty was even a big deal in the summer months on the playground. There were activities all summer long the school ran. We lived so close I remember being able to hear the clanking of the swings and rings at home all summer long. In highland park our

    • Pat, thanks for reading my article and sharing your thoughts. I can’t vouch for the fact that Liberty was one of the best schools in country, but I did enjoy my time at Midland. As for the summer programs, the Highland Park Rec Dept had a top notch program. I spent almost every day during the summer at Ford Park.

  5. OK, now from a girl…….as a “chubby” I didn’t look that great in a tank suit, but I would NEVER have survived being naked. I got through steps one through nine just fine, but step ten…jump in the pool head first was my Waterloo ,pun intended. I sat on the edge of the pool for the whole period plus my whole lunch hour. Just me, the teacher and the big, dark, wet, menacing pool. I also was threatened with a failing mark. I never jumped and I failed. Luckely it did not keep me from graduating. I love being in a pool now, but still can’t swim. I float however. Used the 10 steps to sucessfully teach my four children to swim. PS Mr Munro was my Drivers Ed teacher when i was 20, in night school.

    • Margaret, thanks for reading my post as well as sharing your thoughts. Yes, learning to swim can be challenge for many people. Looking back, I am glad for the experiences at HP schools in finally learning to swim. Margaret, I am also glad that you are doing better after your stay in the hospital.

  6. I also learned to swim growing up in Highland Park. Beginning in the 4th grade we walked the block from Cortland Elementary school to Ferris Middle to use their pool.We went through the same bare bottom swimming and showering requirements described previously. The swimming class at times was grueling.However by 5th grade practically everyone could swim the length of the pool. We learned to hold our breath, to float, to swim pool widths and finally lengths. We also learned practically every swim stroke known to man.and played water polo and basketball, We dove for hockey pucks in the deep end and played king of the flotation tube. I have 5 siblings that all went to HP schools and we are all good swimmers. This was in spite of the fact that neither of our parents learned to swim. As an African American the statistics say that death from drowning is the second highest cause of unintentional death for young people, and that African Americans drown at a 50% higher rate than the population at large. My now grown children are all swimmers and I am a Scuba Diver now traveling the world to dive with my wife whom I helped teach to swim. So needless to say I am very grateful for my swimming (as well as academic) education received from HP schools. I went from 1st grade through part of my College there.

    • Miles,
      Thanks for your note! It is great to hear that you had a good experience learning how to swim. I did eventually get it, but I can’t swim as well as you. I am thankful for Mr. DeSantis and his patience with me.

  7. No one believed me when I told them we swam naked at HP. Unheard of today but I wondered why noone said anything back then. I went to Thomson Elematary and we had no pool and we had to go to Ferris for swimming lesson. When I started HP in 1960 I was all out for learning to swim. Rev Moss, of Springhill Baptist Church, son drowned in the HP pool and we seen it and some of us never got over it. I failed Gym because I refused to go swimming. My parents made a agreement with Mr Shannon the principal that the week I went swimming I would go to gym. So I had gym all through high school. I think the gym/swimming teacher was Mr. Monroe.

    • James, thanks for reading my post and commenting on it. Yes, as you read swimming was also a problem for me. I had never heard about the death in the pool. I also never heard of Springhill Baptist Church. Where was it located?

      • Springhill Baptist Church was located where the Corrininth Baptist Church is now off Caniff 1 block west of Chrysler Freeway. Rev. Moss was the pastor. This was back in the 60’s and 70’s. They moved from there to Greenfield between 7 and 8 mile road.

      • James, thanks for the info. I am a Baptist now, but I wasn’t while growing up in HP. I hope to write about my church experiences growing up in HP some time in the future.

  8. Mark, I was looking at pictures of Midland Elementary on Detroiturbex and one thing led to another and I found your blog. I moved to Highland Park from the U.P. in 1967 and moved out in ’69, but I remember vividly some of my experiences there. I went to Midland School for the 5th grade and Ford for the 6th. I lived on Puritan Ave. between Woodward and 2nd. I remember clearly the bus ride to Liberty and Mr. Monroe and swim class. Always thought it seemed a little strange. Now your story confirms that it was. I look forward to exploring your blog further, thank you.

  9. I to attended Libery school in Highland park had swimming as well can’t remember the teachers name . I only remember the principal was a woman Ms mason I attenen there in 64 to 68

  10. I’m jumping in a few years late because I was looking for Liberty School. I went there from 1958-1962. I am missing the Highland Park that I grew up in. It was like a Norman Rockwell painting. Anyone else want to talk about that time period? I remember so many things! I lived at 50 Brighton St.

  11. I attended HPHS from 1952-56 and was a swim team mate of Kier Campbell who wrote earlier. He was an outstanding, State Ranked competitive swimmer and a great person to boot as was his Mother who taught World Literature .at the school. Her class was the best critical thinking class I took in high school Before moving to HP, I attended Tappan Middle school in Detroit and we swim naked there as well so attending Barber Elementary school and naked in their pool was no big deal as we had to at the HP YMCA ( Northern YMCA ). The HPHS swim team coach was Ray Mondro. . not Monroe. The day I made the last place opening on the boys swim team in 1954 was perhaps the best day of my life. Through moderate success in high school I got a swimming scholarship to Detroit Institute of Technology and received a free college education. I never stopped swimming as a sport and now, at age 80, I still compete in the U.S. Masters Swimming Association for the last 42 year and have won national and world championships. allowing me to travel the world. The best reward is that I am very healthy with no aches or pains … all thanks to Mr. Mondro who selected me for the last open place. David McIntyre H.P.H.S Class of Jan.56. david@davidmcintyre.us

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