Working hard, putting in hours of training, some complaining, and lots of hot showers… this is what led up to my son taking the Junior Lifeguard test. Watching your child work so hard to accomplish something is the best feeling. It is one of the proudest most rewarding moments as a parent. Hair full of chlorine and all smiles, so proud of himself, there is nothing better. The self-esteem and confidence that came along with this piece of paper with the word “pass” circled, was a gift.
Junior Lifeguards is a program in the beach cities. It teaches kids water safety as well as exercising, competing and learning lifeguard techniques. I was a JG when I was younger and I have the best memories. Back then, it wasn’t as popular as it is now. I was one of three girls in Manhattan Beach a.m.’s. Now you are lucky if you have a spot anywhere along the coast.
My oldest son, who is athletically challenged and lazy by choice, was training to take the JG test. 4 laps, 100 yards in under 2:00 minutes… was the most frightening thought for him...and the fact that the water was freezing. My son had zero motivation, no fire...he goes at his own pace and does not like people telling him what to do. Swim lessons were not a top 10 on his rating scale. The only part that he enjoyed was the hot shower he got to take immediately after. I don’t know what was longer, his lesson or the shower. Towards the end of his training, his coach was timing him on 4 laps to see if he could make the time. Out of 2 tries, he got 1:59 exactly… it was like he was counting as he was swimming, going the slowest he could possibly go.
The day of the test had arrived and I had my dad, aka Papa, took him. Papa was a lifeguard in Manhattan Beach when he was younger and Kyle thought that was pretty cool. As I waited for my phone to ring, I tried to stay busy so I wouldn’t think about it to much. The anxiousness and nerves I was experiencing was overwhelming. My phone rang… he passed! My son was so proud of himself… he couldn’t believe it. It was such a huge moment for him. Realizing that working hard at something and accomplishing a goal is beyond awesome.
Kyle ended up at a beach that we choose. It had more mellow waves and the environment and instructions were a little more lax. He did not have any friends with him, they all got split up. Kyle went everyday and never complained. I think the 3 hour time was all he could take. If it was 3 hours and 1 minute he would have lost it. I was so proud of him for going everyday, working so hard and doing something that was so out of his comfort zone. He knew it was important to me and his dad. Living in a beach community, and going to the beach all the time, it was non-negotiable, you had to take 2 years to be water safe… just like my parents made me. We all survived his first summer of JG’s.
The following summer, even though Kyle vowed he would NEVER do JG’s again, he decided to give it one more go. We were lucky enough to pull some strings and get him into the Manhattan Beach class with one of his friends. (These are the perks of both myself and husband being born and raised locals and having connections).
Kyle again went everyday without complaint. I had promised him after this year, he did not need to do another summer. The last day of the session, I wanted to go down and watch. I had never seen Kyle in action and I wanted to show him how much I supported him and was proud. Both my parents and I grabbed our beach chairs and set-up just outside the JG camp.
The kids were on break when we got there. It was pizza day. I watched Kyle go up and grab a slice (which he probably wouldn’t eat because I have the only kid in town who eats cheese pizza - no sauce). I watched him take his plate and go sit back on his towel all by himself. He sat there while everyone else had at least one friend if not more. Finally, his buddy came to join him, but they sat 3 feet away from each other in silence. It didn’t seem to bother Kyle, but it made my heart heavy in the moment.
Next up, relay races. They lined the kids up in groups, 6 rows of 10 kids each. The first 5 kids faced the east and one at a time ran around a flag, tapping the next kids hand when they returned. The other 5, the second leg, faced the ocean. One at a time they lugged huge Doyle boards into the water and paddled out and around one of the instructors who sat proudly on his board. I couldn’t believe Kyle was a paddler. Running was the obvious easier leg. Kyle had mentioned he had been practicing paddling and actually liked it… so I was anxious to see him go. As we were sitting there waiting, my luck, a seagull who had just ate leftover pizza, pooped on my head… I decided to go in the water to wash it out, my moms attempt at patting it out with a towel was a fail. As soon as I hit the water a big set came in. The current was already strong heading north. I was half paying attention, concerned with the poop in my hair, when Kyle was up… of course with this swell. I forgot to mention that Kyle is a tiny kid. He is short and skinny and weighs all of 60 pounds at 11 years old. Him carrying the board was a task in itself. As he paddles out, wave after wave come. He was getting pumeled. I was shocked watching him duck dive and turtle roll when the waves came. Because of his size and the fact that his arms barely gave him length to paddle, he was going nowhere. Actually I take that back… he was going north, drifting with the current. The other kids who were much bigger and athletic were far finished while Kyle continued to drift. I kept looking at my dad and then Kyle and then the instructor, waiting for them to tell him to get out, bring the board back to where they were and start from there. There was no way he was going to make it from that point with the swell and current carrying him away. No one even noticed and in that instant I felt myself turn into the HULK… screw momma bear. I dolphined over to Kyle and was about to start pushing his board back inline so he could make it out to the instructor. Before I could touch the board, Kyle told me… “Mom, I've got this.”... I wanted to cry. You would think by now someone would have seen Kyle struggling, but no. How could they not notice… there were 60 11 year old junior lifeguards, 2 grandparents in beach chairs and one mom dolphining in the water in her bikini… of course they noticed, we were the only ones there. The instructor yelled from a far for Kyle to get out of the water. Defeated, he pulled the board out of the water and drug it down to the relay rows with his head down in shame… all eyes on him. NOT A WORD… not a good job, nice try, way to hang in there… nothing but judgment. I was furious and so disappointed in the JG program. Let’s be real, maybe 1 or 2 of the bunch will ever even attempt to be lifeguards. This program is about building confidence and learning water safety… learning teamsmanship and cheering on your peers. On this day, all I observed was the over achieving athletic kids shine in their glory and the instructors being the loudest in cheer. Who would think to cheer for the kids that need it the most. The kids who struggle, the kids who try their hardest even though they may never see success, the kids that need the encouragement and live for a “good job” from one of the “cool kids”. These are the kids that in the palm of your hand, you have the ability to lift up, pull out of there shell, give them an opportunity to succeed. Kyle was this kid, and he was crushed.
As I walked over, careful not to embarrass him, I squatted down in the back of the line with him. I told him that I was so proud of him. That he tried so hard… despite being pummeled wave after wave and carried by the current, he never gave up. I told him how proud I was that he had learned how to duck dive and turtle roll. I was telling him all the things his instructor should have been. I was sad for my son, beyond emotional and having a hard time breathing with my heavy heart. I told him we were leaving, to grab his towel and let’s go. As we walked away, I said… “do you you think they will notice you are gone?” Kyle responded with a no… that they wouldn’t care. I told him I was so sorry that that happened and how upset I was. He said, “that is how it was for me everyday mom.” I died. I could not believe that my little non-athletic child who pushed himself everyday to do something he didn’t want to do, without complaint, had to endure such torture everyday. I was sick that I had no idea what he was going through. It was one of the hardest days I have had as a parent. Watching your child suffer, is heartbreaking.
Believe it… my husband and I had words with the head of the JG program… (another perk of being a local). We received several phone calls, not only from his instructor, but the head of the program and the LA County Lifeguard Chief. They were beside themselves. Like me, they were JG’s in Manhattan Beach years ago. And like me, had the best memories. Learning that there was teamsmanship, cheering, encouragement and instructor interaction furiated them. I was told that each instructor by the end of the first week should know everyones name, know who they are - if they are shy, outgoing, an athlete or someone that needs extra encouragement. Kyle’s instructor didn’t even know his name. They promised us we could pick any spot for Kyle next year… but after I told them we burned his uniform in celebration, they knew the damage could not be un-done. I didn’t want to complain about this… what was done was done and we would move on… Because of my personal experiences with JG’s, my disappointment grew. I wanted to make sure this would not happen to any other kid. This experience would leave a scar, and take time to undo the damage it caused to Kyle’s self-esteem. JG’s is a great program and experience for our kids. I know that it will continue to be great, and it may take parents like me standing up for our kids, speaking up and giving a reminder of the importance of the program.