In aquatic school they taught me to save a drowning person by diving underwater. I came up behind them as they flailed and splashed, leveraged their chin above the current, pulled them against my body and swam them back to shore, all while doing a reverse stroke so they weren’t kicked in the process. Once on shore, I released the water from their body, closed their nose with my right hand and blew into their mouth to bring them back to life.
We role played this situation so often I could have done it in my sleep. The victim swam to the middle of the lake, began thrashing and pretending to drown, yelled HELP and off I went! I swam straight out with eyes fixed on the victim, about five feet away, the underwater dive, the turn of the head and the carry back to shore. Piece of cake.
What they didn’t teach me is that people don’t say help when they’re drowning, because folks have not taken a class in correct victim behavior. They just get a quiet look of panic and bob above and below the surface until they disappear.
I was working as a life guard and teaching swimming at a girls camp one summer when a young woman right in front of my chair looked silently up at me with a lonely puzzled expression. Her eyes darted from me, to the sky and back to the water. Her arms moved slowly up and down as the print ruffle on her bathing suit made busy swirls around her legs. She tried to propel herself over and over without success.
Finally someone came to my chair, I think that girl can’t swim, they said, I think she’s in danger of drowning.
I looked down as if coming out of a trance and immediately saw the truth. I jumped in, pulled her to the side, put my hands around her waist and lifted her above me, until she sat safely on the edge. Water dripped from her cap and mixed with tears that ran from her young blue eyes.
Why didn’t you yell help, I asked? I was right in front of you. Why didn’t you call out to me?
She had no answer.
Sitting by the pool today I thought about that moment all those years ago, and the deeper truth it held – the realization that people don’t yell help when they need it most, they retreat into silence, fear, shame or self-protection. They become private at the very moment they need saving the most.