Dear Teenage Girls at the Pool:
Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be one of those letters. You know the kind, some well-intentioned and wise adult writes with a just-trying-to-be-helpful shrug about how you should stop doing this or change that. Usually it has something to do with your clothing choices or selfie-taking habits or flirting protocols. Believe me, I’m just as sick of those “letters” as you are.
You might not remember me, but we met at the public pool last week. I use the word “met” loosely because I never actually learned your names, and you didn’t learn mine. I had ventured up to the high dive after striking a deal with my older son. “You go off the high dive, Mom, and I’ll do my master cannon ball,” he propositioned. No problem, I thought. What’s the big deal?
But after I walked up the stairs and took one look over the edge into the water below, I realized what the big deal is. The high dive is HIGH! I cannot do this! I thought, but got in line behind you anyway.
The last time I jumped off a high dive I was 18 years old — a teenager just a few years older than you — but a whole lot changes in 20 years. The diving board seems higher; the fall seems farther. And worries about a possible swimsuit malfunction and water up my nose and doing an embarrassing belly flop seem a whole lot riskier.
“It always takes me a few tries before I actually jump,” one of you said to me. Then you walked to the end of the board, turned around and walked back. You walked to the end of the board again, waited, turned around and walked back again. Just as you had predicted, after a few false attempts, you walked to the end of the board and jumped. A few minutes later, you were back in line with your friend.
A few more kids — mostly young kids, 8- and 9-year-olds — jumped off the board. You waited while I stepped onto the board, then stepped off and walked to the end of the line again. Some of the kids told me how fun it was and how it doesn’t hurt and how it really isn’t scary. The two of you waited in line, cheering each other on when one of you prepared to jump.
Eventually it was my turn again. I walked halfway down the length of the board and looked down. Nope, can’t do it, I thought.
For 20 minutes, I stood on the concrete platform that surrounds the diving board and watched the two of you, along with the other kids, jump. For 20 minutes, I tried to muster the courage to jump with internal pep talks. I reminded myself that I can do hard things. I’ve done hard things. I remembered some of the words that I’ve written about jumping in and overcoming fear. I told myself that I would be setting a good example for my kids about being brave and taking chances and trying new things.
I stepped on the board and tried to jump, tried to be brave, no less than five times. And each time you offered words of advice and encouragement. You patiently waited while I walked halfway down the board, paused, and then walked back off the board.
“It’s OK,” one of you said. “I get scared too. But after you jump, it’s kind of fun.”
“Just don’t look down,” said your friend. “Look out at the trees instead.”
“It’s kind of like flying,” one of you observed. I commented on the appropriateness of the song playing on the loudspeaker — Free Fallin’ by Tom Petty — and you laughed.
I stepped onto the board, walked halfway, then took another step, and another step. I followed your advice and looked at the trees. And then I looked down. I turned back around and got off the board.
“Agh!” the younger kids groaned.
“Not today, kids,” I said to you all. “I’m sorry. Maybe next time.”
And then one of you looked me right in the eye and, with a firm gentleness, said, “You will regret it if you leave here today and do not do jump. You will regret it.”
“I know,” I whispered. “You’re right.”
Two minutes later, when it was my turn, I walked to the end of the board. I looked out at the trees, and I jumped. I heard the cheering before I hit the water.
“Good job!” you called out to me from atop the platform.
“Thank you!” I hollered back. Thank you.
A few minutes later, you walked past me, and I called out, “Thank you, girls! Thank you!” But you were laughing at something teenage girls laugh about and didn’t hear me. I tried to follow you with my eyes to see if you were with your parents, but I doubted it. You’re too old to need or want parents at the pool with you. And then my younger son wanted to get a snack and then my older son did too and then it was already 3:00 and we needed to leave soon, and I never saw you again that afternoon.
As I walked to the snack counter, my friend turned to me and teased, “I expect you to write something about jumping off the high dive soon.” I laughed. And as I considered what I might write about, I immediately thought of the two of you.
Sure, I could write about doing hard things. I could write about how it’s important to let our kids know that we, too, get scared. I could write about fear and obstacles and jumping into the deep end. I could write about all of those things. I have written about those things, and I will continue to write about those things because they are important. But today, right now, what I really want to write about is two extraordinary teenage girls.
There is so much written about teens these days, and young girls in particular. There are complaints about the over-sexualization of young girls by retailers who sell padded training bras and too-short shorts. There are sundry discussions about your clothing choices. (Are those crop tops and bikinis and so-very-short shorts scandalous or empowering?) There are viral blog posts that publicly shame middle school girls for flirting — gasp, flirting! — at the pool. And there is the collective eye-rolling over your obsession with selfies and Instagram and social media.
We, as parents, try to teach our children to be strong and confident and self-assured. We tell you to be kind and brave. We teach you to be strong and fight hard. We tell you that you are beautiful and worthy and valued. We teach you to respect your bodies and demand respect in return. We teach you how to love yourself, despite the fact that we live in a world that might not always love you back, in the hopes that you grow into good and kind and confident women and men. We teach you.
But what we forget is that there is so much you teach us. You remind us what it is like to be brave, if not fearless. You urge us to take risks and jump in. You tell us that it will all be fine if we just don’t look down. You tell us that jumping is like flying, after all. You remind us that we, too, made mistakes and sometimes acted foolishly. Very foolishly. You teach us the importance of second chances and forgiveness. You teach us how to be patient and tenacious, gentle and resilient, soft and strong. You teach us to jump.
We strive to set a good example, to teach you what you need to know, to guide you on your path from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood. We like to think that our experience has afforded us wisdom. And in many ways, it has. Been there, done that, we tell ourselves.
But what we forget is that we don’t have all the answers and that you are on this journey through life with us, not behind us. We are all learning as we go. There is so much that we can learn from you, whether you are our daughter or our niece or a teenage girl we meet at the swimming pool.
So keep jumping into the deep end. Keep on doing your thing. Keep learning and growing.
Because we’re learning and growing right alongside you.