Splash or not Splash?

A risk taken to prove a point

By Mary Best

As the youngest of five dangerously independent — and always mischievous — children of a couple of educators in the Greensboro school system, I weathered many storms as a toddler. Don’t get me wrong: I grew up in a loving home with devoted parents. But being the runt of the litter, I suffered a disadvantage — the last to receive nourishment at mealtime, endless ribbing about my clothes and toys, relentless teasing about being “sweet.” Why were my three brothers so different from me? They didn’t play with dolls, for heaven’s sake. Who doesn’t play with dolls? And don’t even get me started about Barbie.

When I wanted to play with the “big kids,” I sometimes bit off more than I could chew. For example, my family belonged to Lawndale pool, and for hours I would watch my brothers climb to the top of the high dive and plunge into the deep end. Effortlessly. Joyfully. Thoughtlessly.

So, when I was about 3 or so — younger than I could count my years on one hand — I decided to follow in their footsteps and jump off the high diving board. I had watched them master it many times. If they could do it, I thought, how hard could it be?

Fearlessly, I climbed the ladder to the top of the diving board. As I neared the end of the board, lifeguards, pool members and my poor parents froze and watched as a kid who couldn’t recite the alphabet was about to take a death-defying leap.

Up until then, my greatest adventure had been getting lost in Meyer’s downtown. Oh, and that misadventure in Franklin Drugs, when I had to go to the restroom but couldn’t read the signs on the door. Yikes, I chose the wrong door.

But I digress. Back to the pool.

My father quietly ascended the ladder, and when he reached the top, he gently, calmly, called my name. “Mary Frances,” he nearly whispered, “I’d like for you to come to me. I have something I want to tell you.”

I frowned. “But I want to show my brothers I’m as tough as they are.”

“They know, Sweetheart,” he replied. “I was the youngest too. And I endured my share of teasing.”

I never thought about other kids being teased. I had assumed it was some unique, degenerative condition from which only my brothers suffered. I had no idea their ceaseless mocking could be a sign of a pandemic, an epidemic or — even worse — ubiquitous.

The pool crowd silenced. Swimmers, sunbathers and hungry patrons in line at the concession stand held their breath as my father coaxed me toward him.

“Can you make them stop picking on me?” I pleaded. Why the hell not? I wasn’t exactly a prosecutor or defense attorney, but I felt pretty darn powerful for someone who only recently had mastered 4 + 4 = 7, right?

“I can’t promise you that,” my dad said. “But I can promise this: I will never let anyone hurt you. I know your brothers don’t show it because they are knuckleheads, but they love you, and they will always be there for you.”

Convincing. Plus, the water seemed much farther away than it did a few minutes ago.

As my father shepherded my descent from the ladder, I saw my brothers surrounding the area around the foot of the diving board. As sentinels. At that point, I knew they loved me — as protectors, friends, brothers. The teasing didn’t stop, but I knew that day at the pool they loved me.  OH

Mary Best is a freelance writer living in Greensboro. Contact her at marybest04@gmail.com.

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