Faith Gong: My daughter, the lifeguard

I’m writing this at Lake Dunmore, where our family is spending a hot, humid July afternoon on the water. (Although I’m sitting in the stuffy minivan while our three-year-old, who fell asleep on the drive, naps in the backseat.) 

As we were preparing to leave the house — sorting through swimsuits, gathering our children, loading the minivan trunk with beach toys, and filling up water bottles (which we forgot to bring), I felt…safer, more confident about releasing five children in water. You see, a member of our family is now a Red Cross-certified lifeguard. 

That’s right: My 15-year-old daughter just completed lifeguard training and will soon be looking down upon the splashing masses at our town pool from atop the official lifeguard chair. 

I can hardly believe it. This daughter took swim lessons and spent one summer on the town swim team, but in the nine years since then she’s shown no interest in swimming other than as a social activity. She is slight of build and not particularly athletic: Her passions run more to writing, music, and — if we’re being honest — shopping, grooming, and giggling with friends.

It’s precisely because she likes to shop and go out with friends that it’s important for her to have a job. During the school year, she spent one hour a week shelving books at our town library, but summer afforded the opportunity to expand her work horizons. The trouble was that her summer would be subdivided by two family trips, a week at camp, and a 10-day stint at the Governor’s Institute of Vermont for Global Issues and Youth Action. This ruled out many teenage-appropriate summer jobs that require a regular commitment, like retail, waitressing, or camp counseling. 

My husband and I cornered her in late spring to review her job prospects. She sat across from us and, with calm determination, announced, “I want to be a lifeguard.”

We spluttered in shock. “You know you have to be a really strong swimmer to be a lifeguard, right? And you have to be prepared to save lives? Do you know what the qualifications are?”

Cool as a cucumber, she directed us to an ad in The Addison Independent’s Summer Activity Guide: The Parks and Rec Department was looking for anyone 15 years or older to be summer lifeguards. They’d even help pay for the certification course. 

One question remained, “Why do you want to be a lifeguard? You’ve never expressed any interest in it before.”

“I like that I get to be outside,” she said. “I don’t want to spend all summer stuck inside.”

This seemed like a reasonable response. Then she added, “Plus, it’s like the ‘hot person’ summer job!”

She pursued lifeguarding with unusual focus. She emailed our town’s Recreation Director, who replied immediately and enthusiastically; apparently there’s a shortage of lifeguards. 

But before she got her official whistle, my daughter had to take a lifeguard certification class, and that proved challenging. There was one training in Rutland — an hour away — in early June, when my daughter was still in school and had multiple conflicts. After that…nothing.

School ended, summer began. We took a wonderful trip to visit friends in Nashville. My daughter went off to Governor’s Institute. As we prepared for her return on July 4, my husband and I mapped out a realistic approach to her summer job. 

One evening last week, my husband sat down with our daughter and the classified ads. They discussed various possibilities: bagging groceries, food service at a nursing home, babysitting. Then my daughter opened her laptop, checked her email, and said, “Oh! There’s a lifeguard certification class this weekend.” The timing was perfect, and the class was just 20 minutes away.

It turned out that there were prerequisites: My daughter had to swim 300 yards consecutively, tread water without using her arms for two minutes, and swim 20 yards to retrieve a 10-pound diving brick from a depth of 7-10 feet. 

None of us was sure that she could do any of those things.

Before she bothered registering for the course, my husband took our daughter to Middlebury College’s pool to run through the swim test. They came home slightly discouraged: She’d been able to do everything except retrieve the weight. 

The lifeguarding course began the next day. Not ready to give up, my husband watched some online videos for tips and took our daughter back to the pool to try again. This time, after a couple of tries, she was able to retrieve the diving brick. 

Then she got cold feet.

“What if I can’t do it?” she asked me. “Then I’d fail, and I never fail.”

In parenting, this is what we call a teachable moment.

“Well, at some point you’re going to fail. You can’t go through life without failing. But that’s not a bad thing; in fact, it’ll probably be good for you,” I told her. “The question right now is: What do you want to do?”

“I want to lifeguard,” she answered. 

“Then you have to take this course. Give it your best shot. What’s the worst that could happen? You don’t pass. That’s not an indictment of your character or intelligence — it’s just swimming.” 

When I picked her up after her first three hours of training, she was enthusiastic. She’d learned a lot: The teacher was nice and had punctuated his instruction with stories from his actual experience. 

“BUT did you know that there are kids who’ve actually drowned on a lifeguard’s watch?” she told us in hushed tones. “And then the parents could sue you. It’s kind of scary.”

Apparently, she’d just realized that being a lifeguard involves guarding lives.

“How was the swim test?” I asked.

“Oh, we’re doing it tomorrow morning,” she said. “But guess what? Even though the Red Cross just requires us to retrieve a weight from 7 feet down, he said that we need to be able to save someone from 12 feet deep, so that’s what he’s making us do.”

“Well, it’s just five more feet,” I said, trying to sound more reassuring than I felt.

The next morning — a Saturday — she woke up at 6 am to prepare for class. To be clear: That’s the equivalent of the middle of the night for a teenager. The sky was overcast as we drove to the pool. When we pulled into the parking lot, she said, “Ugh, I don’t want to get in the water. I hate swimming!”

Which struck me as odd coming from someone about to spend the rest of her summer lifeguarding.

“Try to focus on the goal,” I said, launching into my second pep talk in two days. “If you want to lifeguard, you have to do this. Most things worth doing are really hard sometimes; think of how great you’ll feel when you’re finished.”

Ten hours later, I picked her up. “I’m a lifeguard!” she said as she slung her bags into the minivan. “I passed! And I got the weight on the first try!”

When I asked my daughter if I could write about her lifeguard training for this column, she agreed. “But what’s the point?” she asked. 

It’s a good question, and I’m not sure I have a good answer. The point could be how my children sometimes astound me: They come up with a seemingly ridiculous plan, and then meet their goal with hard work and determination. 

But that’s not quite the story here. Yes, my daughter came up with a ridiculous plan. And yes, she put in a few emails and a couple hours of practice. Still, that’s a pretty minimal effort in proportion to the ridiculousness of her idea. I’m still shaking my head, unsure of how she pulled this off. 

I’ve always been deeply averse to telling my children, “You can do anything you put your mind to!” In my experience, that’s simply not true: We each have limits to our talents, abilities, and intelligence that no amount of pluck and determination can change.

In this instance, however, my daughter seems to have proved me wrong. With minimal experience, talent, or training, she got just what she wanted. This is a child who can still say, “I never fail!” 

I’m simultaneously proud of her, and unsure that any lessons were learned about the value of struggle and sacrifice. 

But I know something she doesn’t yet. While she was doing her Saturday training, I was having coffee with two friends: the mother of our pool’s head lifeguard and a member of the Parks and Rec Board. That’s how I learned that the lifeguards — those “hot people” who sit on literal pedestals — are also responsible for cleaning the pool bathrooms. 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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