It's around 2 p.m. Thursday at the Ellen E. Linson Swimming Pool in College Park, and an 11-year-old boy is eager to prove that he can handle himself in deep water.
"You want to take the test?" lifeguard MonRai Matthews asks him.
"Yup!" the boy answers, eyeing the crystal water. "I'm ready!"
The test, which will determine whether the boy will be awarded the coveted wristband authorizing him to jump off the diving board into 12 feet of water, consists of swimming across the diving well and back, unassisted.
At just under 5 feet tall, the boy seems to be in a little over his head. But he's entitled to a shot.
"All right, go ahead," says Matthews, 18, watching the child carefully as the boy begins across the blue expanse. Nearby, dozens of other children and a few adults frolic in the water, under the watchful eye of Matthews' partners in red.
Their day began just after 11 a.m., when the lifeguards of the Linson pool gathered in the "guard room" to sip juice, chat about the previous day's activities and last night's dates and to find out their assignments for the upcoming shift.
The lifeguards take to the chairs at 11:30 a.m., dressed in red trunks or swimsuits, carrying the requisite safety tube used to perform water rescues, with the trademark whistles -- to warn young children to stop running and older ones to stop the horseplay -- around their well-toned necks. At their feet are first-aid kits, which include bandages, gauze, latex gloves and a CPR mask.
At Linson, a Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission facility, there are 50 lifeguards, mostly teenagers, who work up to 35 hours a week from Memorial Day through Labor Day saving lives and preventing accidents in and around the pool. They all possess watchful eyes, sharp ears and a keen insight into how quickly situations can turn dangerous. Their training course, provided by the American Red Cross, teaches cardiopulmonary resuscitation, how to deal with patrons and how to "scan," the technique used to monitor the actions of patrons in and around the pool. To qualify to be a lifeguard, candidates must swim 500 yards, tread water for two minutes and retrieve a brick off the bottom of the pool, lifeguards said.
The benefits are great, too. There is no late work and the pay -- beginning at $7.03 per hour -- is significantly more than the $5.50 minimum wage most of their friends are earning at fast-food restaurants and clothing stores. About the only downside, lifeguards said, is pulling restroom-cleaning duty.
"They have a lot more responsibility than most other teenagers doing summer jobs," said Wendy Donley, 26, an assistant facility manager at Linson. "That job requirement alone makes it worth more."
Another benefit, lifeguards said, is the opportunity to interact with and serve as role models for young children.
"I really like working with the kids," said Alyssa Quigley, 17 of Laurel, an Eleanor Roosevelt High School graduate who is headed to the University of Maryland at College Park. "I used to come here when I was a kid to camps and was a camp counselor."
Matthews, 18, of Riverdale, a graduate of Parkdale High School who is headed to West Virginia Tech, said he became a lifeguard because of the "cool factor."
"If you save someone or work in a field where you save people, you are seen as a hero, and I thought it would be cool to work in that kind of job," he said. "The little children look up to you, and that's cool, too."
So did DuVal High graduate Roshena Blake, 17, of Lanham, who is headed to Frostburg State. She worked at Linson for the first time this summer.
"I was on the swim team at school and I liked it, and a few people on the swim team were lifeguards," Blake said. "I thought it would be cool to work at the pool because I like to swim, but also to help people at the same time made it really cool."
"You're in a fun environment," said Chris Horton, 17, of Lanham, a senior at Parkdale High School. "The only thing you have to worry about is the heat and keeping track of the little kids."
Lifeguard supervisor Rick Lawhorne, 21, of Bladensburg, a University of Maryland Baltimore County emergency health services major and volunteer firefighter, said that he tries to make the job enjoyable for the lifeguards. He recently hosted a barbecue for the group, where they swam and played volleyball and basketball. While some supervisors spend significant time indoors, Lawhorne can usually be found on the pool deck, checking in with his lifeguards and even attending to the splashing patrons.
Although Linson is one of the county's largest pools, it doesn't have a lot of problems, outside of an occasional child who gets in distress swimming in deep water or someone who gets cold enough to require treatment for hypothermia, Lawhorne said.
"We're very careful here," he said. "From being a volunteer firefighter, I know what can go wrong, so I try to instill in the lifeguards the need to be very careful at all times. They do a real good job with that."
Case in point: Matthews and the 11-year-old swimmer.
The first lap was no problem. The 11-year-old touched the wall, took an exaggerated breath and headed back toward Matthews and the diving board bracelet. Then, he began to lose power. About three feet from the wall his pace slowed noticeably and his eyes took on a slightly panicked look as he tried to move forward. He stalled, then began gulping and bobbing, unable to go on. Within seconds Matthews had him out of the water and was asking him enough questions to make sure the child was all right.
Tragedy averted. The diving board would have to wait for another day.
"They like to try, and we let them if they are big enough and seem strong enough," Matthews said. "But we watch carefully, and if they start getting in trouble, we go in and take them out."