I wrote this several years ago for my daughter (her nickname is Urchin). In the past, she’s said it might be a good thing to share with others. Given the news lately, I think it’s time.
Last summer, we visited a beach where guards in red bathing suits perched high on the white lifeguard towers so that they could watch swimmers in the ocean. You thought they looked pretty cool.
One afternoon, a swimmer got into trouble with the big waves rolling in toward the beach — do you remember? They panicked and started having trouble. A lifeguard grabbed an orange buoy (it’s called a rescue can) and ran into the waves and swam out to the person. The guard offered the swimmer the can to climb on, and then swam with that, and the person hanging on to it, back to shore.
You asked me a bit later in the afternoon how people become lifeguards.
I can tell you how I became a lifeguard. And I know how learning to be a lifeguard helped me save other people. I know it also helped me save myself, at least once.
I learned how to be a lifeguard the summer I turned 17. I took courses in CPR and first aid, then reported to my summer camp job early to certify for lifeguarding. It’s the same camp you go to. In late May, the pool was freezing, and there were a lot of other counselors there, many of whom I had known for much of my life. They knew me, too, or thought they did.
But they didn’t really know me, because I had a secret back then.
What everyone did know was that I was a pretty good swimmer, and great with kids. Unfortunately, I was also someone who froze in situations where people were angry. Particularly when a fellow counselor took to yelling at me for fun, I was known to burst into tears. I hated that about myself.
Even more, I cringed when I overheard an older counselor say that he didn’t trust me to be able to act in an emergency. Because what he didn’t know is that I’d been in those situations already.
But there I was, learning how to help people with panic, cramps, seizures and heart attacks out of a pool using different techniques. I practiced using a pool hook, a rescue can. I practiced lying on the cold concrete deck and reaching out to a victim in the water, while calming them with my voice.
When it came time to enter the water to practice rescuing a drowning victim, our instructor said something important.
He said, “The first rule of lifeguarding is: Do not endanger yourself in order to save the other person.”
He pointed out that if a lifeguard broke that rule, there would probably be two tragedies instead of zero or one. When he said it the first time, I nodded with the group and looked at all the tools to help me get a victim out of the water safely.
Then he said it again, and something clicked.
Did you know that one of the things people who are drowning do is try to climb on top of any available item? If there’s a kickboard or a buoy, they’ll climb on that. But if they can reach a person, they’ll try to climb on them. Which is why the lifeguarding instructor had told us the first rule of lifeguarding: “Do not endanger yourself in order to save the other person.”
The idea of being in the water with someone who was so panicked that they could possibly hurt me without meaning to terrified me. Worse, I worried I would freeze if someone bigger than me tried to climb on top of me. But then the instructor showed us ways to approach someone so that they couldn’t grab us. He showed us how to take someone who had their arms wrapped around us from behind in the water and flip them over our heads.
Then he turned to me and told me I was going to demonstrate the technique with him. The instructor was more than 250 pounds and tall. I’m neither of those things, as you know. I got that wavy sound in my ears that people get when they panic.
Even so, I took a deep breath, got into that freezing pool and turned my back to the instructor. And when the instructor grabbed me from behind, I did just what he’d taught and ducked underwater and threw that 250-pound guy over my head in the pool.
I realized I could act in an emergency, if I knew what to do.
And that’s when I realized the first rule of lifeguarding applied in more places than the pool.
You see, the thing that my friends at camp didn’t know about me, any more than people at school, was that a person in our close family and I didn’t get along in a very big way. You probably have figured out by now who that is. And that Daddy and I try to help when this person is sick, and we visit him in the hospital when he’s very sick, but there are lots of times when we do not see him at all.
A big part of that is because when I was growing up, this person was like a drowning person on dry land. He was angry, and he was scared, and he sometimes forgot how to get to shore. There were a lot of people who worked very hard to help him because we loved him, and we wanted him to get better. But sometimes he would hit and yell incredibly loudly and break things. And I would get caught in the middle of it. Sometimes this made me angry, sometimes very sad. Mostly, it made me afraid because I didn’t know how to make what was happening stop. Everyone around me told me that he was going to get better, that I just needed to hang on.
I am determined that you learn about the first rule of lifeguarding, and how important it is.
What I, and others, felt that we had to do to help him get better was to stay with him in the house and not tell anyone what was happening. And that was exactly the wrong thing to do. We felt that we couldn’t let him drown, and I’m not saying we should have. But we put ourselves in danger to help him.
I went to summer camp, much like you do, to have a wonderful time. But I also went because it was a safe place, away from the anger and the fear. While I was there, I learned so many things. I learned how to share and laugh and not worry so much. I learned to have compassion and how to communicate without yelling or bursting into tears. It took a long time, and it wasn’t very pretty. I needed to learn things that most people learn when they’re very young. And then I learned more as a counselor, about conflict resolution and self-respect, about taking responsibility for myself.
And I learned that first rule of lifeguarding: Do NOT endanger yourself to save the other person.
That was the summer everything changed. Because I stopped trying to save someone who was hurting me and the people I loved. I started living my life on my own terms. Even though I wasn’t perfect and didn’t always react the right way to things, I knew that I was absolutely worth saving. And I knew that I could save myself.
It’s a lesson I have to keep reminding myself of, even though I’m much older now.
And this is why I’m writing to you now, and why we will probably have a lot of conversations about this as you get older. Because there is one massive exception to the lifeguard rule, and it is this: I would throw myself in any danger to save you.
I want you to know some tools and techniques so that you can keep yourself safe, too.
It is possible as you get older that you will meet people who will need saving. Some will be dear friends. Some you will love very much. But know this: You must save yourself first. You have to get to a safe position to be able to help them.
If someone is suffering or panicked so much that they hurt you, especially if they hit you or tell you that you are ugly or stupid or not worth anything, remember the first rule of lifeguarding: Do not put yourself in danger to save the other person. You can get to a safe position, away from where that person is, and to friends or to me or Daddy, and try to help them remotely by letting them get professional help.
It’s a lesson I didn’t learn until I was 17. And it’s something I need to keep reminding myself.
But I want you to know it now, and always.
Your life is worth saving, and you are the best person to save it.
And when you are a lifeguard, you can teach others to do it, too.
I love you so much,
Fran Wilde’s novels and short stories have been nominated for two Nebula awards and a Hugo and include her Andre Norton- and Compton Crook-winning debut novel, “Updraft” (Tor 2015), and its sequels, “Cloudbound” (2016) and “Horizon” (2017). You can find her at franwilde.net.