Atwood on pools

Rich kids swim, poor kids sink
She learned to swim in Lake Superior at age 6, but not all kids can go to the cottage or summer camp. Margaret Atwood dives into the school pool debate, declaring that physical activity is not a frill

MARGARET ATWOOD   Special to the Globe and Mail   April 19, 2008

People are angry about Toronto's proposed school swimming-pool closings. Not just parents – all sorts of people. It's hit a nerve, and it's a gut reaction – as if the government were threatening to take away something from our children that's so essential it's considered a right, like food or air.

I myself learned to swim in Lake Superior at the age of 6, taught by my older brother, who wasn't telling the absolute truth when he said he wouldn't let go. Sink or swim was the lesson: You kick to stay afloat. So, lucky me: Unlike today's urban kids, I had a big, unpolluted lake to learn in.

But here's the drawback: I didn't learn to swim really well, because Lake Superior was so freezing cold you couldn't stay in for long without turning azure. And by the time I was old enough to know what a comparatively lousy swimmer I was, it was too late for me to shed my bad swimming habits. Swimming, like talking, is something kids learn best when they're young.

Why should they learn at all? Here's one good reason: Canada has so much water in it they're more than likely to fall into it at one time or another. I've been around boats and canoes all my life, but I, too, have tipped and spilled. It's a good thing to be drown-proofed, because panic in the water can kill you very quickly: A few lungfuls of water and down you go. Along with the school swimming lessons, the kids get lifesaving lessons – how to tow a drowning person to shore without getting pulled under yourself.

But why can't they learn in a lake, as I did? Many people used to swim in Lake Ontario, before it got so polluted that if you went in with two eyes you'd come out with three. We're told that water quality's improving, but there's a way to go yet; and even if the lake were totally purified, it's too cold for swimming in all but three months of the year.

But isn't that enough time to learn? Kids do it at summer camp. Yes, those whose parents can afford it – who are a small fraction of the Toronto total. Which leaves us with: Rich kids swim, poor kids sink.

Literally.

This leads to the second good reason: In the total education of a child, movement is a basic. If you're like Mike Harris or everyone who thinks kids should do nothing all day but sit at a desk "learning" "important job skills," you won't believe me, so believe the brain people instead. We're not a mind and a body, they tell us: We're a "mindbody."

Not only is exercise an antidepressant – especially important for teenagers – but movement improves brain function. Like music training – shown to increase memory – it facilitates more efficient learning. It improves blood flow to the entire mindbody, thus aiding neural connectivity. But our education experts have tossed out not only music, but physical education. And the third essential mind-body patterning aid – contact with nature – has been severely cut back, as well. Is there some Puritan hangover dictating that anything happy-making can't be good for you? Do we want the kids to be stupid and depressed? If so, that's terrible, because we have to become a motivated and intelligence-based society if we're going to prosper in a future of dwindling resources.

Pay attention, taxpayers: Music, movement and nature are not frills! Without them, you're spending a lot of money pouring water into a sieve, because the kids just can't learn as effectively. Not won't. Can't.

Well, okay, you say. But the pools are so expensive, and governments are pleading poverty. Shouldn't we close these structures, cut their heating and maintenance costs, and use them for furniture storage, thus dumpstering an enormous amount of taxpayer investment? As for the exercise thing, why not just have the kids hop up and down? Better than nothing, but not the best solution. Here's a good one, which came to me via a friend of a friend:

In one model project in Seattle, a school was retrofitted with a geothermal heating system. The wells were placed under the playing field, avoiding high cellar-excavation costs. Not only does this heat and air-condition the school, eliminate its previous carbon footprint and reduce long-term cost, but it allows the school to sell enough energy to heat 500 homes. Multiply the figures by the number of school playgrounds in Toronto and it's not peanuts.

With our burgeoning geothermal sector and increasing fuel costs, and with both provincial and city governments singing the green anthem, why wouldn't we muster the political will to do this? And save the pools too? Maybe because we're too stupid and depressed, from not enough swimming.