Brow Beat

Swimming in Gym Class Is a Terrible Idea. Let’s Stop Forcing Kids to Do It.

Who wants to do this in gym class? 

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Last week, disturbing footage of a California gym teacher attempting to force one of his female students into the pool during class was shared widely online. The 14-year-old had just gotten her hair done and refused to participate in the swim session. Teacher Danny Paterson wouldn’t have it: In the video, he drags the two-piece-clad girl on the floor as she screams in protest. Paterson is now being charged with misdemeanor child abuse, and has been put on paid leave (for a second time—the incident occurred in August).

This kind of “discipline” has no place, of course. But while I was fortunate to have kind and capable gym teachers, this video still stirred bad memories. The truth is, swimming in gym class is a fraught situation for many students, even with the nicest of teachers. It’s particularly unnerving for young girls, as I can personally attest—and it really should be banished from school curriculums.

Let’s start with hair, which is not the most serious part of this, but was apparently an issue for the poor young woman in California. I can sympathize. I’ll spare you the think piece on the complexities of swimming with black hair, and whittle it down to this: When my hair, which was chemically straightened at the time, got wet, and especially when it came in contact with chlorine, it was not a pretty sight. I couldn’t just throw it up in a fashionably “messy” bun and wait for it to dry. My freshman year, I had gym first period, which meant going the entire day smelling like chlorine with my hair looking rather less than fabulous.

Speaking of periods: For a teenage girl who’s fairly new to the whole “becoming a woman” thing, being forced to wear a bathing suit and swim among your peers is terrifying. The pain and discomfort of puberty is only exacerbated by the freezing pool and the unfazed boys who can’t relate. Though it may be possible to turn male confusion to your advantage: My teacher for that first-period freshman-year gym class was an affable man who was seemingly freaked out by the whole idea of menstruation; I avoided swimming for most of the two-week unit due to my conveniently timed daily “cramps.” (This bogus excuse did not work as well the following year, when my gym teacher was a woman.)

Even putting aside the insecurities and difficulties of adolescence, swimming in P.E. tends not to be particularly instructional or much of a workout—supposedly the main purposes of gym class. Having one teacher stand by a pool full of 20-plus kids with varying degrees of aquatic skill for roughly 20 minutes does not produce accomplished swimmers. Our gym teacher wasn’t allowed to get in the water with us save for emergencies, so he or she could keep an eye on everyone at once. (Try instructing a flailing beginner while sitting on the edge of the pool.) And all the time required to get in your swimsuit and later to dry and get out of it—scary, naked moments that are themselves potentially traumatizing—means that these pool sessions are invariably brief. Learning to swim is a good idea, but gym class is simply not the place to make it happen.

A wise gym teacher will allow a student who can’t handle all of this to sit out the swimming sessions and reduce his or her grade accordingly. But they shouldn’t have to do that: Let kids get proper swimming instruction on their own time, and give them something more productive and less anxiety-ridden to do during school hours. And I’m open to suggestions for other ways to make gym class an emotionally safer space for kids. Just don’t say “dodgeball.”