She's nervous. I can tell because every time she glances up at me, her eyes widen in a "this is really hard and I'm scared" sort of way. "Try again, Natalie!" I can hear the coach yell.
She climbs up on the starting block and touches her toes. "Now lean forward, and dive!"
She leans forward and at the last second jumps in feet-first. She swims a lap, climbs out, walks around to the starting block and touches her toes again. She jumps in feet-first again. And again. And again. And again. Each time I feel my whole body tense as I think, "Come on, Nat. You can do this. You can do this."
Last month she begged and begged me to sign her up for a swim team. I finally did it, despite the fact that wading through the team website took way too much time and frustration. The sport of swimming has a language and culture all its own and we were strangers to it all. But here we are, at the very first practice. Even from up in the stands I can tell it is tiring work. I can feel her exhaustion. Unlike her teammates, her body isn't yet conditioned to swimming laps for an hour straight.
Finally the hour is up and I go to meet her in the humid chlorine-scented locker room. It is filled with energetic young girls shouting greetings and slamming locker doors. Damp goggle-adorned heads bob all around us.
"How was it?" I asked.
I can see tears welling up in her eyes.
"It was hard. I am so frustrated and embarrassed. Everybody else can do all this stuff and I don't know how to do any of it. I can't even dive!"
My heart breaks a little as we walk out to the parking lot. There is a fight inside me between wanting things to always go smoothly for her and knowing that life's best lessons are learned in the struggles. I try to boost her spirits. I remind her of how hard it was for her to ride a bike for the first time, and how she just kept trying. I wonder if anything I say sinks in or if her anger and frustration just blocks out my voice completely.
We climb into the van and I turn to look at her. She's all blond hair and freckles. She's beautiful. She's my baby that didn't stop crying for the first eight months of her life. She's my toddler girl who loved all animals and would hold her newborn baby brother so proudly and carefully. Shes my pig-tailed Kindergartener walking into her classroom for the first time, lunch box confidently swinging by her side. She's my second-grader who worried me so much because she wouldn't say a word in her new school for months. She's my fourth-grader who found a best friend and opened up enough to read out loud in a strong, steady voice.
In two weeks she'll finish fifth grade and her time in elementary school will be complete.
"Natalie, I know it was hard for you, but I am so impressed that every single thing they asked you to do, you did."
She turns away and stares out the window. We drive away, towards home.
When we walk in the door her Dad asks her how her first swim practice went. "It was hard." She says, "But the next practice will be a little better."
Yes, Nattie. It most certainly will.