I remember the first time I ever jumped off the high dive.
I was seven years old. Our daycare took a summer trip to what we Atlanta kids called “the nice pool”. It was a huge multi-pool park that had both a basic diving board and a high diving board — not the ten-footer you might see at other public pools… This was a 10 meter (nearly 30 ft.) Olympic diving platform. And the right of passage, if you didn’t want to be mocked relentlessly and terrorized by the older kids, was to jump off The High Dive.
Before our first trip, the elder statespersons of our fellow daycare detainees explained that they only take a trip to The Nice Pool once a summer, and the standing yard rules of this particular prison is that if you didn’t want to be seen as a “total wimp” you had to jump off of The High Dive. We had only started going to this daycare two days before this trip happened. Needless to say, neither my sister nor I were adequately prepared for the hole that appeared in our lower intestines which our stomachs fell through when we first laid eyes on The High Dive. It was a monolith; every bit the towering, awe-inspiring structure that the Burj Khalifa is from the ground (or so I imagine, I’ve not yet seen it in person… But good lord, is it huge).
The rest of the summer was, in a word, hell, both in the literal and the figurative sense. Atlanta gets very hot in the summer (hence the nickname for the city none of us who are actually from here will ever call it, because it’s fucking dumb — seriously, don’t call Atlanta “Hotlanta” because no. No no no. Just don’t), and the treatment we received from the other, more experienced, more permanent members of the daycare prison system was enough to make Dante wince.
The kids made “pee-mud” that is, you can safely assume, what it sounds like. They used in conjunction with stray sticks and other yard debris to, among other things, paint the chain link fence brown and fling the effluent at the lesser, weaker kids in the yard. We stopped bringing any toys from home because they inevitably ended up either in more pieces than they arrived in, or as part of some other older kids’ collection. Lunches were special because of the various items the other kids would introduce to our sandwiches and make us eat. Turkey and paint chips; peanut butter and snot…
And it wasn’t just us. It was every kid that was, by my perception, way too scared to jump off the high dive.
I never fought them. I wanted to, a lot. But my mother expressly forbade fighting of any kind. The few times I did, I was usually standing up for my sister, which made my mother slightly less angry and the punishment slightly less severe, but fighting was still such a terrible offense that my punishment at the daycare or school I was at was easily doubled or tripled in severity at home. Stand in the corner for an hour at daycare? How about a whole afternoon at home? How about a whole week?
I got sneaky, of course. I’d perform stealth attacks of my own. I worked in conjunction with a few other newbies or weaker kids to get our own back against the antagonists. It was never enough to get them to stop, and inevitably invited retribution way worse than the first offense. And in the end, the only avenue that ever seemed to make them stop was being brave enough to jump off The High Dive.
So that next summer, two weeks after school let out and we started daycare, I resolved that no matter how scary, how terrifying, how dangerous it might be, I was going to heave my big-little ass off that 10-meter-high platform and show those kids I wasn’t fooling around. Half the kids that were present the last summer were gone, either aged out of the daycare system or unable to attend because their likely only parent couldn’t afford it, or some other reason. But the half that remained had effectively passed along the ritual, along with it names of returning “summer kids” who failed the test the last go round.
For a week and a half, we were subjected to the same treatment as the summer before. I begged the kids not to fuck with us, swearing up and down that my sister and I would both leap off the high dive when next we took a trip to The Nice Pool. It didn’t help. If you weren’t a jumper, you were on the list, and that was the way of things.[And yes, you’re probably thinking this daycare was horribly regulated. It was. What do you expect in inner city Atlanta in the 80’s, with nearly fifty kids being shepherded by two elderly women who were far more concerned that the checks cleared every week than they were with the overall happiness and safety of the kids that paid their rent? For better or for worse, it’s the way it was. It’s probably the case in some cities today. America.]
Finally, the day arrived. I remember it being hot before the sun even rose. The air rippled with heat waves as I stared out the front of the daycare bus at the long road which led to my redemption. I mentally prepared for the journey, reminding myself that if all these other kids could master their fears and leap off The High Dive, I could too.
Too bad I hadn’t physically prepared for it. I forgot my flip flops, and we weren’t allowed to wear our street clothes to the pool. Everyone changed before we left (which, for years, I thought was simply a convenience thing, but have come to realize that it was probably a very well thought out safety measure in the days of “Stranger Danger!” and kidnappings and child endangerment).
We got off the bus and the second my feet touched the black asphalt parking lot, I could feel my skin bubbling. I tried to take refuge in the white striped paint, and that helped, but as the daycare workers proceeded along with a line of kids toward the pool, I had to move. I leapt stripe to stripe for as long as there were stripes to leap to, but there was no avoiding the long stretch of black tarmac that separated the last parking space from the entrance to the pool. By the time we entered, my feet were blistered and bleeding.
But that didn’t stop me.
I was the very first in the line of our daycare kids who were up to challenge the high dive. The oatmeal I choked down for breakfast began coming back up as I climbed and midway up the ladder, I puked. It landed on some kid who wasn’t with us. The other kids from our daycare cracked up while simultaneously screeching in disgust.
Eventually, I reached the top of the dive. Little spats of blood from my feet made circled tracks on the white platform as I walked toward the edge, and then shrank back, round and round, at least five loops. I puked again, but nothing came out except for a little drool.
“Come on you pussy!” one kid yelled from the ground. I remember thinking how lucky he was, to be free to yell such things at a child taking a huge risk, from the safety of terra firma. Reminds me of the Internet more than just a little.
I finally realized, I had done the really hard part: I’d climbed up there. I prepared. I made the journey. I got to the point where I could finally find my freedom. There were only two ways down: climbing back the way I came, which led to another summer of torture, or swallowing my fear and taking the plunge, thereby securing for myself a summer free from pain.
I slowly walked to the edge of the platform. The treetops looked different from where I stood. I could see some of the eastern side of the Atlanta skyline from The High Dive. I looked down. The crystal blue waters swirled, making the black swim lanes wave and swirl as the sunlight danced on the ripples. I remember thinking it didn’t look nearly as scary from up there, once you got there. I held my breath and pinched my nose, took a one-step leap, and fell nearly 30 feet into the pool below.
I don’t remember the actual fall. I just… Did it. But I remember the sound of the world shutting out as I plowed below the surface of the water. I remember my vision swirling from bright white to black as I clamped my eyes shut, to blurry blue as I opened them underwater, then back to black again because the chlorine burned my eyes. I remember thinking I needed to paddle my feet and wave my arms like I’d learned in swimming lessons several years before.
I kicked hard. I paddled hard. It felt like it took hours to reach the surface. But I was excited. My face parted the waters and fresh air washed over my cheeks. Some cheers entered my ear as the water poured from them. I opened my eyes.
None of the kids were cheering for me. They were cheering on a fist fight that had broken out near the ladder for The High Dive over who was next up. My sister was nowhere near the ruckus; she’d made her way back to the shallow end of the pool and was playing with some kid that wasn’t from our daycare.
I climbed out of the pool, disappointed that more was not made of my triumph. I walked over to where my sister was playing. “Did you see that?” I asked her.
“Yeah… was it scary?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I admitted only to her.
“I’m not doing it,” she said.
“Why not?” I asked, incredulous. “They’re going to pick on us if you don’t!”
“They’re going to pick on us anyway,” she said.
I felt somewhat deflated. Surely, the other kids would be more into what I’d just done. I left her in a huff and marched over where the other kids were, waiting in line to go up the dive, eager to join my new pack.
“Was it scary?” one of the kids who hadn’t jumped before asked.
“…No way,” I lied.
“Good,” he replied. “I just want to get it over with and not get picked on anymore.”
And he did, as did several others. The new or less emboldened kids who didn’t know what the true ramifications of not jumping were, joined my sister in the shallow end. Two groups formed by the end of the day, much as they had years prior: the jumpers and the non-jumpers.
Not much was said from one group to another, but everyone knew the score. The kids that jumped had passed the test. They ticked that box on the unofficial social form that denotes that they were now One Of Us. And that was really the extent of it. I never made friends with my new group. I was just part of it, because I did the thing they required for me to be in the pack.
That ended a few weeks later, when some kid threw pee-mud at my sister while making fun of her freckles. I picked up a Tonka truck (which back then were still made from steel) and smacked him in the face with it as hard as I could, crushing his nose and blackening his eye. I got smacked by the daycare workers (they still did that back then) and had to stand against the wall during playtime for an hour every day for a week. I got punished by my mom and had to stand in the corner every day after we got home, from dinnertime to bedtime, for a month.
That month of corner-standing turned into two months when, after a few weeks, another kid smeared a mixture of snot, spit, mustard, Sprite, and dirt on my sister’s sandwich and made her eat it. She told me about it after lunch, and I pushed that kid off the swingset and broke his arm.
All of the High Dive kids spared not even a second to sell me out. I was on the shit list for the rest of the summer. My mother almost had to pull us out of that daycare because I was a “behavior problem.” I was remanded to sequestered care with two other kids every day who had performed some manner of extreme violence on other kids. I still ended up with snot in my lunch periodically, because I’d turned my back on the ruling pack. But I will say, no one fucked with my sister again after that. Or if they did, she never said anything.
Looking back on all of this through adult eyes, the lesson is clear: fitting in isn’t something you can force. If the rules demand that you perform certain tasks to prove a loyalty you don’t truly feel, you can bet the group you’re joining is, at the very least, full of shit — but they’re probably some sort of evil at their core, because what they’re asking for is loyalty over what’s right. And any grand accomplishment you achieve for the wrong reasons will, inevitably, fail to fulfil you. Your way out may be a dead end.
What should have been a formative moment where I overcame my fear of taking leaps and climbing heights has nothing at all to do with those things. Instead, it was merely an escape route from societal condemnation. I did something pretty profound for my seven-year-old self, and I did it all for the wrong reasons.
There are situations in everyone’s adult life where they feel forced to do shit they don’t want to do in order to prove they are who everyone wants them to be. And we all do it. The High Dive was certainly not the last time I did something to prove I was cool, or to fit in, or at the very least to stop being picked on. But it was the first that I can recall.
I try to think back on that when I write. I try to keep that in mind when I give advice. It’s easy to be simplistic when you’re past a hard place and simply say “You can do it!” or “All it takes is time!” or “It’ll all turn out great, just believe in yourself!”
When you’re seven, or fifteen, or twenty-three, or even thirty, and you don’t have a sense of who yourself even is… How can you believe? How can you trust that you can do it, or that all it takes is time?
No one is wrong when they say such things. They’re cliches for a reason. But to the person actually going through it (whatever it may be; depression, anxiety, pain, loss, confusion); right now, I say to you: you are going to mess up. You may make choices that seem right at the time, and end up being benign — or worse, dangerous to you and others. You may act a certain way or do certain things in an attempt to get away from what you’re feeling. In that, so long as you’re not hurting anyone else, you need to know it’s okay.
It’s okay to be scared, it’s okay to be afraid, and it’s okay to not know what you’re doing. And all of that is because it’s impossible to know a thing before you know it, and the only way to truly know it is to go through it.
But the solace I will offer is this: you will get through it. And when you do, you will be wiser. You will know better. You will heal. And what you do then, after you’ve learned and healed, is what matters more.
For those who have jumped off The High Dive for all the right reasons (whatever your version of The High Dive is), that’s a major victory. So much is to be said about the bravery it took and respect you earned for doing something hard and overcoming your fears. Nothing will stop you in life, because you know how to overcome a hard thing and achieve a goal.
And for those who have for all the wrong reasons… that’s also a major victory, and has lessons all their own. Knowing things comes with a responsibility to not do them the same way again. And when you can, you try to share that with others who are going on their own journeys, hoping like hell they don’t make the same mistakes you did.
Of course, they will. They have to. It’s life, and that’s how it works. And so our responsiblity, having jumped off our own High Dives for all the wrong reasons, is to be there at the base of the pool to help the misguided among us to realize, what they did was brave, but not necessarily the right thing for them, and to not leave them isolated as they try to figure out what is the right thing.
At least, that’s what I think.