— By Kelsey Jennings Roggensack —
I grew up in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona, where swimming pools are almost as common as backyards. While Phoenix is located in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, playing in the water, boating, and swimming, are a big part of the culture. The majority of birthday parties were pool parties, no matter in which month you were born. So, as a safety precaution, my parents signed me up for swimming lessons when I was a child. That led to a year-round club swim team, national and international swim meets, college swimming, and NCAA championships: I never quit. Sometime during the countless swim meets, team cheers, lane line burns, and hundreds of attempts to ride a kickboard like a surfboard underwater while the coach announced a workout set, I fell in love with the sport.
“I don’t like sports, but I wish I knew how to swim,” my student, Sukma, whispered as we walked hand in hand to the pool together for the first time. It was oppressively sunny outside, as we were still in the midst of dry season. I thought about Sukma’s comment. I had never seen my female students play sports after school, whereas the boys regularly play basketball or soccer. It was the start of weekly swimming lessons for my female students at MAN Insan Cendekia, an Islamic boarding school in Gorontalo, Indonesia, where I have been placed as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. Every Tuesday afternoon at Insan Cendekia, there is an hour set aside for ‘girls only’ swimming. School rules do not allow boys to be present at the pool when girls are in the water. My school has strict gender rules. In all of the classes I teach, female and male students are separated, usually on opposite sides of the room, divided by a wide aisle, which I like to patrol, up and down, as I deliver instructions. When we play games at school, male and female students may not hold hands; they cannot touch, in any respect. I believe this stems from the presence of Islam at my school. It is similar to local mosques where the men sit in the front and women sit in the back, sometimes there is a divider or curtain to enforce this separation. So, at my school, male and female students have been assigned different times for when they may use the pool.
I started holding weekly swim lessons to share something with the people at my school. I wanted to give back to a community that has welcomed me with open arms. The teachers, staff, and students have been extraordinarily generous to me this entire year, inviting me to numerous cultural events as I’ve enjoyed countless new and exciting experiences. I had a literal hands-on experience at Idul Adha, a Muslim religious holiday that honors Ibrahim’s adherence to Allah’s order to sacrifice his son Ishmael. Communities gather in the morning for prayers and then sacrifice cows or goats. There is a big feast where the main courses feature the animal meat, but one-third of the meat is given away to community members who cannot afford food. So, my school allowed me to partake in the meat separation process, chopping the meat from the recently sacrificed cow and then using my hands to pull the meat apart into smaller portions. I’ve been to “banyak” (banyak=a lot of) weddings and on countless school field trips. Those trips included visiting Desa Bajo (desa=village) in Boalemo, which is a southern district of the Gorontalo province. I’ve traveled to the oldest mosque in our province, attended innumerable family gatherings, and my ibus (Indonesian mothers) have entertained dozens of probing questions from me at circumcision parties. My school and community invited me into their world, as if I had always belonged. So after that first month in Gorontalo, I became motivated to try and share what I could about “berenang” (berenang=swimming).
In Gorontalo, Indonesia, water is ubiquitous. The sheer shape of the island of Sulawesi, on which Gorontalo is situated in the northernmost region, makes it so that there are beaches everywhere (Sulawesi looks like the letter “K” with a tail on top). There are also lakes, hot springs, and even a few pools in the metro Gorontalo area, including the pool at my school. However, there aren’t lifeguards at beaches, and there aren’t competitive swim teams. Most of my students have had exposure to swimming, but typically they do not have a high comfort level in the water: only a few of them can swim all the way across the twenty-five meter pool, and I don’t think anyone is familiar with the four different types of swimming strokes.
In late October, as Sukma and I crossed the Insan Chendekia grounds holding hands, we were on our way to our very first swimming session. Sukma, Ama, Rahma, Nuzul, Ayu, Irun, Salma, Rizza, Denia, Desi, and Wanda came to the pool eager to splash around and learn a bit about swimming.
During our first lesson we discussed body position, the most important aspect of swimming strokes. Swimmers increase their speed by minimizing drag and maximizing buoyancy in the water, which all starts with body position. Before we got in the water, I had all my students lie down on the pool deck while I demonstrated the correct technique for body position and asked them to copy what I did. When we jumped in the pool, we tried floating and kicking while maintaining the body position learned from lying down on the pool deck. My students have advanced English skills, but there are inevitably language barriers, which are expected and oftentimes humorous. Being in the water seemed to increase the language barriers as well as our socio-cultural differences. Unlike my experience growing up swimming in a Speedo or Nike one-piece suit, which are fitted tightly to the body and expose the legs, arms, neck, and back, my female students are required to wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and a hijab while swimming. This required new, unfamiliar considerations as I thought about swimming techniques, such as how their swimwear might affect their floating and body position in the water or how wearing more clothes might make them tire faster. Cultural barriers aside, all of my students are exceptionally bright, curious, and focused, and we always have a lot of fun swimming together.
Although I’ve had experience teaching swimming to both kids and adults before and have spent more than twenty years in the water practicing swimming and training to race, working in the pool with my students in Gorontalo has provided me with new challenges in the water. For me, being in the water is familiar; yet being in the water with my students introduces language and cultural differences that serve as a constant reminder that swimming, however well-known to me, can be an entirely new experience on this side of the globe. Within the unfamiliarity of this swimming experience, both my students and I have had many opportunities to learn from and challenge one another, along with countless moments of laughter. Every Tuesday, I look forward to what will come from the afternoon swim lesson.
Kelsey Jennings Roggensack is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at MAN Insan Cendekia Gorontalo. She is originally from Phoenix, Arizona and graduated from Williams College in 2013 as an All-American swimmer. Prior to her Fulbright grant, Kelsey worked in Boston, Massachusetts on two political campaigns, as a development officer for ArtsEmerson, the theatre affiliate of Emerson College, and achieved a Masters FINA World Record in the 4x100m freestyle relay. Kelsey loves cats and will eat anything “pedas.” Blog: goingrogg.wordpress.com.