Not Even Naked

by Abbye Meyer | 5/14/02 5:00am

In this, the spring of my senior year, I have finally completed my first rite of passage as a Dartmouth student. Last Friday, I took (and passed, thankfully) the dreaded swimming test, and I tried my hardest to make it change me as a person.

Most Dartmouth students go through this ritual in the beginning, when they are still straddling the fence between childhood and college-hood. Little liminal beings, they squirm in the pool, I imagine feeling uncomfortable and shy, but they look like everyone else around them. Then they get out, dry off, follow each other into the woods for a showerless trip in the mountains and return Dartmouth students. Post-swim test, they are ready for anything. They've already accomplished the worst.

Well, that's fine for them. But I messed things up. I didn't swim with the others. I got thrown into orientation week untested and unprepared for college. I did everything wrong. I didn't go hiking until my junior year on an FSP in Scotland, when I sort of climbed a mountain. I didn't gain the requisite fifteen pounds until even later than that, when I moved into Foley House (known also as the Bread and Cheese House).

And through all of this, I've been haunted by the swim test, aware that it must happen and tortured by the impact it may have, by how it could change me. It's been four full years of drama, build-up and preparation.

The week I got accepted to Dartmouth, my uncle (an alumnus) told my mother that, in order to graduate, each student must complete a nude swim test. He claimed in all seriousness to have remembered taking his, jumping in the pool naked with all of his classmates.

Seemingly just a stupid comment, my uncle's distorted memory wreaked great havoc on my family. My mom flipped out. My uncle defended himself relentlessly and aggressively. My father laughed and laughed. And I got nervous --swimming, nude or not, is far from my favorite thing.

I started to experience painful flashbacks to elementary school swim club, of high school swimming units in gym class. But every time I tried to cry to my mom, she just got all upset about my father and uncle, the naked swim test inventors. It was chaos.

So I arrived in Hanover basically obsessed with the swim test. Even during my first term, I was telling people that I wouldn't do it until someone picked me up and threw me in the pool. Not because I couldn't swim, of course, but because it would be a good story.

The energy and drama has been building ever since, especially when I started getting notices telling me I wouldn't graduate until I swam a lap. I talked about it a lot, forwarded the threatening emails, exaggerated the warnings and refused to just go to the pool. For awhile, I demanded that my friends all come watch, with posters and noisemakers and t-shirts. I was going to make the biggest scene I could, just for the story.

And finally, on Friday, I decided to get it over with. I made two friends accompany me to the pool -- since I'd never gone swimming at Dartmouth before, arriving was perhaps the most terrifying part -- and I was ready and waiting for them, swim bag and towel in hand.

"What are you doing?" the first one asked. "You look like an eight-year-old going to camp or something." I was in costume, wearing sweats and carrying a little red athletic bag.

The other friend worried about my having sandals and whether or not I would be able to handle showering in the locker room. I was lucky, I suppose, to have these people take care of me; they were perfect characters for my swim test story.

But the pressure was on. Not to swim the lap, which I knew I could do, but to make it dramatic and make it funny. I approached the lifeguard, explained my situation and followed my friends to the water. We picked our lanes, and I had them flank me, one on each side -- "It's better for the story," I explained.

And then we swam. Down and back, the test went so fast I barely knew it was happening. I wasn't tired or embarrassed or thrilled or anything. The three of us stopped after the lap to discuss and reflect. "That was so anti-climactic," one of them said.

I nodded, feeling a little nervous. I didn't know what to do. "Should I keep swimming? Or should I just get out?" I asked. "Which one is funnier? Which one is better for the story?"

They just looked at me and shrugged. They tightened their goggles and got ready to dive back in. Neither one cared what I did. The story was over, eased away by a big old boring rite of passage that ran its big old boring course no matter what I did. It was a swim test, and that's it. Unless perhaps I go back and pretend I was naked, but now I don't even know if that's enough to make it a story.