Aged fourteen or so, there aren’t exactly a whole host of potential lucrative jobs available — especially when you live in suburban Britain. By sheer chance, I found myself arriving at our local leisure centre for a martial arts session (I did Brazilian jiu-jitsu for about nine years) just as the swimming lesson at the pool downstairs was finishing up. Four smiling, sopping wet teenagers who looked a couple of years older than me burst through a door and headed up the stairs ahead of me, laughing about a kid who’d managed to single-handedly eat a floatation aid in under a minute, unnoticed.
A somewhat reserved, but not shy child, I chuckled at their story from behind and was rewarded with a grin from one of the girls, who turned to see where the laugh came from. “You think I’m joking but some of these kids are right characters,” she beamed, “I can’t believe we get paid to watch this stuff.”
“No way,” I sheepishly grinned back, “It can’t be that good”.
I’d never seen these guys before, all in good shape, wearing casual swimming trunks and a rash vest each with their names on the chest. They looked like some kind of weird pool-themed pop band or something.
“Yeah, no, I’m serious. We get ten quid an hour for playing in a pool. It’s amazing unless one of them decides he needs the loo.”
We’d reached the top of the narrow stairs by this point, and they turned immediately left to key in a code for the private changing rooms and admin area the swim teachers used. I snuck a peak past them to see a small affair: a huge shelving unit dominated the room full of folders with what I presumed were surnames of employees on the spines. Other than that, a bucket of the rash vests and a table were all that was in there, someone’s half eaten lunch lying discarded on some papers.
The girl who’d spoken to me earlier popped her head back round the door once the boys had gone through to tick off their hours on one of the sheets, a piece of folded paper clutched in her hand, which she extended for me to take. “Have a look if you want, we need people to replace the uni students in a few months,” she smiled again and disappeared inside, the door clicking shut.
I headed onwards to the dojo a few doors down and glanced over the letter as I removed my shoes and greeted the other people. It seemed pretty simple, but I’d never really had a job before, apart from mowing a neighbour’s lawn or washing my parent’s car. You basically did a one week course and then began immediately teaching swimming from in the pool, complimenting the proper poolside qualified teacher. It all looked pretty simple.
A few weeks later, I got a letter in the post from the leisure centre manager letting me know that they had preliminarily accepted me to attend the bi-annual training course, assuming my CRB check came back okay. It did, a few weeks later, so once I was on half term break from school, I headed down to the leisure centre on a quiet weekday that they’d specified, sports bag full of swimming kit slung over my back.
The first few days were all theory — how to talk to children, what to do when they misbehave, and most perilously of all what to do if a child shows signs of abuse at home, which is taken very seriously, as the kids often grow to really trust their pool helpers.
Once we got in the pool, we intensively drilled lifeguarding practices, dragging each other around the pool by the chin, keeping heads above water and ensuring we could tread water sufficiently well. That last bit was brutal, we spent almost 45 minutes treading water, not allowed to let our heads dip underwater for even a second, otherwise we’d fail. All of this when we would be teaching kids to swim in a a pool that was 3 feet deep in most parts!
Once lifeguarding was finished, then we got to do some practical work. Now let me say, there is nothing more surreal than trying to teach a fellow teenager pretending to be a six year old to swim… we pretended to not speak well, to be incapable of following basic instructions — anything to successfully simulate teaching the nightmare child how to swim.
The week ended, and over the next few days I waited patiently to hear how I’d done. I was pretty nervous. My parents had kindly paid the course cost up front, hoping I would get the job. If I hadn’t, then I’d probably have to pay them that back in car washing all summer, which was not a prospect I could particularly relish. I realised that I’d really loved the course in the end, and made some really good friends among the other fifteen applicants. My own source of money for Xbox games and magazines was a tantalising prize, and I couldn’t bear to let relative financial freedom form my modest pocket money slip from my clutches.
The wait felt like an eternity, clichéd as it sounds.
After sprinting to get the post every morning, when that letter finally arrived it was readily accepted. I was pumped, elated, worried and expectant all at once — after all, this was the single biggest thing I’d tried to do in my life so far! I got offered a job, one of four who were from my course. I gleefully cycled down to the centre later that day for my adjustment and welcome, to lay out some times in the timetable when I could work.
The first few months I worked intermittently, filling in for when the regulars were sick or busy with social commitments. Then the summer came, and university students left for good to go hit up beaches in Ibiza, or whatever it is that older kids do for fun. Now was my time to strike: I took on two lots of four hours every weekend, one on Saturday after jiu-jitsu , one Sunday. I made friends immediately, all the kids loved me, it was all going swimmingly. I made more money in a few weeks then I’d ever had in my bank account before.
Then one day, a kid decided to shit in the pool on my watch.
The second I see that little cloud of brown spread around that kid, time seems to dilate. Oh my god. What do I do? Immediately the kids nearest to him start screaming, uncontrollably. The helper beside him lets out a yelp herself and recoils in horror before lifting the offending child out of the water. On the poolside, a whistle is blown, and the evacuation procedure begins — this is the biggest emergency we’ve had in the pool all summer and it poses a huge health and safety risk. No time to think about that now though, our main priority is to get every last toddler out of that pool before there’s time for them to catch some kind of ailment from the human waste now floating amongst them. It looks pretty liquid. Lovely.
We dive into action, practically throwing crying children out of the pool, yelling for them to line up on the poolside and to calm down. We’re all practically juggling children at this point, trying to work as quickly as possible so that we can get out ourselves… the very idea of swimming around with something like that is making us all a little queasy! I eventually account for all the children around my area, and lift myself out, beginning to laugh at the hilarity of what’s just happened. All of a sudden, there’s another wave of screaming and commotion from the other side of the pool.
Now he’s thrown up, all over another child.
I glance over to the two way glass that separates the parent’s viewing area from the main pool, unable to see in, but silently imploring this child’s parent to come and take her child away before he can do anymore damage. I have no idea if anyone is even there (many parents don’t stay to watch the whole lesson) but it’s worth a shot.
I sprint over to the boy in question, helping the girl who originally extracted him to shepherd him towards a shower in one of the changing rooms, out of the way. We send him off with the lifeguard, an older boy who has seen his fair share of these calamities, and begin to herd the multitude of screaming kids out towards their parents and away from our responsibility. As I shoo the final few away, holding their hands and leading them out to the meeting area wrapped up in towels, I glance back over my shoulder, to see how the pool is doing.
The pool manager, standing precariously on tiptoe, has one of the extendable metal screens used to collect debris from the water in hand, leaning over as far as she can to try and fish out some of what can only be described as ‘bigger chunks’ of the incident from the water of her precious pool. We’d have had to drain the whole thing anyway for the health and safety regulations, no doubt about it, but maybe some part of her wanted to remove the most obnoxious defecation from her place of work, to save the filtering system perhaps.
Either way, the startled shout she gave as she fell into the compromised water as she lost her footing on the slippery side remains to this day one of the most hilarious sounds I’ve ever heard. The sheer terror in that sound, released as a woman realised she was tumbling towards that puddle of bacteria and half-digested breakfast, was priceless. As her shout became a gurgle as she hit the water, I doubled over, unable able to contain my laughter after having watched her fall in slow motion towards the surface of the pool.
We all got paid extra for the trouble that weekend, and I spent my bonus, like a few of my colleagues, on a new pair of trunks for myself, and donated the rest for a new leisure-centre branded t-shirt for the poor teacher.
Emblazoned on the back, it now read her unofficial title:
Sue: Primary Poo Consultant
I don’t think I’ll ever forget that particular weekend.