We gather on the last day possible—three days before graduation—for this final requirement, this last hoop to jump through, the one remaining box to check before we receive our degrees. We are lined up in the women’s locker room wearing one-piece swimsuits and flip-flops that have been worn mostly in the dorm showers. Why did we wait so long? What if we fail? There are no more chances after this. Why did we keep postponing? Here are some of the reasons we tell ourselves for why we put it off: too fat, too skinny, too hairy, back acne, sensitive skin, never learned to swim, too busy studying, dislike the smell of chlorine.
“Don’t drown!” someone calls from the back of the line then laughs. Some of us giggle nervously, but drowning is within the realm of possibility. The legend is that in the early 1900s an alumna was on an ocean liner that sank, and she drowned because she didn’t know how to swim. “The Titanic?” people always ask when this story is told. No, no, not the Titanic. Some other ship. The details are hazy, but we’ve heard this alumna’s parents—tycoons, from oil or steel or maybe the railroads—donated their fortune to the college, but with the caveat that before graduation each student was required to pass a swim test, be able to swim from one end of the pool to the other and then back. Anyone who didn’t pass would be denied a degree.
“What if we don’t pass?” someone asks the soccer coach, who stands in the doorway of the locker room, holds a clipboard, checks off our names as we file past her.
“You’ll pass,” says the soccer coach flatly. We are not sure we believe her.
The basketball coach sits on a bench near the edge of the pool. “Congratulations, you passed,” she says as each girl walks by. “Congratulations, you passed.” She doesn’t look up from her clipboard, puts check marks next to names in blue ballpoint as each dripping girl stops for a moment and says her name.
“So, basically, if you don’t die, you pass,” someone whispers as we get closer to the pool. How many of us are here? Sixty? Seventy? What percentage of the graduating class has waited for this last moment? Many of us are true procrastinators, last minute-ers, all-nighter-pullers, but this may be cutting things too close. Would we really not be allowed to graduate if we fail the swim test? Would we have to come back for another year? We must pass.
“In you go,” says the assistant basketball coach, pointing to the pool, and one after another, we slide off our flip-flops and jump in, then breaststroke or doggy paddle or do whatever it takes to get to the other end. Where is the swim coach? Why isn’t she involved in this? We’ve heard rumors that the swim coach conducts the tests earlier in the year, the ones with just one or two students, those overachievers who are confident in their swimming skills. We’ve heard the swim coach is tough and has failed people. Maybe the swim coach has taken today off because it would be too traumatizing for her to see dozens of us flailing, sucking in too much water, clutching the edge of the pool, pulling ourselves along the lip from the shallow end to the deep. And maybe she would fail too many of us, so many of us that the graduating class would be tiny, only the good swimmers presented with a bachelor’s degree.
“Congratulations, you passed,” the basketball coach mumbles as we slide our feet back into our flip-flops and shuffle past her. We gather in the now slippery-floored locker room and try to find our towels from the piles on the benches. We are all together now, dozens of us, handing towels to each other, high-fiving because we have all passed, and we wonder why we didn’t take the test four years ago, why we hadn’t just gotten it over with. This was our final requirement, the final hoop to jump through, the final box to check before we graduate. Why did we all wait so long? In small part it might be because we don’t feel comfortable parading around in our swimsuits, but there is something more. After four years, this school has become our home, it’s become familiar, we all have our places here. We are not ready to leave all this behind. And even though now we know no one fails on this final swim test day, and even though we have spent our college careers in fear of failing anything—even a quiz—we think that maybe, just maybe, this would be one test that wouldn’t be so terrible to fail