A Personal Essay: My Grandpa
Grandpa and me. Not in the same time period as the story below, but aren't we just so cute together? Love you, Grandpa!
Photo by someone in my family (Nana? Dad? Mom?) ~1995.
This past weekend, my grandpa died. It’s been a hard week, especially since I haven’t seen him since before the pandemic and so I missed him already. The good news is that he’s no longer suffering from his many medical problems. So today, I want to write about what I consider the most important interaction I had with him.
My grandpa directed a gifted camp that my sister, cousin, and I attended. It was a great program that included not only academic classes but also the arts and sports. My second year of camp, we were in Oberlin, Ohio, at the university campus there. I signed up for a swimming class because even though I’d taken lessons before and understood what to do, I physically couldn’t do it. And since I was eleven, this deficit was getting embarrassing.
The first swim class, the teacher, a man around my grandpa’s age, asked us to write our names on the chalkboard by the pool. I wrote my first name only, but that’s all it took. The teacher said to stop and that he wouldn’t waste time teaching me because I’d never learn to swim. Because I was left handed.
Now, if you’ve ever gone swimming before, you know that you typically use both hands to swim. Maybe professionals consider which hand they stroke with first or something, but otherwise, it’s a very symmetrical sport. So, his comment confused me A LOT.
In fact, I thought he was joking. We all got in the pool and he had us swim down the length of the Olympic size pool and back. Naturally, as a person who cannot swim, I struggled. I barely reached the far side. He ignored me and talked only to the other students. He made it clear he wouldn’t bother with me.
That afternoon during rec hour, I went to my grandpa’s office. I understood that I held a position of privilege. I wasn’t an ordinary camper and that if I made a complaint, I was putting Grandpa in a strange position. Would he side with his granddaughter or would be wonder if I was being dramatic and whiny? I only saw my grandpa about twice a year (Christmas and camp) so I worried he wouldn’t know I wasn’t the exaggerating type.
But now I should mention my other grandpa, who wasn’t there. This one grew up in the 1920s in a farm community in Illinois. He was born left handed, like me and many members of my family. However, in his one-room schoolhouse, his teacher tied his left hand behind his back and then punished him when his right-handed handwriting wasn’t good enough. I’d heard the story many times by this point. I considered the 1920s as deep history, with many problems of the time fixed. But this incident made me wonder if the prejudice against lefties had somehow lasted, a torch of hatred carried within this one last person—my swim teacher.
I told my grandpa, the camp director, what my swim teacher had said. Why he refused to teach me. And that’s when it happened. My grandpa said he believed me. He wanted to fix this. He also made it clear this guy had a contract and even if my grandpa could dismiss him right away, he didn’t have a new teacher to replace him. This guy taught all the sports classes. So Grandpa gave me the choice to switch classes or stay and tell him anything else this guy said or did. Let me reiterate: my grandpa believed an eleven-year-old girl about a man his age, spoke to said girl like she was an adult and laid out all the issues, and then gave that child options about what she wanted to do.
I stayed in the class. I wanted to learn to swim. The TA, who coincidentally ended up marrying my second cousin years later, taught me. And the teacher eventually ignored not just me, spending more time in the sauna than the pool. By the end of camp, many kids complained about him. He refused to teach lefties in the tennis class too. Tennis. Where many champions are famously left handed. The camp flagged him, so they’d never hire him again.
In contrast, a few years later, I reported a youth minister at church for inappropriate comments and the head minister told my concerned parents that I was "just a teenage girl" and "probably made it up for drama." I was later proven right about that youth minster.
I realize how valuable and RARE my experience with Grandpa was at camp. How much it meant that he believed me so easily, so surely. How that belief was bolstered by other complaints. His leadership in that moment taught me that leaders have to make tough decisions and walk fine lines, but transparency and the act of believing are meaningful.
So, thank you, Grandpa, for listening, believing, and teaching me many things. You are missed by so many.
This differed from what I usually post. Hope you don’t mind! Hug your loved ones if the pandemic allows.