Final exams (and learning how to swim)

It’s that time of year… I just took my final exams in Mathematical Economics. One more exam to go.

The experience of taking that finals reminds me of the swimming lessons I took before my teens. (This was in the sixties, if you must know.) Every summer, the Bernardo Park in Quezon City offered formal swimming lessons for the youth. The park had a clean and well-maintained public swimming pool (25 x 50 meters, I think). Since the pool was just a walking distance from our house in Kamuning, it was very accessible and convenient. I went to swimming class with some friends in the neighborhood.

The program was run by “Sir Luna”, a swimming trainer and a real professional, who conducted it at the pool’s shallow end (4 feet deep).

We started with “bubbling”, learning to breathe in out of the water, and breathe out in the water. Exhale through the nose, inhale through the mouth. The key was in the rhythm. Exhale, inhale. You had to pace yourself. Exhale, inhale. We must have done the bubbling routine tens of thousands of times by the time we finished the course. Exhale, inhale. Note very well: exhale first, then inhale.

After bubbling, it was paddling. Standing chest-deep at the shallow end of the pool, arms stretched out in front and on the gutter, we paddled with the left arm, and then the right. Left, then right.

Then, we were introduced to the “flutter kick”. While we held on to the gutter, we started “fluttering” our feet a few inches up and down, knees kept straight. We also did the flutter kick across the width of the pool, at the shallow end, but no breathing. Just face down, arms stretched in front, and looking at the pool’s bottom as it moved slowly past us. When we ran out of breath, we stopped.

After several training days, we also did the routines two at a time: bubbling and paddling, bubbling and kicking, paddling and kicking. Then we tried all three. We held on to the gutter, facing the swimming pool edge, most of the time.

After two weeks or so of these, we got to try all three routines away from the gutter. The hardest part was the breathing. If you lost your rhythm, you breathed in at the wrong time and took water. You had to stick with the “bubbling” exercise, day after day, until the rhythm became part of you, and your muscles knew by themselves, without any conscious thought from you, when to inhale and when to exhale, just like you do out of the water.

This was, I think, the key – for one’s lungs to learn the exhale-inhale routine and to do it without conscious thought. One by one, my classmates got it, and they started to actually swim by themselves! Then, they were allowed to play at the deep end. But I still didn’t get it. My legs, arms, neck, nose, mouth and especially my lungs had not learned enough. I’d lose my rhythm and then inhale at the wrong time and take in water. I must have drank gallons from that pool.

To graduate, one was expected to dive from a diving board at the deep (9 feet) end of the pool, and swim the 50 meters to the shallow end. In full view of relatives, friends and guests. On graduation day, my friends all made that graduation dive. I wasn’t ready, so I didn’t. After graduation, graduates were granted free access to the pool for the rest of summer. Sir Luna was kind enough to give me access too.

For the rest of summer, my friends and I enjoyed that pool. They played at the deep end, showing off their new swimming skills. They loved diving from the diving board. Although I stayed at the shallow end, I enjoyed it as much as they did. Then, one day, it just came. I finally got my rhythm and I started swimming too! So, before the summer ended, I also got to play and to dive at the deep end.

One of our professors in graduate school had told us, “sometimes, you learn more from the tests you fail.” How true. “But your grades won’t show it,” he added. Indeed, failures can often teach us lessons better than success. We call it learning the hard way.

By the way, I made that graduation dive the next summer.



  1. Posted October 19, 2008 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    The English mystic Blake has said: “If a fool persists in his folly he will become wise” -but the German military expert Clauswitz is supposed to have said: “Only a fool learns from their own mistakes, wise men learn from the mistakes of others”.

    I wonder which of these two we should believe most -or are they not as contradictory as they seem?

    What value is “graduation” if one learns more from failure than success and perhaps the least valuable lessons are rewarded the most by the grading system? Surely, that is like standing on one’s head and pretending one is learning to walk.

    I also wonder if your “learning to swim” was really the understanding of theory in practice -or if it was actually the understanding of practice without theory. It seems that most traditional Asian teaching methods involve following the master through practice -and not by listening to theory first.

    It seems that dealing with theory might need a lot of practice….

  2. Roberto Verzola
    Posted October 21, 2008 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    To Trevor:

    Your comments contain much hidden meaning and play on words.

    You might conclude from the piece that the “failures” must have learned the most, or you can conclude that those who got low marks did not necessarily learn less than those who got high marks.

    I would consider both theory and practice important. Which should come first would depend on the learning situation, I imagine. When the risk of picking up hard-to-correct bad habits is high, as in swimming and in programming, it is important for theory to come first (or, as you seem to say, practice guided by the “master” — which is theory-led practice).

  3. Posted October 21, 2008 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    The problem with theory is that it distorts all the evidence to fit the theory. The problem with practice is that it may (sometimes) be difficult to discover underlying patterns.

    I wrote: “I also wonder if your “learning to swim” was really the understanding of theory in practice -or if it was actually the understanding of practice without theory.” and you intepret this as “practice guided by the “master” — which is theory-led practice”. Can there be better evidence of the distortions that theory creates -if one believes in the primacy of theory over practice?

    Be careful too of word games -in theory they can be dismissed as clever games -but in practice they may reveal connections that are real but negelected by thoeries that refuse to believe in them.

  4. Roberto Verzola
    Posted October 21, 2008 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    To Trevor:

    As I said, your comments contain much hidden meaning and play on words. If, because of this, you are misunderstood, it might be too soon to conclude that you are being distorted. Who knows? Blame for misunderstanding may lie as much on the sender as on the receiver of an obscure message.

    Until we’ve understood each other’s true message, no message is communicated yet, much less distorted.

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