Kayaking: or, How I almost killed my P.E. teacher

I’ve had a long and chequered past with Physical Education, but I hit my nadir at Dartmouth. There were a couple phys ed requirements for graduation. First, every student had to pass a swimming test. On my first day on campus, I swam the required lap and promptly lost my contact lens in the pool. I fared no better at the second requirement, which was to take three P.E. classes.

The array of options was astounding. Sure, you could do something pedestrian like aerobics. But what kind of boob would choose to do something like that when you could do skiing, fencing, or water polo for P.E. credit?! My eyes lit up when I saw kayaking on the list of possible classes. Although I had never done any kayaking before, I was sure it couldn’t be difficult. In my mind, I envisioned myself peacefully floating down the Connecticut River, taking in the scenery as I gently rowed along, all while earning a P.E. credit with practically no effort on my part. It was the obvious choice for an out of shape, unathletic couch potato like myself.

I showed up at the docks on the first day of class wearing a wool sweater as I had been instructed. We got our kayaks into the water and the hour passed by just as I had imagined it. It was one of those perfect, crisp Fall days in New Hampshire. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be checking off a mandatory requirement in such a thoroughly pleasant way. As we rowed back to the river’s edge at the end of the class, I congratulated myself on having stayed upright in my kayak. I congratulated myself on so cleverly figuring out how to get P.E. credit without having to break a sweat.

And then one of the instructors announced that it was time to learn how to do a wet exit. I was horrified as I listened to him describe what this would entail and then watch as he actually demonstrated the technique himself. A wet exit meant that I would have to deliberately flip the kayak I had so proudly managed to keep upright for the whole class upside down. Hanging upside down in the water?! This was the stuff of my worst nightmares! I had to then pull open the spray skirt that had kept my bottom half nice and dry during my little jaunt down the river, and then swim out from the kayak into the icy cold river.

I managed to quell the panic attack induced by being upside down in water. (It’s also very possible that I was just stupefied by the freezing cold). When the instructor demonstrated the maneuver for us, he had swum out from his kayak like a sleek otter, his head serenely bobbing up out of the water. I pulled the spray skirt open and fell heavily onto the jagged rocks. I blindly scrabbled against the rocks with my eyes tightly shut (trying not to lose yet another contact lens) before finally getting my bearings. I made my way back to the surface, glugging, snorting, and choking in a most undignified manner. I staggered back to my dorm room trailing behind me: blood, river water, and my sorry, deflated delusions of an easy P.E. credit.

The wet exit had been traumatic, but I figured I could just about handle it. I’d done it once, I could do it again. The next class went by much as the first had, but this time the hour spent floating down the river was marred by the knowledge of what was to come. I braced myself as we rowed again to the river’s edge at the end of the class.

“Today we’re going to do C-rolls,” the instructor chirped. He proceeded to demonstrate how we would deliberately flip our kayaks sideways into the water and then right ourselves by using our torsos to propel ourselves out of the water. We did it multiple times on our left sides. And then to even things out, we did it multiple times on our right sides. Our instructor told us that we would work our way up to complete rolls in the water. When our torsos were completely soaked and numb, we finished the job on our lower halves by doing another wet exit.

I thought it could get no worse. I was wrong. On the third class the instructors informed us that we were going to learn how to do a rescue. They demonstrated this by having one of the instructors flip himself upside down in the water. He tapped with his hands against the hull of his boat to indicate that he needed help. The second instructor expertly maneuvered his kayak so that the front of it hit the upside down kayak close to the tapping hands. The upside down instructor placed his hands on the kayak and used it for leverage to right himself.

“Now it’s your turn,” the rescued instructor said. There were a dozen other people in that class, but he looked straight at me. “I’ll flip upside down again and when you see me tapping my hull, you’ll gently bump the front of your kayak as close to my hands as you can.”

Before I had a chance to demur, he flipped upside down in the water. He began tapping the side of his boat with his hands. I tried to maneuver my kayak to where he was. The tapping got faster. I still couldn’t manage to get my kayak to touch his. The tapping gained a distinctly frantic edge to it. I desperately tried, but failed again and again to get my kayak to touch his. Finally, the second instructor nosed his kayak into position and the upside down instructor righted himself. He no longer looked like a sleek, serene otter. He looked pretty pissed, in fact. He ended the class by grimly announcing that we would all be practicing rescues on each other next time.

I switched to aerobics that afternoon.

Vox clamantis in deserto

I was scrolling through my emails on Friday when I noticed the name of one of my former Russian professors at Dartmouth. He was posting on SEELANGS: the Slavic and Eastern European Languages and Literature, a listserv for the rare breed of eccentric who makes a life of studying such things.

“Oh no!” I groaned out loud as I saw that it was an obituary he had written for Richard Sheldon, one of his colleagues and one of my beloved Russian professors. Lately, notices of their deaths have been coming with distressing frequency.

Vox clamantis in deserto is Dartmouth’s motto: A voice crying out in the wilderness. For four years, I was that voice crying out in the wilderness and I was crying, “WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING HERE?!” I was not white. My parents were not rich. I was not conservative. I was not athletic. I did not like being outdoors. I did not like to drink. I hated the cold weather. Further magnifying my sense of alienation was the fact that everybody else seemed to be delirious with joy to be there. Clearly, there must be something deeply wrong with me.

Here’s how I arrived:

It was September 1987 when my parents and I rolled into Hanover, New Hampshire for the first time like a raggedy tribe of Korean pimps in a grotesquely large, winged white Cadillac, vintage 1970. My parents had two daughters in college and a third about to start. There was not a dime to spare. Until very recently, my dad’s ride had been a brand new car, an unexciting, but eminently sensible, American-made beige sedan. It was the first new car he had in more than a decade. Shortly before I left for college, my sister got into a horrifying accident in which the car flipped multiple times and she was flung from the car into oncoming traffic on the highway. Miraculously, she walked away from the accident with a slight concussion. The car? Scrap metal. A friend of my dad who owned a body shop gave him the Cadillac to tide him over until he could get a new car.

It had been fun driving that car around Arlington, Virginia with my friends the summer before I left for college. They laughed out loud when they saw it for the first time and immediately christened it “The Batmobile.” It would take at least two or three 360 degree revolutions of the wheel to steer the car around a corner. When we finally did make the turn, everyone sitting in the bench seat would go sliding in slow motion for what seemed like an eternity until they ended in a scrunched up heap against the car door, laughing all the way. It was campy and fun then; now as my dad docked the hulking beast by the side of the pristine Dartmouth Green to consult a map, it made me feel glaringly, comically conspicuous. I may as well have landed on the Green in a space ship.

A white-haired gentleman dressed in a natty forest green blazer and a bow tie briskly walked up to our car to give us directions. I willed myself into oblivion, as I sank deeper into the depths of the car, which was lolling like a beached whale in that perfect New England landscape. I suppose it was fitting that I should arrive at this place in such an ignoble way. It was the first day of four of the most trying years of my life. I never felt more alienated, more like a fish out of water than I did at Dartmouth.

Eventually, I found my tribe. It turns out, they were all hanging out in the Russian Department. People who are attracted to Russian and Russian literature tend to be unconventional, maybe even slightly strange. THIS was where I belonged!

Professor Sheldon was one of the professors who made my four years in the wilderness bearable. His large eyes rimmed with thick lashes gave him an otherworldly, vaguely Dr. Seussian appearance. He habitually seemed to be staring off into some far distant shore. He was always slightly disheveled. His students would affectionately tease him for his sartorial choices, especially for his outlandish ties. He would smile bashfully and good-naturedly. We sensed that he returned our affection. We sensed that we were safe with him.

This is how I left Dartmouth:

On my last day at Dartmouth I processed across the Green. I walked flanked by classmates I didn’t know. The only thing we shared was that all of our names began with “K.” I knew my family was out there in the crowd somewhere, but I couldn’t see them. I walked with mixed emotions. I was elated to be finally graduating, but I also felt disappointed in myself for not having made more of my time there. I blinked back the tears that were forming in my eyes, feeling as lonely and vulnerable as I had that first day when I arrived with my parents. Suddenly, I heard my name being called. I turned my head to see all of my Russian professors standing in a cluster, benevolently smiling, waving, and cheering for me as I walked by.

I’m sad I never got the chance to tell those professors how much that meant to me at that moment. I never got a chance to say that because of them, I left that place feeling like I had belonged after all: to the very best, most civilized and humane corner of the wilderness.

Spasibo, Professor Sheldon, Professor Loseff, Nina Pavlovna, and Professor Scherr. You meant the world to me.