If you spend enough time around the UVAC pool, you’re bound to catch a glimpse of lifeguard hopefuls working toward their credentials. UVAC regularly offers all the American Red Cross courses they need — Lifeguarding, CPR, AED, and First Aid — and just certified a new batch of lifeguards earlier this month. When I see training in progress, I can’t help but feel a smidge of nostalgia, as memories of my years as a guard wash over me. And that nostalgia is quickly followed by excitement for the individuals who are just beginning their guarding careers, because I know that for many of them, this will be a transformative experience.
I certified as a lifeguard just after my 16th birthday. I had been a competitive swimmer since age 5, and as with many of my teammates, lifeguarding was a natural next step for me when I reached working age. I didn’t know then that it would prove so instrumental in my life, or that it would help me grow into the adult I am today. I finally hung up my guard suit for good at age 25, having worked in and around pools for 10 years. I spent my high school summer breaks guarding, and later my summers home from college. When I graduated into the recession and the bleak job market that came with it, guarding kept me afloat. And when, after earning a full-time job in my field I eventually made the difficult decision to leave it in the name of more education and a new career path, guarding was the familiar work that paid the bills during the first year of grad school. Even now, having earned my master’s degrees and landed what is truly my dream job, I still look back on guarding as the first job I loved.
Why do I speak so fondly of it, and to a UVAC audience? Although my guarding years were spent in Maryland and Massachusetts, not on the deck of UVAC’s pools, I think it’s worth shedding light on what UVAC’s guards are doing each day. It’s the same as what I did. It’s keeping a community safe. In my life as a lifeguard, there were the little things — beestings and scraped knees and sunburns — but there were also the big ones — active drowners and spinal injuries and heart attacks. I found it hard to imagine myself pulling someone to safety until I did it. And then did it again and again and again. Guarding taught me a tremendous amount of responsibility. It impressed upon me the importance of teamwork, communication, and empathy. It matured me and showed me for the first time the strength of my character when I work hard and with integrity. I’ve left my guarding days behind, but these lessons have stayed with me.
And I believe that so long as a lifeguard takes his or her responsibility seriously, the experience I describe here is a universal one. When I see a new lifeguard in training, I see a teenager who will grow up more than he or she can imagine in the guard chair. And when I see UVAC’s lifeguards, I silently thank them for the job they are doing, and hope that it is everything to them that it was to me. Perhaps you’ve looked at a lifeguard before and seen what many see: a person in a chair watching an uneventful pool. My hope is that the next time, you see that and more: an individual learning and growing and accepting responsibility that often outweighs their years — the safety and happiness of our UVAC community.
By Caitlin Birch — UVAC member; Canaan, NH resident; Digital Collections and Oral History Archivist at Dartmouth College