At the end of the sixth grade, my class took a trip to the beach. I had never been in the ocean without my dad before, and I was nervous about wearing a bathing suit in front of my classmates, so I didn't swim for the first several days of the trip. My best friend Jenny kept trying to get me into the ocean, but I wouldn't go. On the last day of the trip, Jenny said to me, "Listen. If you don't go in the ocean at least once, you're going to go home and feel like a big baby. You can't go to the beach and not get in the ocean! So let's go, just me and you. We can sneak out. That way, nobody has to see you in your suit."
I decided to go for it. I really didn't want to go home and feel like a big baby, and Jenny was probably right that I would have. We decided we had to go right away since it was looking stormy and we might miss our chance if we waited much longer. So we donned our suits and slipped down to the beach. We waded out slowly. The water was choppy and frothy, and it pulled at our feet as we walked out, as if to coax us out further. As we reached waist deep water, each wave lifted us off the ocean floor and pulled us out a bit further from the beach. At first it was fun; we laughed and dunked each other and bodysurfed. But just a few minutes later, we found ourselves in neck deep water and had to struggle to find the bottom again after each wave. That was when it stopped being fun. Jenny gestured back at the shore. I nodded; it was time to go back before we got in over our heads.
We tried to walk back to the shore, but the waves kept pulling us further away from it. Pretty soon, I couldn't find the bottom with my feet, even between waves. Each one crashed violently over my head and churned me around helplessly in the water. In between waves, I could see Jenny about thirty feet away. Her arms were straight up in the air and her mouth was open. I couldn't hear her over the roar of the ocean, but I knew she was screaming for help. I was filled with terror, my heart pounding and my limbs flailing. I started to scream for help too, but before long, it was all I could do to get a breath between waves. Sometimes I couldn't even tell which direction the surface was in. I tried to follow the sunlight, but still I often reached the air just as another wave collapsed on top of me.
Later, I would learn that Jenny and I were caught in what is called a riptide or rip current. When you get caught in a rip current that wants to take you out to sea, you should not try to fight it and go straight back; instead, you should swim parallel to the shore to get out of the current first. But I didn't know that at the time. All I knew was that every time I tried to get my face out of the water, a wave slammed down on me like a door being slammed by an angry teenager. I was afraid, and exhausted from struggling. I wanted to cry, but that took breath, which I was fresh out of.
Suddenly I felt a strong arm around my waist. The owner of the arm used her other arm to swim us away from the current. When we reached calmer water and I caught my breath, I saw the person the arm was attached to: Becky, my art teacher. Her head full of wet, fuzzy dreadlocks looked like a halo to me at that moment. She helped me back to the shore where I saw Jenny sitting on the beach, our English teacher's arms around her. They were both crying. I limped over to Jenny's side and collapsed with her. Never again, I said to myself, and for a long time, I kept my word. It would be nearly ten more years before I would dip even a toe in the ocean again.