Two summers ago, I had a job managing the office and working the front desk of a neighborhood pool. I didn’t actually, but if I’m going to tell this story, I need to change some of the details, and I really want to tell this story today, so please accept that I worked at the pool.
The pool was crawling with teenagers. They had, unofficially, their own zone, a grassy patch behind the deck behind the diving board, a place where the nannies and the parents and the senior citizens did not go. If younger children wanted to jump off the diving board, they would often make their grown-ups get off their chaise lounges and walk them to the board. Sometimes if a group of teens was being too loud elsewhere, like at the snack bar, you’d hear a staff member tell them to go hang out behind the diving board, but we weren’t really supposed to do that.
For the most part, the teens did not cause trouble. Many of them didn’t spend much time in the water. They would lie in the sun, look at their phones, and listen to music through their earbuds. They would talk. The lifeguards had a heck of a time enforcing the no swearing policy, especially when one of the kids brought in a deck of cards. There were a few games of Slap and Tickle that got out of hand. There is a card game you may know by one name; I asked the teens to call it “Baloney” instead–for the most part, they did. They were good kids. Mostly.
There were different teens at the pool everyday, but there was also a group of hard-core regulars, who seemingly never missed a day all summer. If I was opening, I’d see them there as I drove into parking lot, 15 minutes before swim team ended and I could actually let them in. If I was closing, I knew they’d loiter in the locker rooms after the final whistle had been blown for the night. We eventually just started turning the lights in the locker rooms out right at 9pm, it was the only way to flush them out.
Kenneth was one of the regulars. Unlike the other regulars he didn’t have a group of friends that he hung out with. He liked to talk to the staff. I wasn’t his favorite but I would do.
Once, early in the summer, I was going outside to eat my lunch and I had a book in my hand. He bounded up to me, a big smile on his face, “You like to read?”
“Yes!” I said. “You, too?”
“No,” he snarled. “Reading is stupid.”
He’d then went on a tirade about how I was just escaping life by reading books when I could be doing something much better like “watching awesome movies like Pulp Fiction.”
I said something like, “Each to his own,” and walked away. I figured he was just trying to get a reaction, and it was best not to engage him.
Ella, one of the lifeguards, told me that he had had pretty much the same conversation with her, but she ended up getting into a philosophical discussion with him about whether movies or books were more escapist. Eventually, she had to say, “Look, I have to sit here and make sure that people don’t drown. Please leave me alone and let me do my job.”
Ella would get frustrated with him, but she kept trying. She would talk to him on her breaks, which is something I tried hard to avoid. Since he liked movies, she encouraged him to ask the other kids what movies they liked. He did, and then told them all their favorites were stupid.
A member called one night and wanted to talk to the pool manager. He wasn’t working that night, and the head lifeguard wasn’t there either. I offered to take a message, but she said the words I dreaded to hear, “Maybe you can help me.” It was Kenneth’s mother. She was calling to complain about her son being bullied at the pool.
If this had been school, it would have been a assistant principal who dealt with this call. I might have been called to a meeting with Ella and the guidance counselor, and we would talk about what we’d seen and how to help Kenneth move forward. But it wasn’t school, it was the swimming pool, and we didn’t have a procedure for dealing with bullying.
I listened to her. I didn’t tell her that Kenneth might not be bullied at the pool if weren’t at the pool 11 hours every single day. I didn’t tell her that if he refrained from calling other kids stupid, they might be nicer to him. I listened. She didn’t know which other kids were involved, she just wanted us to know. I told her that I’d let the staff know something was up, and we’d try to keep an eye on things. I asked her to encourage him to talk to a staff member as soon as something happened, so we could deal with it right away. I asked if she wanted the manager to follow up with her, and she said no.
I got off the phone with her and asked myself why this kid, who never swam, and didn’t seem to have any friends at the pool, was constantly at the pool. I wondered who his guidance counselor was, and if it would be totally inappropriate to call his school, wherever it was, and let them know something was up.
I forced myself to be kinder to him. We talked about some of the movies that he liked and that I had seen. I was a little concerned that everything he liked was so violent, but I chalked that up to his being a teenage boy.
I finally managed to ask him what grade he was in. I was working my way up to finding out where he went to school.
“Eighth,” he said. “I think.”
“You don’t know?” I thought he was messing with me.
“Yeah,” he said. “The last grade I finished in public school was sixth grade. I’ve been homeschooled for… a while. I’m 14, but I’m not sure where I am in school.”
So much for calling the guidance counselor.
Ella kept coaching him. She told him not to tell people their favorite movies were stupid, but to say, “Interesting. Why do you like that?” And she made him practice saying it without incredulity or a sneer.
Ella told me the kids on the grass behind the diving board started to make room for him. They dealt him into their card games. They included him in their conversations.
One day, he came to me and wanted to rent a towel. He hadn’t been in the pool–he didn’t go in the pool–I still have no idea why he wanted to rent a towel.
“Sure,” I said. “That’ll be one dollar.”
“Take it from my account.”
He handed over his pool pass, I scanned it, and his information popped up.
“I’m sorry, Kenneth, there’s no money left on your account.”
“Damn it!” he said.
I said, “Lang-wedge” in my best sing-song teacher voice.
“Put it on my brother’s account.” He wasn’t smiling.
I didn’t know he had a brother. “Ah, okay. Do you have his pool pass?”
“Then I can’t charge it to his account.”
“Just look it up by his name!”
“I can’t do that.”
“The policy is for one member to charge something to another member’s account, the first member must be in possession of the other member’s Pool ID, even if both members are of the same family.”
“That’s stupid,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I am bound by the policy.”
I was slipping into the same quasi-legalese I used when dealing with particularly difficult adults.
Kenneth continued to argue. I continued to apologize, repeat the policy, and say no.
I remembered something that the pool manager, Jeremy, had said. “If you have explained a rule to a member more than twice, and they refuse to accept it, get a manager.”
I tried to handle it. Kenneth was just a kid, but when he said, “Your job is to serve the members,” I started to twitch.
“Would you like to speak to a supervisor?” I said. There was ice in my voice.
Kenneth didn’t care . “Yes,” he said, “I would. Go get your supervisor.”
“Very well.” I turned my back on him and walked out to the deck. Jeremy was out. I’d have to make do with Rich, the head lifeguard. I explained to him the situation.
“I thought you were, uh, good with kids,” he said.
“Not all kids.”
Rich was ticked, but I knew he made a lot more than me per hour, and I figured he could earn his money.
“You want me to kick him out?” he asked.
“I want him to leave me alone.”
“Okay, ” he said.
He climbed down from the chair, handed me his whistle and walked into the office.
I stood on the deck with the whistle in my hand. I had Junior Lifesaver certificate that had expired twenty years ago. I should not have been alone on the deck. I started to call Rich to come back, but I was so furious I figured if anything went wrong, I would just blow the whistle and scream and Rich would come running.
I calmed down about Kenneth, and then I started to panic about the swimmers. What if something did go wrong? I started to run, then remembered the rules, and walked as quickly as I could toward the office, trying to scan the pool for signs of trouble as I moved.
Rich caught me as I rounded the shallow end. “Easy!” he said.
I wanted to punch him. I handed him the whistle instead.
“Kenneth is in the office,” he said.
I looked at him. That was the last place I wanted Kenneth to be.
“And he has something to say to you.”
“Okay,” I said. I forced myself to say thank you to Rich.
I walked back into the office. I was surprised to see Kenneth looking contrite.
“Miss Kathleen?” he said.
“Yeah?” I said.
“I’m sorry I was rude to you.”
“And?” I don’t know why I was pushing it.
“And… I know it wasn’t personal. It’s your job to blindly enforce stupid rules.”
“Out.” I said. “You are done for the day.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I really am.”
He sighed. “I don’t know what you get paid, but it’s not enough to take my crap.”
I didn’t know what to say. I shook my head at every thought I had.
“Am I really done for the day?” he asked.
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Definitely. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“See you tomorrow.” Kenneth shuffled out the front door.
I watched him walk across the parking lot to the street. I had a bunch of towels to fold.
“Towels,” I thought. “Towels are my job.”
There’s more to this story. But I am getting close to 2,000 words, and it’s getting late. I’ll have to call this a Slice. I’ll Slice more about Kenneth tomorrow.