I watch the two skinny girls in black suits take their marks, get set and, at the crack of the gun, fling their little bodies into the pool with the other girls and thrash toward the far end. My two daughters, ages seven and eight. My swimmers. In their first meet. And I was scarcely aware they could swim.
No one can see behind my sunglasses, which is all right with me. You know how dads feel at moments like these. But nothing is simple, and even as I succumb quietly to joy, pride and a vague, nostalgic sense of time's winged flight, something darker and unbidden swoops in. It is sadness, a powerful melancholy for all those children who are not at this pool, who will never know the thrill of competition and athletic discovery, bound up with parental guidance and safety, in cool water on a hot summer's day. It is sadness for all the children I can't help.
More than 12 million children, or one in every five, live in poverty in the U.S., and the number is growing fast. There are two million more children living in poverty now than there were a decade ago; in this country, children are more likely to be poor than people of any other age group. And hundreds of thousands of babies are born each year to unwed teenage mothers, feeding the cycle of poverty, despair and valuelessness that breeds more of the same.
This is all about money, this sporting joy that has caused my eyes to tear up. Or rather, it's about the dignity, confidence and optimism that money—which means opportunity—can bring. I wish it weren't so, but a lack of money tears families apart. Poverty destroys initiative—educational, spiritual, athletic. Poor children who can't play games are not children at all, but nails being beaten with the hammers of neglect. Forget that pap you always hear about the mean streets producing our best athletes. Mostly, mean streets produce mean people.
What it has come to is this: Much as we buy accessories for our cars and stereos, we purchase athletic opportunity for our kids. We do it by buying into certain towns, neighborhoods, school systems, park districts, sports programs, clubs. We do it by laying out cash for those things that should be available to any child but are not. When schools and cities lack funds, some of the first things to go are the sports programs.
I bought my kids a chance to swim. The club we have joined is modest in its layout (centering around a 25-meter pool and a dozen tennis courts), is close to our house and has no waiting list. Still, it was tough signing on. The one-time membership fee is $3,000, with dues of $160 a month. This year I will shell out $4,920 to belong to the club and $1,920 each year after that. Some country clubs in my area cost more than $40,000 to join, and I hear you need more than six figures to get into Bel Air, so my burden is small potatoes, as these things go. But my club has no golf course and no gin rummy room, and anyway, it's all relative. My cash came from a faithful, but dangerous, resource: the home equity loan.
Was it worth it? As my girls touch the wall, panting for breath; water dripping off their short hair, eyes huge with the intensity of the moment, everything in their sporting future so vibrantly possible—I say yes. I swam. My parents swam. And now my children swim. Symmetry. Order. I lope. This is my gift to my daughters. Poverty's only gift is the symmetry of barrenness.
I'm not sure what to do about this. The swim meet is just a metaphor, a symbol. Not every child has to or even needs to swim. There are still plenty of public ball fields, basketball courts, tennis courts and even pools in our cities. More and more, however, they are run-down and unsafe places without proper supervision. As I drive through the urban streets of the U.S., I see children attempting to play games, one eye on traffic, one eye on the dangerous people around them. Is that play or survival? Though it pains me to see what my kids have that others don't, I am not going to take away my daughters' privilege to make a point. My children's joy does not deepen other children's suffering. It only highlights it. Puts it in red letters.
We need a plan to save our kids. The National Commission on Children, a committee appointed by Congress and presidents Reagan and Bush to study the plight of children in the U.S., recently recommended that families be granted a $1,000 tax credit for every child and that as much as $56 billion be spent yearly to improve the lot of kids. I don't know where the money will come from, but I like the concept, the concern, at least. I would hope a good chunk of any money that becomes available might be used to give poor kids the chance to play—not to produce future Michael Jordans or fodder for the NFL or even for the Olympics but to produce justice, pleasure and good cheer right now for small human beings.
We must remember that sport is not a luxury to a child. Play is a child's business. It is what teaches him about cooperation, achievement and the pursuit of happiness. It shows him that the world cares enough about him to let him play.
"Unless somebody begins to pay attention [to children in poverty]...we can expect our culture to fall apart," the eminent pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, a commission member, said recently. "I think we've already seen it." I don't know about that last sentence, but I do know that if we're not careful, children who have never played games will inherit the earth. That would be a joyless day indeed.