by Mark Scandling, English Teacher and Coach
“I promised myself that if I went to Deerfield, I’d try things I would have never done if I’d stayed at home.”
With more bounce in her brunette curls than in her tentative springs on the one-meter board, Melissa stood stiffly above the water, gathering her thoughts before leaping into a head-first dive. Sprinting the pool’s corridor, my wrestlers and I had already seen many of Melissa’s splashy jumps but now were marking laps not by the clock but by a freshman’s extended confrontation with her diving fears.
Three months earlier, Melissa had fearlessly walked onto the pool deck and introduced herself to me, announcing her eagerness to try water polo, a sport she had never seen, let alone played. Not a strong swimmer and untutored in the art of throwing and catching, she seemed unsuited for the demanding game. Nonetheless, she worked hard each day, practicing at her pace and measuring her progress stroke by stroke and catch by catch. At the season’s end, Melissa’s self-discipline and desire led her to the diving well, home of the Deerfield Diving Divas.
In truth, I don’t remember how many times Melissa, buoyed by her coach’s and teammates’ encouragement, walked to the end of the board, tried to summon her confidence, and then faltered. It may have been days, weeks even, but each afternoon, she stepped to the edge.
One late winter day on the way to the gym, I asked Melissa, among the liveliest thinkers in my English class, about her latest challenge. “Any good dives yet?”
“Not really,” she admitted. “I’m not what you’d call a diver.”
“Well, are you enjoying yourself?”
“I wouldn’t say that, but Ms. Robertson and the girls are great. They believe in me.”
Trusting in our hours together at polo practice and in the classroom, I then probed further. “So just why did you try diving?”
Melissa, eyes bright and voice bold, responded, “Mr. Scandling, I promised myself that if I went to Deerfield, I’d try things I would have never done if I’d stayed at home.”
Then, she was off to the pool for a few more weeks of diving.
Although she didn’t return to the Divas in succeeding years, Melissa did continue with water polo. Her swimming and ball skills improved, and despite never becoming an impact player, her influence on the team endured. Showing their respect, Melissa’s admiring teammates elected her a co-captain in her senior season—even though she had never started a contest and rarely played more than a few minutes a game.
Always undaunted, Melissa turned from the arcs and angles of diving and plunged instead into the graceful arrangement of words on paper. Having seen her first freshman poem, “Heinz 57 Varieties,” appear in Albany Road, the Academy’s literary magazine, she pursued her passion for poetry here on campus and at Bread Loaf and the University of Iowa before crafting in her senior year tiny trees and people, the first poetry collection written by a student to be published by the Deerfield Press.
She had made a leap after all, and cherished the rewards that had balanced the risks.