A religious brother teaches young Cheridan Sanders how to swim; and that having faith means believing in a reality that does not exist, yet.
I grew up in mission territory.
‘South West’, as it was known then, was hot, dry and isolated.
Even today it remains one of the least densely populated nations.
No surprise then that many people have never heard of Namibia.
Imagine what life would have been like without those missionaries? Besides my own fond memories of attending Mass and participating in my weekly catechesis I benefited most from their presence.
Two impressions in particular remain with me.
First, the Sisters. I don’t recall one as much as I recall all of them. They were always giving out prayer cards and encouraging us to pray, especially to the saints on the cards.
Their encouragements were usually joined with hugs, smiles and invitations to come out of the sun and drink lemonade on hot days.
I reveled in their warmth, their embraces, their sweetness. And to this day, I love Mary and the saints and I believe it’s largely because of them.
And then there was Brother Sebastian…
Brother Sebastian was an intimidating, severe character to a seven year old me.
Stern, matter-of-fact and very German he was my version of Severus Snape. I recall his long, black robe, his black-rimmed glasses, and the fact that he was always dabbing his forehead with a white handkerchief.
He tolerated no cavorting, no dilly-dallying, no chatter and most of all, ‘no excuses!’.
(Admittedly, all things I was often guilty of)
This saga, all started in the shallow end of my primary school pool. Timidly holding onto the side, glancing furtively over to the deep end where the rest of my classmates were diving and prancing.
I looked back at the kids in the shallow end with me. I knew why we were all there. We were the kids who weren’t rich enough to have pools in our backyards, and then there was the colour of our skin.
… I was ashamed. I couldn’t swim, and judging by my flailing around, I determined that I’d never be as good as the other kids who’d been swimming, as one girl took much pleasure in pointing out, “since I was ‘3 months old!’.
I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.
I don’t recall exactly how the next series of events came about, but I must have gone home and complained to my mother.
The next thing I knew, I was signed up for additional swimming lessons with Brother Sebastian at the Catholic high school up the street.
As I walked up the steep hill towards the Black Gates of Mordor… sorry I meant, the high school where my additional swimming lessons were held, my stomach churned.
I thought to myself: “Now, you’ve really gone and done it, Cheridan!” bitterly regretting telling my mother how embarrassed I was.
How could I have predicted that sharing my shame would mean bi-weekly swimming lessons with none other than Brother Sebastian!
It was bad enough flailing about helplessly in front of my grade school friends …but having to learn under the eagle eye of Brother Sebastian and his pack of elite high school swimmers, well it was all just too much!
It was decided; I needed to die.
To this day, I can see the high school boys, some of the best swimmers in the region in fact, looking on with smirks as they waited for Brother Sebastian to turn those penetrating eyes of his on them.
And true to his reputation, Brother Sebastian was a task master. He was very clear about his expectations:
Tardiness was unacceptable
Practice outside of the regular instruction was expected.
And, above all, we were to stay focused and committed to the task at hand.
‘Now, into the pool and get to work!’
All of which, delivered in a pronounced tone which brooked no argument.
He was methodical and painstakingly meticulous.
… Sometimes, he would even jump into the pool to ensure that we were executing our strokes correctly!
This I hated the most; the singling out of my ineptitude.
Oh! The suffering!
And I’ll admit, I tried to drop out on more than one occasion.
But there was no way out. My mother said I was going to follow through on this, no turning back.
So somewhere between my mortification and the drills, I learnt to swim.
I became one of the best swimmers in my school, and eventually in my age group. In our inter-school competitions I always had a spot on my school’s relay team. And we rarely went home without winning.
And so, below his stern exterior, Brother Sebastian was a man of charity and generosity. He wasn’t exactly the warmest character; but he was a good man.
I learnt years later that he’d taken me on as a bit of a charity case. My mother couldn’t afford to send me for the semi-private lessons (my existing school fees already were astronomical).
I still smile at my mother’s audacity, she sought out the best coach in the country to teach her daughter how to swim.
And, his instruction (as much as I hated it) was a great service to me.
He taught me to swim against the tide. He taught me that hard work, perseverance, and self discipline pay off. That excellence is rarely achieved without a constant eye to self-improvement, and that success was not a matter of social standing, the colour of your skin, or even when you begin. But how much you apply yourself and your God-given talents.
He showed me that the real battle was believing in a future that was not a reality, yet.
And, if it weren’t for those missionaries and their unique forms of witness, expressed in a variety of ways, well I think my life would have been a little less rich.
More about Cheridan Sanders here.
The Producer Diaries
Cheridan Sanders, a Producer at Salt and Light Television, reflects on her experiences as she travels the world telling Catholic’s stories.