On a summer day that flip-flopped between sun and rain, Julie Bragg was surrounded by children in the pool at her north Macon swim school, also her home.
As she tried to get them into the swing of the day’s swim lesson, a few were crying. Or at least not cooperating.
“Is there anything wrong with Turner, other than his head?” Bragg asked the mother of one fearful child.
It’s a common scene for Bragg, who’s been known to throw uncooperative children into the pool and was even once called the “Swim Nazi” by her own son.
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It all began 44 years ago with the novel luxury of a backyard pool when her family was living in Monroe, Louisiana. Bragg not only was worried about the safety of her children but also for the safety of the neighborhood kids. One class in water safety later and she was on what turned into a lifelong path.
In fact, her teaching career may have begun even earlier. She remembers trying to teach her neighbors to swim by a kiddie pool when she herself was only 9 or so.
“I stood on a stool and dived into their sidewalk and knocked myself out,” she said, “But I was teaching them how to dive.”
These days, a lot of the kids in the pool are the children of children she taught way back when. Susan Watson was a student as a 2-year-old. Her son has been a Bragg Swim School student since he was 11 months old.
“I remember the big metal circle ring she still uses today when you would jump off the diving board. Or in my case sometimes be thrown off the diving board,” Watson said.
What about that tossing kids in the pool and the rest of the no-nonsense Bragg teaching style? Watson, an elementary school teacher, has made up her mind.
“There are plenty of friends of mine that, you know, said, ‘Oh, I could never take my child there, I couldn’t let her throw him in the pool, ’ ” she said.
For them, Watson offers this advice.
“Then you don’t need to be here,” she said.
Bragg sums up her style simply.
“Brain or pain, yeah, that’s my thing,” she said. “Brain or pain, take your pick.”
It came up with a group at the diving board.
“We learn by brain or what?” she asked.
“Pain,” the children responded, without hesitation.
Bragg says that the rule works on land, too.
“You could say think or feel,” she said. “If you didn’t have that lesson in life, you’d keep burning your fingers on the stove. You’d keep sticking a knife in your hand.”
The older kids are easier. Most of them have been with Bragg long enough to be well past any innate fear of water. With them, she can work on advanced strokes. The atmosphere is relaxed, less charged.
Near the end of their class, she arranged them in a circle. Together they leaned back and chanted in sing-song unison.
“Now we’re going to do the Backfloat Flower. Arms on the water, ears on the water, tummy on the water,” they said.
Bragg and the children float away from each other like petals on the water.
For Bragg, the road of teaching has always run both ways.
“I’ve learned more than I could ever teach,” she said.