Last Friday, Donna Burt was patiently standing in the heat in the serving line at Fontainebleau’s weekly “Dinner at the Pool” when a neighbor pushed her out of line. She had no idea why.
“They gave me a plaque,” she said in her understated way, “that will hang in the clubhouse. They wanted to thank me for teaching swimming for 40 years.”
The plaque doesn’t begin to tell the full story.
Every June since moving to Fontainebleau in 1972, Burt has taught toddlers and other very young children the basics of swimming in a program that came to be known as the School of Fishes.
“I’m the big fish,” she said.
With 10 to 18 children per class, she estimates she has taught “hundreds of kids” over the years.
“It all started because the team had grown from 60 to 90 kids and the coach needed help,” she said.
Having taught swimming during the summers as a college student, she agreed to help and got the 6-year-olds.
Things moved quickly from there. When everybody received their team T-shirt, hers said, “Head Fish.” The name stuck. When she began teaching the little ones who were not ready for the swim team, the name of her program was a given.
To qualify for the School of Fishes, a child must be able to stand in the shallow end of the pool. Then for the next month, for three evenings a week, “Miss Donna” and her assistants, all former fishes – this year a middle-schooler and three rising fifth-graders – play games like “Shark Attack,” “Otters” and “Under the Bridge” to teach the children to be comfortable and safe in the water.
In the process, they learn to blow bubbles, float on their back (like an otter) and finally swim the length of the pool. They can track their progress on a poster board mounted in the pool breezeway that displays the stars they earn as they learn. At the end of each class, each child gets a fish sticker and a fish hand drawn on his or her hand.
Though parents pay $45 for the lessons, Burt clearly doesn’t do it for the money. She gives it all minus expenses to the Fontainebleau swim team.
Her expenses are simple. The children each receive a personalized, hand-painted T-shirt, which she herself personally creates, and awards for their accomplishments.
The awards, of course, are little goldfish crackers.
“They get them every time they do something I ask them to do,” she said.
Most of the little fishes go on to the swim team. A number of them become seriously competitive.
“I would have to say that she is the reason our little swim team of approximately 70 swimmers won first place in the silver division on Friday at the Georgia Tech,” said former Fishes parent Jamie Collier.
Recently, Burt learned that one of her former fishes, Christian Schurr, will be swimming breaststroke in the Olympics on the Mexican team. She remembers the day he first swam the length of the pool.
“I got his mother to stand on the steps in the shallow end, and he swam to her from the deep end,” she said. “He was scared, but I could see he had talent.”
To support her former fishes, Burt attends all the Fontainebleau swim team home meets and goes to all the team parties.
She says she’s been teaching the little fishes all these years because she “just loves kids.”
“I love them like they’re my own,” she said.
She will turn 78 in August. How much longer does she plan to be the “Head Fish”?
“Till I can’t move, I guess,” she said.