Like a Fish Out of Water

One of my favorite television shows, when I was about thirteen, was “H2O: Just Add Water.” For those of you who aren’t acquainted with this absolute classic, the show follows three high school girls — Cleo, Emma, and Rikki — on their adventures after they become mermaids one night in a suspiciously well-lit cave in the middle of a deserted island. (And to find out how they happened to be in said cave on said deserted island, I leave it to the reader to do their own investigating.) Now, the crucial thing to understand here is that Cleo, Emma, and Rikki are not in their mermaid forms all the time. They spend much of their lives appearing and walking just like many of us land-dwelling folks. But if they get wet — even a tiny drop of water is enough — their legs will transform into a tail, and if they couldn’t make it to the ocean, they will be left flopping on the ground. 

My adolescent self of course thought the predicament of our three heroines was incredibly entertaining. Did I imagine that I, too, was a mermaid who could be outed at any moment by an errant water droplet? Obviously. Did I question the fact that the girls could go about their day seemingly un-mermaided despite the fact that they were always surrounded by air that is full of water molecules? No, I did not. But it was not for me then, nor is it for me now, to criticize the creators of a masterpiece such as “H2O: Just Add Water” based on any theoretical inconsistencies they may have let slide. 

Earlier this week, it rained quite a lot. This is my second year living in Wharton. There are many things I like about Wharton. But I am not so fond of the expanses of water (I dare not call them puddles; small ponds may be more apt) that form outside the building whenever we experience precipitation. I have never once left Wharton during a rainstorm and not ended up with wet socks. As I was splashing my way to class this week, a very important thought occurred to me: it would be extremely difficult to live at Swarthmore if I were a mermaid. After reflecting on this, I concluded that we often take for granted the fact that we can touch water without growing tails and losing our legs. So in this article, I would like to explore some of the scenarios around campus that would be made more complicated if one were, in fact, a mermaid. 

The first hazard is, of course, the weather. Rain itself, while inconvenient, may be avoidable; presumably, a mermaid would know to check the weather before they left the dorm and take necessary precautions like carrying an umbrella and wearing a raincoat. No, it is the days after a rainstorm — just when you think it’s finally safe to go out unprotected — that pose the real danger. As I previously explained, no mermaid could ever safely live in Wharton: they would need to traverse inch-deep lagoons every time it was rainy. The dangers do not end there, either. We live in an arboretum — there are trees everywhere. Trees have an uncanny ability to hold water that drips just as you walk underneath their branches. The entrances to buildings, too, pose drip hazards. And that’s not even to mention the drops of rain, mist, and condensation that can lurk so unassumingly on door handles. 

You may be thinking that none of these dangers is Swarthmore-specific. And I would have to agree. Although our campus is perhaps more tree-heavy, and Wharton courtyard more puddle-prone, than your average location, these obstacles are likely ones that mermaids would face anywhere they chose to attend school. However, Swarthmore does pose its own unique challenges. I believe the most dangerous of these lies right at the heart of our institution: in Sharples dining hall. Picture this: you’ve just had a lovely (or at least lively) meal with your friends. It’s time to go to your evening problem session. You scrape any food that is left on your plate into the compost, put your plate on a tray, and place the tray on the conveyor belt (because you are a good, responsible citizen). You drop your utensils into the nearby bucket. But in your rush to leave, you’re too hasty. Your knife and fork fall into the utensil bin and splash soapy, greasy water back up onto your hand. You try to withdraw before the droplets can reach you, but you’re too slow. The damage has been done. We’ve all experienced it. For most of us, the result is just some gross water on our hands. But if you were a mermaid? Immediate transformation right there on the Sharples floor. Not only would you cause an incredible amount of traffic by the compost bins, but you would also miss your problem session and fail to complete your homework that week. It’s a lose-lose-lose. 

After a long day of avoiding unexpected water exposure (or not avoiding it successfully enough and ending up on some path or hallway or classroom floor), it makes sense that a mermaid would want to clean off. In “H2O: Just Add Water,” Emma, Rikki, and Cleo are often shown lounging in their bathtubs. It makes sense: mermaid tails make showering highly impractical. Sadly, it seems that this would pose some issues at Swarthmore. Most dorms don’t have any non-shower options. Normal shower stalls here on campus are much too small for a mermaid to lie down in. And the dorms that do have tub options — including Worth and the Lodges — have their own drawbacks. Take Worth, for example. If a mermaid were to accidentally find themself betailed on their way to or from a bathroom, the cramped, twisting hallways and odd corners of Worth could become a lethal trap. Imagine trying to drag yourself through a labyrinth just to get back to your bed! The Lodges may not be much better. I think it’s safe to say that if I were a mermaid, I would want my own private space in which I did not need to worry about what others might think of me, tail or no tail. That kind of privacy is not to be found in the cavernous, shared space of the Lodges. What’s more, Worth courtyard has been the scene of many a Swarthmore party. Dodging the moisture that lurks all around campus must be stressful and exhausting: the last thing a mermaid needs at the end of a long, hard week is drunk college students blaring repetitive pop music right outside their windows. 

The point I am trying to make should, at this point, be obvious: life on campus would be very hard for someone who turned into a mermaid every time they touched water. The difficulty is that in “H2O: Just Add Water,” the main characters spent an enormous amount of time and energy ensuring that no one ever found out about their double-life. Based on this, it seems safe to conclude that if there were a mermaid on campus, we would very likely never know. And this is important to remember. You never know if one of your classmates could be incapacitated by a rogue droplet from the Sharples utensils bucket, or who in your dorm may live in fear of splashing in a puddle on their way to a seminar. Everyone’s day-to-day struggles are different, and some are more exhausting than others. This campus was built for people with certain types of bodies and abilities, and is therefore incredibly inaccessible for others. If my time watching “H2O: Just Add Water” has taught me anything, it is to be kind, to be understanding (even when you don’t understand), and above all, to be careful of the condensation on the outside of cold drinks. 

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