Friday, November 22, 2002

I noticed on AOL's welcome screen, one of the changing main photos/headlines reads "On This Day in 1963...where were you?" The story is about President Kennedy's assassination. I can't remember where I was, since I was only a little more than two years old at that time. Sometimes we kind of remember things from when we were tiny not from the actual experience, but because someone has told us the story and it becomes familiar. I don't recall my mother or father telling me what I was doing, either.

What is a coincidence is that last night I was thinking of JFK. He was really only the subject of a passing thought, and it wasn't because I remembered the anniversary of his death was today. I had straightened up the porch once again, in an effort to make a renewed commitment to using the treadmill. I started thinking about physical education class, or as we called it, "gym." I hated gym in school. That hatred resulted in a lifelong disdain for most sports, whether as a participant or spectator, live or televised. (I don't like other types of games, either.) I don't read that section of the paper or listen to that part of the news. I'm ignorant on the subject, and I'm fine with that. More troublesome is a distaste for exercise, which I now struggle to overcome. Oh, I don't mind swimming, but I don't want to go to some sort of facility with others to do it. And I like walking, but it has to be productive in some other way than simply improving health. It has to be alternative transportation, in other words. Even the treadmill in the semi-privacy of the front porch is an adversary.

I think given the chance, I might have been an OK athlete; some members of my family have considerable talent, and I respect them for that. My hatred started early, and it isn't one of those memories that someone else told me. I don't think I told my parents about the things that happened in gym, anyway. Those were still the days when school authority was respected. My first grade gym teacher treated me all right. I mean, I wasn't singled out as an athlete or a wimp. Average is often a good place to be. She was extremely mean to some of the boys, though. She even hit a few with a whiffle ball bat, right in front of the class. I don't know if corporal punishment was allowed then, or if she was breaking the rules. I don't remember why she did this, I'm sure they were being brats, but I know it wasn't an isolated instance and it was awful. She only lasted a year.

Because I wasn't the target, though, I think that experience isn't really to blame for my aversion to athletics. It may have set the stage, but it took root during Grades 2 - 6, when I had the same teacher every year. He hated me. Or at least that's what I believed, I doubt he gave our relationship that much energy. But he did single me out for public abuse regularly. Unlike Ms. Whiffle Ball Bat, he never raised a hand to a kid, at least not when I was a witness. He may not have had to resort to such tactics, since he was especially good at verbal humiliation. He seemed to like the competitive, athletically skilled kids, which were many of the boys and some of the girls.

I vaguely remember, the first year in his class, that another girl and I didn't participate very much in whatever game the class was playing. In elementary school, that usually meant dodgeball, or the equally vicious war. I don't know why this happened, if we claimed we didn't feel well, or were tagged out almost immediately by our more aggressive classmates and so sat out much of the game or what. I'm sure I wasn't a really good player; I've always been careful and tried to avoid injury, so I wasn't the type to slide into home or jump really high to get the ball. I didn't care that much about winning. So that could be what started it.

Already I had been labeled a loser, which meant never being chosen as team captain by the teacher, and being picked last, or second to last, or on a really good day, third to last for a team, even by kids who acted nice to me at other times. I wasn't exactly a popular kid at any time, but I did have a couple of friends, and as a top performing, quiet and well-behaved student I was generally liked by the teacher. That year my new gym teacher threatened to send us both to the nurse's office for gym class because he insisted there was something wrong with us, and he said he was going to give us the grade "M" for "medical" on our report cards instead of real grades. He never carried through on either, and instead we passed the class. Could they retain a straight A second grader for failing phys ed, I wonder?

When I was older, we occasionally did something other than play dodgeball in the gymnasium. I remember being outside on the athletic field, and when the class was nearly over, the teacher telling us to run as fast as we could back to the school. I think it was getting near to one of the holiday breaks, and he said he was going to give us each a lollipop when we got there. I liked candy as much as any kid (still do), and I tried to run fast. True to his word, he handed lollipops out to all of my classmates. When he got to me, he said I couldn't have one because I ran too slowly. You know, it has been over thirty years, and I still feel the sting as I write that.

Just two years ago, I was at a luncheon meeting of school counselors, and I was seated at a table with a man who was recently retired from the high school I attended. I was not one of his students, and he didn't remember me, but he knew my elementary school, and he mentioned that he still socializes with my long-retired nemesis. I nearly choked on the spring mix salad with mandarin oranges and raspberry viniagrette dressing (a conference standard) at the mention of the name.

When I finally got to high school, for the most part I had more competent physical education teachers, and we played much better sports, but the wimp label was not easily shed, my hatred for gym remained, and I certainly didn't transform into the teacher's pet. I remember the annual physical fitness test, which I think had something to do with national or State standards. There were timed squat thrusts and push ups and jumping jacks, and the gym teacher marching around like a drill sergeant. I learned that President Kennedy was to blame for my torture. (Did you wonder when I was going to get to the part about JFK?)

Sometimes changes in physical education curriculum are discussed in academe, or the media, although probably less than reforms in other subjects. The focus is usually the cruelty of the games played, the unfair methods of choosing teams, and the damage to self-esteem. I've had students who believe such changes to be ludicrous, arguing that learning to deal with competition is healthy or a fact of life. Whenever I mention the dreaded dodgeball game, or my gym aversion to my classes I am sure to get a laugh. A lot of people do identify with it, it seems. I don't tell it like a tear-jerker, and I omit the medical and lollipop days. Leaving aside the being labeled a loser problem, I argue that gym class could have taught me something valuable about physical fitness and a healthy lifestyle, but it didn't. Nor do I see much impact now; there are too many kids laying on couches, plugged into television programs or game systems, eating fast food and drinking soda.

However, there is something important I did gain. I was lucky to like, and achieve, in the academic and creative parts of learning. Whatever social difficulties there were in school (and there were many, but they will keep for another time), I felt comfortable in math, social studies, English, art, etc. That feeling of being at home in education is one reason people pursue advanced degrees, and a career somewhere in the academy. The gym experience was unacceptable, but at least it was isolated. Now, when I am teaching classes full of future teachers, I try to impart that there are kids who feel that way about all classes, and at all times in school. I want to make sure the losers get an occasional lollipop, too.

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