“I remember the staff at our public school. You know, we had a saying, uh, that those who can’t do teach, and those who can’t teach, teach gym. And, uh, those who couldn’t do anything, I think, were assigned to our school.”
I have enormous respect for teachers—even gym teachers—but when I was in 7th grade I dreamt that my gym teacher locked me up in prison. She was probably not the ogre I imagined her to be. In my memory, she is a small, wiry, grizzled woman with short, gray hair, but my memory could be wrong. I’m certain she did not single me out for torture; I was noticeable to her only because of my clumsiness and my unfamiliarity with sports and sports equipment. Whether through lack of time or lack of inclination, she made no effort to find out anything about me. She didn’t know that I had no experience with an intense junior high school physical education program.
I was uncomfortable in my body, as many girls are at that age. Through a combination of willpower, diet changes, and walking, I had lost about twenty pounds between the end of 6th grade in Dallas and my move to Havertown the following spring. My body was lighter, but my soul was still confused. I had both the energy and the self-consciousness of youth.
I started thinking about my own relationship with exercise and how it has changed over my lifetime because of a recent discussion about recess on the wonderful Philadelphia public radio show, with Marty Moss-Coane. Many schools in the United States have eliminated, or are considering eliminating recess. How sad it is that having an opportunity to get up and stretch and relax is considered a luxury for both children and adults. When I was in elementary school we had free time after lunch to wander around the schoolyard (to me the space seemed enormous), to play on the monkey bars, jungle gyms, and swings, or to throw a ball around. Although I did not engage in vigorous physical activity, I enjoyed the freedom to walk around and think without being bothered by teachers or confined by desks or tables.
In elementary school, we had physical education classes two to three times per week. On gym days, we girls wore shorts under our dresses because we were not permitted to wear shorts or pants to school, but we were also not supposed to show our underwear. We did a variety of activities including relay races, square dancing, and calisthenics. My classmates and I were excited when we got to use scooters. These scooters were little wooden squares with four wheels. You sat on, or draped yourself over the square “seat” and pushed with your hands. I wonder—do elementary schools still have scooters like that?
My gym classes in 7th grade in Dallas were markedly different. Girls and boys were separated. We now had ugly white, cotton one-piece uniforms to wear during class. At “that time of the month,” girls did not have to put on the uniforms or participate in gym. But I don’t remember ever doing anything very active in that class. We were being groomed to be young ladies who occasionally perspired lightly; we were not supposed to actually sweat. Once or twice a month, the teacher, a pretty young woman with red hair, would gather the girls around her to discuss questions we had posed via slips of paper dropped into a box. We sat on the gym floor in a circle around her. The questions we posed to her were about periods, personal grooming, and dating. She answered them in a hushed voice as we leaned in to hear her words of wisdom and advice—none of which I remember.
In March of that year, my mother, sisters, and I moved to Havertown, Pennsylvania. The junior high, constructed of fieldstone, looked like a prison to me. The basement with its dark, winding hallways, and exposed pipes, seemed like the gateway to some hellish torture area. Yes, it was—or as I referred to it, the gym. On my first day at this school, I walked into an area filled with gymnastics equipment. I had never seen such things, and to me it was as though I was walking into the torture panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. Despite my nightmare, I survived the class, although I continued to hate phys ed. throughout my high school years.
My feeling about exercise and gym classes has changed. I now enjoy the physical activity, and even though I no longer have the energy of youth, I’ve lost most of the self-consciousness. Since I work from home, going to a gym is also my time to socialize with my gym pals. When one of the aerobics instructors exclaims in her boisterous trainer voice, “Are you here to talk or workout?” My answer is both. It is the time I use to recharge both my body and my mind.
I think we all need that time. Although not everyone has the means or desire to join a gym, we all need breaks and time to move about. When I am having trouble focusing on a writing assignment, sometimes all I need to do is get up and sweep the floor or play “Jump for the Cheerios” with the cats. One thing has not changed, however–I still have no interest in sports.