Thursday, January 15, 2009

How I learned to stop worrying and love the gym (or, Exercising Demons, part II)

First, I just want to thank everyone for their comments--you all have really honed in on the question I was trying to get at, but wasn't articulating as clearly as I'd have liked to:
At what point in your life did you realize that just because you were a dorky, uncoordinated kid, that did not mean that you had no interest in or affinity for movement?
I didn't have that epiphany until my early 30s, when I started going to an aerobics class in Greeley and discovered that I loved it and was OK at it (well, most of the time, anyway).

And it was a revelation to see many women there far older than me who were still active. Granted, Colorado is somewhat of an anomaly--it routinely has the nation's lowest obesity rate--but I can't tell you how many 60- and 70-year-old women I met in that class for whom this was just one of many activities they enjoyed: several were also avid cross-country skiiers, hikers, snow-shoers, and kayakers. Suddenly I could see a "fitness future" for myself that didn't involve team sports, competition, or an unhealthy fixation on how many calories I'd burned.

Is it any wonder the country at large has a weight problem when so many kids (especially girls, the "pleasantly plump," and those labeled as nerds) aren't encouraged to pursue physical activities that feel comfortable and fun for them?

In her open letter to her own high-school gym teacher, Jane mentions that they did square-dancing in gym. One of my fondest memories of gym (and yes, I do have a few!) was when we had a student teacher for our ninth-grade phys ed class who did a whole unit on dance: not just square dancing, but also line dancing, and (this was the early 80s, remember) some disco dancing. We learned The Hustle. In gym class!

I was in heaven. And then her stint was over and she left. And we were back to the old volleyball-basketball-softball routine until that cycling class I mentioned taking for my last PE credit.

In her comment, Christy mentioned one of our high-school gym teachers; I never had the, uh, "pleasure" of having him for class, but I do have a particularly dark place in my soul for another member of the phys-ed faculty. Let's call him "Mr. Special," since that is, believe it or not, the anglicized version of his real name.

Among the many things Mr. Special did to make me a gym-hater were the following:

  • Once, when we were working on basketball skills, he tried to teach me the proper form for making a layup. I followed his instructions and put the ball through the hoop. He looked at me and said, cynically, "Well, whaddaya know: she's trainable."
  • The second thing he did was to split the boys and the girls up, although it was a co-ed class. In and of itself this doesn't necessarily bother me, since it prevented girls from literally being muscled out of games by overly-zealous boys. But Mr. Special would take this a step further by closing the partition that separated the two halves of the gym, putting the girls on one side, shutting the door, and leaving the girls to our own devices while he worked with the boys. Apparently, we weren't worth his time, even a decade after Title 9.
  • But most unforgivably, one day he flung open the door between the two sides, shoved my friend Jay through, and told him to play with the girls. Jay, by the way, later came out as gay. I guess Mr. Special decided that his ostracization should start early. Or maybe he was trying to demonstrate for us the corrosive link between sexism and homophobia. Regardless, we all got the message.
I say all of this not to continue the long and well-worn tirade against gym teachers or gym class. As Jane (and I, above) have noted, some of them are amazing and inspirational.

What I'm saying is that in hindsight, I think I would've found gym class vastly more enjoyable and relevant and affirming if it had succeeded in showing me that movement can be expressive and fun, and does not have to be about competition with anyone but yourself. Perhaps then I wouldn't have had to have that realization on my own decades after taking my last gym class.

And as for the fallacious idea that gym has nothing to do with "real" learning, check out this article about gym-class poetry at an elementary school in North Carolina!


ej said...

Although I am proud of the A I earned in Honor's gym in high school, I can say that I never had an affinity for organized sports. Somehow those particular exercises seem inclined to separate the physical haves and have nots the way just running on the treadmill in my gym doesn't. After all, its physical education, not sports education. Hopefully its not too late for future generations to make the change.

And I love, love, love the photo! I think I had that same shirt.

Christy said...

Do you remember that awful psychology-lite class 'Mr. Special' was responsible for teaching called 'Quest'? It was supposed to be some self-exploration class, probably a precursor to the self-esteem education that became de rigueur in the years after we graduated.

I can't help but note the irony of such a contemptuous (and probably self-loathing guy) like him trying to teach us to discover ourselves. What a pig.

Rosemary said...

Erin, you know I envy you your 5-point "honors gym" A! Funny that despite that, and your being a runner and a golfer, you still felt marginalized athletically, though. I guess no one escapes unscathed!

And Christy, I'd forgotten about that "Quest" BS until you mentioned it. Did you actually take it?! And yes, you're right--how could someone so openly prejudiced and abusive be put into that kind of position?

As I recall, though, 'Mr. Special" had a certain affinity for other sorts of school outcasts--the stoners, vo-ed kids, and others. I'm quite sure they had their own trials to bear, but "Mr. Special" definitely seemed to have a serious axe to grind with certain other kinds of students (i.e., nerds).

historiann said...

"Honors Gym???"

That's got to be a joke, right?

Rosemary said...

What?! Erin's never told you about her honors gym class? Oh, you have to ask her about that, Ann.