Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Let's Get Physical (Education)

So I'm working on a piece about my astounding lack of athletic prowess, and found myself revisiting a truly horrifying topic: gym class.

As a kid (and, who am I kidding, even now) I had a mortal fear of gym class. My dad says that one day he took me to elementary school and I burst into tears upon hearing that we would have gym that day. I stand by my reaction; phys ed teachers are clich├ęs for a reason. They yell and taunt and seem to be in secret alliance with the naturally athletic kids, the ones who cheer when informed that the class will be playing intramural football for an hour. The only gym sport at which I excelled was something called scooter soccer, a game seemingly designed to handicap everyone. The essential rules of soccer were the same, except that instead of standing or running, we sat on little squares of plastic equipped with wheels—the kind that legless homeless people favor or that might be used to transport janitorial buckets. This being public school in the 1980s, the wheels were often warped and twisted, and in order to move at all you had to pound the floor furiously while pushing backwards. In retrospect I liked it not so much that I was good at it, but because no one else was.

From third grade to sixth grade I had two gym teachers: Mr. Hyman and Mr. Bolden. We were not yet old enough to mock the former's name (we understood vaguely that it was a part of the female anatomy, but we had no idea what—or where—it was), but the two of them made a hilarious duo all the same. Hyman was short, stocky, white, and loud, with reddish hair that matched his constantly-flushed face. Bolden was tall, muscular, reticent, and black, with heavy-lidded eyes and and an ever-present basketball wedged in the crook of his elbow. They were always together, sort of like Ernie and Bert crossed with Riggs and Murtaugh from Lethal Weapon. Twice a week, our class would file into the gym in our uniforms—someone's idea of a joke, as although the official school colors were maroon and gold, the reality was closer to baby-shit brown and the mustardy yellow of concentrated urine—and sit cross-legged in evenly spaced rows.

The games Hyman and Bolden forced us to play ran the gamut from farcical to torturous. Sometimes it felt like we were a band of circus performers, as when our prescribed physical activity was to push a giant inflatable ball across the room for no discernable purpose; other times it felt like we were marine recruits, doing timed sprints around the schoolyard or clinging to a chin-up bar as Mr. Hyman barked "Don't just hang there, pull! Use your arms for Christssake." If he was feeling kind he would mark down that I had done half a pull-up instead of zero.

As terrified as I generally was of gym, I was never moreso than on the days that we played a game Mr. Hyman called "basketball."

For the record, it wasn't basketball. As athetically-challenged as I am, I know how basketball is played. This was what basketball would have been on the island of Lord of the Flies—a sudden death gauntlet intended to weed out the weak and uncoordinated. The class was divided into teams and counted off in numbers so that each team had players numbering one through fourteen. Two basketballs were placed in the center of the gym, and we crouched on either side, willing our bladders to be strong (or maybe that was just me). Mr Hyman would stand at the front of the room and shout out a number (he perfected his technique so that it was like a drumroll: "Numbaaaaaaaaaaah....Five!") and immediately two kids would sprint to the center, grab the basketballs and start shooting.

At that time I was under five feet tall and weighed about 60 pounds. I also had horrible aim. My utter failure wouldn't have been so humiliating if not for the fact that we were not allowed to sit back down—even if the competition had made their shot on the first try—until we made a basket...

Well! That was enough of a trip down memory lane for today. Excuse me while I schedule an emergency therapy session. Do you have any horrible memories of gym classes past you'd like to share?


  1. oh my god, that game sounds awful. I may also need therapy now, just hearing about it.

    We had the wheeled scooter things, and a giant parachute (what was the deal with that thing?) and, the most evil thing known to gym classes everywhere, worse than dodge ball, worse than pull-ups - the rope.

  2. We had the giant parachute, too! What the fuck was that for?

    Somehow, we escaped the rope. Shudder.

  3. That damn parachute! It served no purpose.

    I was once forced to play soccer my Freshman year of HS and instead of kicking the ball, I tripped over it. That was the end of that!

  4. Just once in my life I wanted to be the skinny kid on top of the big parachute getting flung into the air instead of one of the fatties on the outside doing the flapping or whatever that was called. Stupid parachute!

  5. We played this game all the time last year.I can relate to how you felt, because I hate PE and suck at it. And what's worse everyone thought I'd be good at sport because I'm tall and skinny. Wrong!

    But we don't have 'the rope'. Is that where you climb one or something?

  6. Grade 10. Hurdles. "Oh, they'll just fall over if you run into them" we were told. That was a lie. The result was faceplant after faceplant, and my teacher wouldn't let us go until each and every one of us had cleared at least one hurdle. My knees were black and blue for a month after.

    Was quite talented at scooter soccer, though. Pity they don't give scholarships in


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