Ah, gym class, the bane of my school career. I have only the vaguest memory of gym class in kindergarten, but my mom tells me that my gym teacher, whom she remembers only as “Ted”, once complained to my classroom teacher that “Julie couldn’t hit a target with a ball to save her life.” My teacher told him to give me a break. After all, I wore glasses and a patch over my good eye. This is the same teacher who once yelled at me for coloring outside the lines, but, hey, nobody’s perfect. At least she stood up for me that day.
I can’t remember gym class in first grade at all. I spent two years in first grade at three different elementary schools in two different states, but I have not one memory of P.E. Maybe that means it wasn’t so bad.
Just after I finished first grade, my family moved to Newark, New York. The summer stretched before us, and my sister Heather and I didn’t know anyone except our cousins Colleen and Jimmy, so my mom signed us up for a co-ed t-ball league at a park just two blocks from our house. It seemed like a great idea. Everything started off fine, but one day my team was practicing (i.e. playing catch) when my partner threw a ball I couldn’t catch, and it hit me in the mouth. My coach sat me down at a picnic table and gave me his handkerchief to soak up the blood. When the bleeding stopped, I handed him back his bloody handkerchief and joined my team on the field where they were practicing catching grounders. I started to feel a little woozy and was glad when it was time for a water break. I started to lose my sense of vision but managed to stay in line with my team on the way to the water fountain. Have you ever fainted? If so, you know how I was feeling. The world had gone dark, and sounds seemed to be coming from far away. When I reached the front of the line, I told the coach I didn’t feel well, and he sat me under a shady tree. I don’t think I completely lost consciousness that day, but I stayed under the tree until my mom came to get me. She’d been at the other field watching my sister’s game, and, of course, she felt awful for not being with me. I didn’t go back to t-ball after that, and I spent a good part of the summer with swollen, purple gums. I never again really enjoyed playing any kind of ball game, although I might join in a backyard game with my family.
I started second grade at my new school and didn’t have any problems with gym class. At that age we weren’t playing basketball or volleyball yet. I mostly remember relay races and gymnastics. I liked my teacher, Mr. Binggeli, and everything was fine until I moved on to the intermediate school for fourth and fifth grade. Now we were regularly playing ball games in gym class, and my teacher, a Miss Aubrey or something like that, was not nearly as warm and fun as Mr. Binggeli had been. I was reluctant to participate in these games, and I started to identify myself as someone who just wasn’t athletic. That’s interesting because at home or with my friends I absolutely loved riding my bike, jumping rope, and swimming. The very worst thing about gym class was Knock-out, a game similar to dodge ball.
We continued to play Knock-out and all the other games in middle school, and the teacher there, Mrs. Hood, was even worse. Finally, when I was in seventh grade and Heather was in sixth grade, my parents had to meet with her and the principal to discuss her unkind treatment of us. Her solution for me was to put me in the modified gym class, the one that was mainly for kids who had broken a limb or had some other temporary injury that prevented them from participating fully in regular physical education. I appreciated the relief from the games I dreaded, but I felt like such a loser. My fear of being hit in the face again was now a “disability”. Mrs. Hood asked me if I wanted to continue in the modified class in eighth grade, but I decided I’d rather be in class with my friends.
My family moved again just before I started ninth grade. At my new school they didn’t play Knock-out; they played the classic dodge ball instead. In co-ed classes. Yeah, that went well. I was suspicious of the teacher, but I have to say Miss Whitely wasn’t so bad. She actually taught me how to serve a volleyball so that it would go over the net. That was definitely my biggest accomplishment ever in gym class.
I switched to the local Catholic high school for tenth grade, and somehow they got away with providing us only one semester of phys. ed. the whole time I was there. I never had to take gym in eleventh or twelfth grade. It was awesome.
Then I went off to college. During my first week there a group of girls from my dorm was heading down to the fitness center for a freshman orientation, and one of them invited me to join them. I said no thanks, and she asked if I was planning to work out at all in the fitness center. Such a thing had never occurred to me. Why would I want to do that? I just mumbled something to her about not being very athletic. I did, of course, have to take P.E. in college. Two 2-credit classes were required for graduation. Most of the students who “weren’t very athletic” like me chose badminton, but I wasn’t interested in trying to learn another game I would be no good at. Instead, I took cardiovascular fitness and cross training, two classes that just involved working out on the machines in the fitness center. So, I did get there after all.
A few years after that I was established in my career, and I attended a workshop for English teachers entitled “What Good Readers Do”. We reviewed strategies that good readers use to make sense of a text so that we could explicitly teach these strategies to struggling readers. The instructor asked us to think about the class that had been hardest for us in school and how we felt as we walked into that class every day. She told us that was how our struggling readers felt walking into our English classes. I believe I have always been a warm and caring teacher, but this was a jaw-dropping moment for me. I hated to think that anyone felt as anxious and hopeless walking into my classroom as I had always felt as I entered the gym. Suddenly, I had such deep compassion for my students.
I am not the perfect teacher, but I care about doing my best, and I care about creating a classroom environment in which my students feel comfortable. I hope that I have helped some kids along the way to improve their reading and writing skills, but I know that some of them will never feel like they’re “good at English”. I hope at least that they will remember me as a teacher who tried to make class pleasant like Mr. Binggeli or a teacher who gave them individual attention that helped them make progress like Miss Whitely. That kind of success gives a purpose to my school-day sufferings.