Gym Class

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.

He’s probably better at soccer than I am.  Photo by Daniel Hansen on Unsplash

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.


I wrote my very first post about the difference my ninth grade English teacher, Mrs. Eckles, made in my life.  I was a shy new student in a large public junior high and while Mrs. Eckles helped me that year, I was still miserable.  I didn’t make any friends at my new school.  I cried almost every night while I did my homework, and I felt sick to my stomach every morning when my bus arrived at school.  As a field trip approached, I worried so much about not having anyone to sit with on the bus or in the theater that I actually made myself sick and stayed home from school that day.  My parents tried to help me, and about halfway through the school year they suggested that we look into the local Catholic high school.  It was the best idea they could have had.

The following autumn I began tenth grade at Bishop Shanahan High School.  Naturally, I was nervous on my first day.  All the students assembled in the gym, and there I was sitting on the bleachers surrounded by a few hundred strangers.  To my surprise, a couple of girls sitting next to me introduced themselves.  In fact, that kept happening all day.  Friendly students noticed that I was new, and they would introduce themselves and their friends to me.  I felt welcomed.

There was such a difference in the atmosphere at my new school.  I  loved beginning classes with a prayer and saying grace before lunch.  I loved the uniforms that made us all equals; no one was judging me based on clothing labels.  14572742_10100217213569201_516097563_oAfter four years of changing classes in middle school/junior high, I was used to all the students jumping up at the sound of the bell and pushing through the crowds to get to their next classes, but it was different at Shanahan.  I will never forget the boys standing aside and letting the girls go first.  These kids were taught to be ladies and gentlemen.

In the spring of that first year at Shanahan, we went on a field trip to Washington, D.C.  I had a friend to sit with on the bus and a group of girls to explore the capital with.  The next year I joined chorus and had the amazing opportunity to travel to England.  There I also had friends with whom I could share the biggest adventure of my life.  To tell the truth, I didn’t actually have much of a social life outside of school or these school-sponsored trips, but that was okay.  While I was at school, I felt a strong sense of belonging.

I had wonderful teachers at Shanahan, too, who made the school a place in which I was happy to spend my days.  Well, maybe not all of them were wonderful, but 23 years later (how is it possible that it’s been that long?) my memories of Mr. McQuiston and Mr. Keane are a lot stronger than my memories of, let’s say, my chemistry teacher.  (There’s no need to mention his name here, or the name we called him behind his back.  I guess I do remember that.)  I’d rather laugh over my memory of Mr. McQuiston’s April Fool’s prank on Rose and smile when I think of Mr. Keane reading the entirety of Macbeth aloud to us.  Oh my, and then there was the time Mr. Finlay came bursting through Mr. McQuiston’s door and announced, “That was my best Kramer.”  Mr. Degnan kept us entertained with his Irish gift for storytelling.  Perhaps my best memory of all is my fourth period study hall my senior year.  Thank you to Mr. Sagnella for taking attendance and then walking out of the room every day so that we could watch The Love Boat and play cards and once in a while do our physics homework that was due the next period.

I spent three years at Shanahan.  I learned French and Latin, religion and history, physics and calculus.  I learned about St. Catherine of Siena’s influence on the pope, about Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia, about Arthur Dimmesdale’s hypocrisy.  Shanahan gave me an education, but it also gave me a safe place to work through my adolescent struggle to figure out who I was and helped to establish my faith as the foundation of my identity.  Shanahan is truly my alma mater, my “nurturing mother.”