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.

Acts of Kindness

Today I’ve been thinking about a few people who have touched my life with a small act or a few words of kindness.  These are people I am unlikely to meet again in this lifetime, but I will never forget them.

The first one is a five-year-old boy whose name I may never have known.  When I was six, my father’s company transferred him from Connecticut to Georgia.  I have a November birthday, and I had started first grade while I was still five.  By January I was six, but in Georgia the law stated that a child had to be six by September 1st to enter first grade.  Even though I had already completed (successfully!) half of the school year, I wasn’t old enough to join the first grade at my new school.  The administration came up with an arrangement by which I would attend a first grade class, but I had to go home with the morning kindergartners, and then I would have to repeat first grade the following year.  Here’s the kicker:  my new teacher made me responsible for watching the clock and knowing when it was time to gather my things and head down the hall to the kindergarten classroom for my dismissal.  Since I was just learning to tell time, I missed my bus occasionally.  Usually, the kindergarten teacher sent me to the office to call my mother, but one day she wouldn’t let me do that.  I have no idea what her reasoning was, but I did know that I was scared.  The teacher didn’t tell me how I was going to get home.  I started to cry.  A little boy who was still waiting for his bus brought over Chutes and Ladders and offered to play with me.  He really didn’t know me, but he saw that I was sad and wanted to comfort me.  It did make me feel a little better, a little less alone.  I am so grateful for that little boy’s compassion.

(By the way, that kindergarten teacher arranged for another bus driver to drop me off at the end of her route.  I did get home that day, although it was rather late.)

The next person I want to remember here is my middle school social studies teacher.  I had Mr. Haak in seventh grade and again in eighth grade.  He was one of my favorite teachers, and I knew that he appreciated my hard work in his class, but his inscription in my yearbook at the end of eighth grade brought tears to my eyes.  Here it is:

Julie, I’ve greatly enjoyed having you in class.  Your quiet, yet attentive personality is a strength you should be proud of.  Best of luck to you in the future and continue to strive to do your best.  Mr. Haak

Now, you might be wondering what is so incredible about those words.  I was fourteen-years-old, and this was the first time anyone had ever praised me for being quiet.  I had heard lots of times, “you’re so quiet” or “you’re so shy,” but it was always said in a tone that made it clear that this was something wrong with me.  Here was someone I respected, someone who had been my teacher for two years, telling me I should be proud of being quiet because I was also attentive.  There wasn’t anything wrong with me!  My personality was a strength!!  Even into adulthood I’ve had plenty of people telling me I’m too shy or I need to learn to speak up for myself, but I have a little weapon to fight  back against the negative voices.  I can repeat to myself that my “quiet, yet attentive personality is a strength.”  Thank you, Mr. Haak.

Sean Hegarty was one of the first students I ever taught.  He was in one of my eighth grade classes at Hornell Junior-Senior High School when I was a student teacher.  One day my supervisor from the university came to observe me during Sean’s fourth period class.  The class was not particularly well-behaved that day, and I was not exactly skillful at managing them yet.  Sean realized that his behavior had reflected poorly on me, and he knew that it was not the behavior expected of someone who had just applied for membership in the Junior National Honor Society.  The next day I found a letter of apology from him in my mailbox.  What an impressive act of humility from a young teenager!  I knew very well that I still had plenty to learn on my road to becoming a teacher, especially in the area of classroom management, but Sean’s letter showed me that I had at least one student who understood that I was still learning and who wanted to help me succeed.

Three years later I was in my first full-time teaching position and didn’t feel as if I knew much more about how to do my job than I did that day when Sean and his classmates had embarrassed me in front of my supervisor.  In the first few years of her career, the teacher is learning at least as much as her students are.  I had lots of support from my colleagues, and I worked long hours at night, preparing my lessons and evaluating my students’ work.  Even so, I felt as if I were fumbling through that school year, and I still cringe when I remember a few of the mistakes I made.  By June I wasn’t sure if my year had actually been successful, but at least I had survived.  After the final exam, one of my favorite students, Amanda Posson, stopped by my classroom.  She wanted to tell me that this year had been her favorite year ever for English, and she thought I had done a great job.  Her words made my year and are one of the highlights of my teaching career.

There is a reason that even though I have forgotten the names of many of the students I have taught over the years, I remember Sean Hegarty and Amanda Posson.  Instead of complaining that they got stuck with a student teacher or a first-year teacher who was unsure of herself, they were able to look at me with compassion  and let me know that they were on my side.  I hope that I have similarly touched a few lives along the way, and I will be more intentional in the future about looking for opportunities to comfort or encourage anyone who might be in need of a kind word or act.


Summer School

Two weeks ago I started teaching two sections of English 9.  I’ve been at home with my children for the past four years, except for two other stints with summer school, and I was a little nervous about getting back into the classroom.  I didn’t teach last summer since I’d just had a baby.  Maybe I should have listened to my nerves.

Don’t get me wrong.  I still know what I’m doing.  I craft good lessons.  I’m aware of what’s going on in the classroom.  Seriously, why do these kids think I can’t tell when they’re texting under their desks?  I can even walk around the room, stepping over backpacks, while I read aloud.  But within the first couple of days back I had an epiphany:  I’m not supposed to be doing this.

Last Tuesday I came home from summer school to a quiet house.  My “big kids” were playing at our next-door neighbor’s house.  Dan and baby Rose were both napping.  I took advantage of the quiet to get a couple of tasks done.  As I was putting away some clean laundry, I realized that I felt useful and fulfilled.  Peace washed over me.  Taking care of my family gives me a sense of purpose.  Struggling to inspire a roomful of fifteen-year-olds to open their copies of To Kill a Mockingbird does not.

Today I came home from school in tears because I have a couple of students who are so rude and disruptive that I cannot get anything done in their class.  Every time I send one of them to the office, the administrators send them right back to me because they’ve “promised not to be rude anymore.”  There is no phone number on record for one of these boys.  I spoke to the parents of the other this afternoon.  They are very concerned about his low grades and think I should borrow an audio book of To Kill a Mockingbird from my local library because Sissy Spacek reads the book, and she’s just fantastic.  That might keep their son focused in class.  I didn’t bother telling them that their son harasses the only girl in the class about her “sexy voice” and called me a “milf” today.  I’m sure Sissy Spacek will keep him in line.

This experience is good for me in that it has helped me see clearly that my place right now is at home.  Maybe when my children are all in school I will go back to full time teaching, but I doubt it.  Maybe I’ll sub to earn some extra income for my family without the time commitment involved in planning and grading.  But I won’t be teaching summer school again. It’s true that money is tight for us these days. We don’t have cable, and we don’t have smart phones.  Dan and I don’t buy new clothes for ourselves, and we certainly don’t take vacations.  I am happy to sacrifice all those luxuries for peace in my soul and in my home.

These kids love it when I read to them!
These kids love it when I read to them!