Gym Class Heroes

Last Saturday at a holiday party, a friend’s wife introduced herself as an elementary school Phys Ed teacher.

My immediate reaction was, “Good God, I hated gym class. Worst thing that ever happened to me. Pretty sure my gym teachers hated me too.” Luckily I didn’t say that out loud (awkward…), but I did start thinking about how miserable gym class was in grade school.

It wasn’t so bad in the early years of elementary school, when gym class was just a bunch of little kids whizzing around the school’s combined cafeteria/auditorium/gymnasium on little plastic scooters. But with each passing grade, my hatred of gym grew because the distance between myself and everyone else grew. Most of the other kids played an after-school sport that developed hand-eye coordination. They participated in some kind of physical activity every day, and witnessed the athletic endeavors of their parents and older siblings.

Sports was a normal part of suburban life. But it was not a part of my life in any way, shape or form.

That’s just not what my family did, so it’s not what I did. By middle school, I couldn’t throw, catch, or run for shit. When I was dropped into a volleyball game against my will, I instinctively cringed away from the ball. (Everyone else was enthusiastically jumping and diving like their lives depended on it.)

As my classmates got better at sports, I got worse because of my poor attitude. Even if I tried, I would suck compared to everyone else, so why bother? Better to act like I didn’t give a damn. (The only time I ever got a negative comment on my report card was a gym teacher who said I clearly wasn’t trying. He also gave me my only B. I proceeded to vigorously loathe him for the rest of my time at that school.)

Combined with my family’s less than healthy lifestyle choices and my persistent asthma, I sank deeply into the belief that I was simply a scrawny, nerdy, unathletic person. I assumed this was my fate.

In the past few years, I’ve broken out of that mindset. I’ve found activities that are both physically and mentally engaging: running, yoga, and CrossFit. And there are so many things I want to try: cycling, swimming, muay thai, rock climbing, and more.

Feeling physically strong for the first time in my life has completely changed the way I view myself. 

Remembering my younger self, the girl in high school PE who stood limply on the sidelines feeling inadequate and alien, I wonder what could have been done differently.

High school Phys Ed caters to student athletes. The teachers are also their coaches. It should focus instead on the students who do not participate in physical activity outside of school.

The problem with every gym class I’ve ever seen was the lack of teaching or training going on. The first time I tried to swing at a baseball was in the middle of a game after my efforts to rearrange the batting order failed. The first time I ran a mile was during “testing” with all the other students, most of whom lapped me. Same with my first attempted pull-up. It was just sprung on us one day in class. There was no way in hell I was going to do a strict pull-up, but that didn’t matter. And how that would make me feel, failing at the “test” without any prior preparation, was equally irrelevant. (Spoiler alert: it made me feel awful.)

There was neither time nor equipment nor space to provide students at different levels of fitness with appropriate scales.  It’s like taking an Algebra 1 student and asking them to solve a 4×4 matrix on a linear algebra test because it’s all the same adding, subtracting, and multiplication really. Even if you tell them the grade doesn’t matter, it’s still going to be frustrating and disheartening, with no educational value.

The gym I go to now is the complete opposite: the coaches eagerly provide modifications for any exercise, meeting you at your level instead of demanding you meet them at theirs. Last weekend, a long-time CrossFitter (and mother of three and marathoner and all-around crazy woman with an 8-pack) happily helped me reach a PR on my overhead squat. She was lifting twice what I was, but we encouraged each other and both improved. It was, in a word, awesome.

I recognize that Phys Ed classes operate under totally different constraints than for-profit gyms. But efforts should be made to make the classes more beneficial to the students who need them the most: the students (like me) who aren’t getting physical activity outside of school. The goal of public education is to create equality of opportunity with access to information, resources, and mentorship at a young age. The goal of physical education should be the same.

 

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