Last week Susan Tarshis posted about gym class and many other bloggers also had to chime in–we had very strong feelings–and it became a group post. Now our readers and guest bloggers are moved to share their stories. I’ve got about five more people in the queue who want to have a say! But first, here’s Sally.
by Sally Hickson
I grew up moving every two or three years or so in accordance with my dad’s career. One of four and then five kids, moving from the Eastern Townships of Quebec to St John, New Brunswick, to Ottawa, to Calgary, back to Ottawa. One thing you learn from this is that education is a provincially regulated undertaking, so curricula change from province to province – you can be ahead in Quebec and behind in St John, as I learned when the rest of the class had ready responses to the mysteries of something called the ‘multiplication tables’. I sat there praying the teacher wouldn’t call on me since I had no idea what they were doing. My brother later explained it to me using the handy tables they printed on the backs of Hilroy copy-books.
Strangely, however, or perhaps not so strangely, when we moved from somewhere to somewhere (I really can’t remember the sequence) I was accelerated from grade three to grade five, based on my advanced literacy, although I remained ‘behind’ in math for the rest of my school career (I’d learned the ‘wrong’ way to do long division, for example). So there I was, eventually, in sixth grade in Ottawa, two years younger but taller and larger than the other kids, and suddenly plunged into full-blown gym class. I have to explain that in the Quebec Catholic school system we didn’t really do gym; that was for the Protestants. At JFK school, during physical activity time, we wore bloomers over our tights and ran around for a few hours each week, but there was nothing systematic about it. I don’t recall taking gym in St John at all, which might have had to do with the fact that the school wasn’t really big enough and we’d spilled out into portable classrooms scattered around the back lot.
Anyway, in Ottawa I soon realized I was in way over my head. I was a big girl, not fat, but tall and solid, physically mature for my age, and completely without any kind of organized gym experience. The class consisted of boys and girls and we had to wear shorts, which was humiliating because I was bigger than the other girls and uncomfortable about my body. In one of my first classes the gym teacher, who went by the improbable name of Mr Jolly, lined everyone up to do ‘vaulting’. I had no idea what he meant but I lined up with everyone else. It seemed to consist of running very fast, then up a little ramp with a springboard and flying over the ‘horse’. Everyone seemed to touch the horse on the way over, giving themselves an extra little boost, legs spread out to either side. Do gym teachers still indulge in this barbarism? I hope not. Anyway, I was worried. I was pretty sure my legs didn’t work that way. I balked and said no. The teacher said ‘try’. He knew there was nothing worse than being the new kid and appearing to be a crybaby. Remember, everyone was watching. I took a run at it. I’m not sure exactly what happened. I think I just hit the horse broadside and it flew apart. I wasn’t hurt, but the astonished silence quickly turned to titters and giggles. Mr Jolly looked slightly surprised – he probably saw his career passing before his eyes.
Things went downhill from there. Rope-climbing – I just swung around sitting on the knot. I was good at sit-ups, mostly because it didn’t involve leaving the ground. Hopeless at everything else. Team sports were especially bewildering, and that started a year of team captains sighing and saying ‘I guess we’ll take Sally.’ In the middle of it all, at the age of ten, my period started. I now had an occasional medical excuse, but gym class remained a nightmare because of the laughing, the teasing, my inability to be as ‘good’ as the other kids. I had a brief moment of hope when a fat boy appeared, but he became the vicious ringleader of the teasing, I suppose in order to deflect attention from himself. Outside of gym class he was actually pretty okay, and I knew how much the other boys made fun of him. I started getting sick a lot and the gym teacher recommended to my parents that they find me a psychiatrist. That was the last straw for my dad – I’m not sure what he said to Mr Jolly but, from then on, I was allowed to go to the library during gym class.
I’ll never forgive the junior high girls coach (by then they’d separated us from the boys) who made each of us do a gymnastics routine in front of – wait for it – ALL of the grade sevens. I did three agonizingly slow somersaults to a smattering of giggles and ironic applause. I felt hot all over, conspicuously incapable. I remember exactly what that felt like. When I started high school we moved to Calgary and I discovered that, at that time in Alberta, a female student had to be able to run a twelve-minute mile in order to graduate (for boys it was 10 minutes). By that time I had a partner in crime who trailed around the track with me long after the others had gone inside. We were both convinced we’d still be in high school in our 20s, running in the twilight.
I can laugh about it now but, in all seriousness, gym class ruined my life. It made me feel bad about myself. For me, it was a horrible, nasty, twice-weekly ritual at which I was the main sacrifice and there was nothing I could do about it until I cracked that twelve-minute mile and was finally allowed to leave gym class behind. The worst thing was that it made me hate my body, and the second worse thing was that it made me reluctant to try sports or exercise of any kind because I was convinced I could not be good at anything. Through my 20s, 30s and 40s the very idea of walking into a gym gave me a knot in my stomach, the gym class feeling. And my struggle with my body is not so much how I look but how I feel about how I look, again the gym class feeling that I’ve been carrying around with me since the age of ten. In my 50s, I’ve finally started letting go of that feeling, but it hasn’t been easy. After all, that ten-year-old is still part of me and she still hates gym class.
Sally is an art historian, professor, department chair, Italophile, film buff, heavy metal AND country music enthusiast, and fitness newbie.