Monday, April 27, 2009

Middle School P.E.


I have to say: my son has a wonderful P.E. teacher, and he (my son) is only in kindergarten. Unless there's a big hole in my memory, I did not have a coach or a P.E. class until I was in middle school. Kindergarten was kind of like a one-room schoolhouse, without much of a curriculum other than learning how to "get along." The two elementary schools I attended—one a private school in Chicago, the other a public school in L.A.—did not have physical education classes, or really any organized sports activities at all. We had recess, though in Chicago I remember watching the older kids practice field hockey. The school in Chicago was K-12, so there were junior varsity and varsity teams, but as I was only there from first through fourth grades, I knew nothing about these. The kids our age just ran around outside playing tag. In the fifth and sixth grades (still considered elementary school in L.A.), same thing. There was recess. There was lunch. There were games of four-square and double-dutch, and sometimes someone had a Lemon Twist or hula hoop, but in general I did my best to stay away from the concrete basketball courts or other physical play spaces. They were always overrun with tough kids. Plus, I just didn't care about sports. I got a lot of exercise—more than the average child, I'll bet—but my time was mostly spent in a dance studio, with the occasional weekend bike ride to the beach or roller skating outing. Until I reached seventh and eighth grades, my lack of sports interest was not an issue. In my new school, however, which was a private 7-12 middle and high school prep academy, I ran into trouble. From my point of view, the trouble was one Coach Hooker. Coach Hooker was a woman of average height and build; she had dirty blond hair that was styled short and straight; I remember her with a light blue polo shirt, navy shorts, a silver whistle around her neck, and a very clunky black stopwatch on her wrist. I also remember for some reason that she drove a light blue Ford Pinto—the kind of hatchback car that was recalled in the late 1970s for fuel-tank design flaws. And, much as I hate to admit it, I also remember growing to dislike her so much that I'd wish (in the vengeful but not-meaning-it-literally way of children) for her to get rear-ended. Why I disliked her had less to do with her, I think, than it did with where I was in my life at the time: dance was everything to me in those days, and I trained for a professional level, for hours each day, which meant I often had damaged feet that could somehow still perform in pointe shoes but not in a pair of adidas. I'm sure we did many different sports throughout the year as the seasons changed. I remember volleyball, and how I hated the way the insides of my arms would get red, plus how I rarely made it over the net when I served. Besides that, I only remember two things, but remember them all too well: the cross-country course that we ran every Friday morning, which was either a full mile or else three-quarters, and The Hill, which was something else entirely. First, the locker room, where I changed into a blue-shorts-white-shirt uniform that was always ill-fitting. I hated the locker room, too, where popular girls who wore bras already took over all the space on the benches; where I had trouble remembering the combination to my padlock (I think I had one); where, perhaps on a day when I didn't have my lock or else forgot to close it, I "lost" a new gold locket on a chain that had been a gift from my parents. (Why is it that financially comfortable families often breed kleptomaniacs?) Baggy shorts and itchy T-shirt, tube socks and sneakers on, the hour or so of torture would begin. On Fridays I remember that we'd head out to the back of the campus, where a paved road wound around snakelike to come back more or less to its starting point. This was the cross-country track. It was mostly flat, I think, but did have some slopes. We'd line up, hear Coach Hooker blow her whistle or otherwise indicate that we should start running, and then there was no way out of it. I got the impression that there were others who disliked this activity also, but perhaps no one so much as I. I was almost always the last one to finish. I was lucky if I ran a ten-minute mile, which was simply not good enough for Coach Hooker. Is this, then, what The Hill was for? To add insult to injury; to give you more of the same when your time wasn't fast enough? Or did the one have nothing to do with the other? Maybe The Hill was for complaining, or for a fresh mouth, which I probably gave her. Or maybe it was for being out of uniform? I no longer know what the infractions were. But I do remember that the penalty for displeasing Coach Hooker was to "run hills." To run The Hill as many times as she told us to run it. The Hill was a very steep incline that led from the lower, middle school part of the campus (which, when I was there, consisted of a bunch of temporary trailers) up to the high school and main campus buildings. From bottom to top, we're probably talking an 80-degree angle or something ridiculous like that. Coach Hooker would stand at the bottom, blow that damned whistle, and count the number of times you ran up the hill and down. Halfway up was enough to knock the breath out of you. I remember trying to get out of cross-country, out of hills, out of everything, by explaining that I had Band-Aids on nearly every one of my toes, and that I just couldn't do it. The response was that P.E. was required participation, so that we all met the minimum recommended levels of physical fitness. It didn't matter that I already met those goals on my own. Now of course, I can understand how impossible it would have been to make exceptions for me, but did Coach Hooker have to make an example of me instead? This is probably an exaggerated impression, but that's how middle school feels, like the world and the coaches in it are against you. And the thought never occurred to me then, as it does now: what if I'd simply refused to run? What if I walked instead, at a comfortable but defiant pace, along the cross-country track, or up and back down that tortuous hill? What would she have done? Increased the hills I was already not running? Send me to the principal's office? What exactly? It's one of many unsolved mysteries of the middle school years. I don't know where Coach Hooker is now, nor do I care to know. I don't wish her ill anymore; in fact, I hope she drives a nicer, safer car. But I will say this: I am incredibly glad that my son is excited about his time in P.E., that he's being eased in gradually, with fun games and new skills to learn from an early age. And also, I'm glad that on his flat Manhattan campus, there are no penalty hills to run, only the threat of time out for misbehavior, but really, there are many more rewards to earn, and he likes to rise to the challenge.

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