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Why We Can No Longer Afford to Treat Gym As a Throwaway Class

Posted Dec 12 2011 12:39am

“Sport in school is the worst thing you can possibly inflict on children, particularly girls who are going through puberty and are necessarily self-conscious, often in pain and often vulnerable. Rather than being promoted as life-enhancing, health-giving and a fun way of giving you a fantastic body, sport is turned by school, and the frankly pervy gym mistresses who police it with really loud whistles, into an assault course to be avoided at all costs.”

So says the ever-controversial (pervy gym mistresses? You went there? Really?) Liz Jones in the Daily Mail . (In an article criticizing a British sports star for being “too sinewy” with “breasts like slabs in a sea of testosterone”, no less.)

The thing is, for a long time I would have heartily agreed with her. Man I hated gym class.

Every society has its own coming-of-age challenge that adolescents of that culture must pass before being accepted as adults. Some African societies force feed adolescent girls to fatten them up for marriage. To progress to manhood in the Amazon’s Satere Mawé tribe you have to wear gloves filled with stinging ants – ants whose sting is 30 times more painful than a wasp’s – for 20 minutes. American children have Middle School.

If your experience was anything like mine, you just had an involuntary shiver go up your spine. During those three short years I got loogies hawked into my hair (bonus points for spatter on my big ol’ plastic ’80s glasses!), sloppy joes dumped in my ridiculously inefficient Esprit bag, and, in retrospect the most horrifying thing of all, a lecture on the birth control Norplant from my 12-year-old locker partner. But in the highlight reel of the horror movie that was my middle school, the scene that holds the most Carrie-like prominence is the day I not only threw up but also simultaneously peed myself in front of all my classmates in gym class.

It happened on the day of the dreaded Presidential Fitness Exam. Perhaps you remember it: sit-ups, push-ups, the sit-n-reach, the arm hang and the mile run. Each event had a certain number you had to meet to pass. Winners got an ugly little patch to sew on to something (I think – I never won so I wouldn’t know) and losers got a lifetime of bad self esteem. Well my particular gym teacher that year had an evil streak a mile wide and decided that the only way to pass his P.E. class (or “Phy. Ed.” if you’re Minnesotan) was to pass the Presidential Fitness Exam. (Side note: I always wondered who is this president they kept referring to? While President Obama could probably pass with flying colors, I doubt Bush Sr. – the president during my middle school tenure – could even manage the second half of a sit up without assistance.) Anyhow, being the straight-A student I was, I was horrified at the thought of a stupid gym class ruining my precious 4.0 G.P.A. My downfall every year was the mile run.

Well that year, Senor Satan decided to help me keep my G.P.A. … by chasing me around the track throwing footballs at my head and screaming “MOVE IT HILTON!” while my classmates roared with laughter. Terror stricken and jelly legged, I not only passed the mile run but beat the boys’ time as well – only to ruin my moment of wind-sucking glory by vomiting right on the finish line. And then peeing my blue polyester gym shorts while trying to run off the field to hide. After that I did everything I could to avoid P.E. in school, something I was fairly successful at.

This bad early experience with gym class not only gave me the best “My Most Embarrassing Moment Story*” to tell at parties but it also had the unfortunate consequence of making me h-a-t-e running. And volleyball and soccer and basketball and football and pretty much every other team sport I was forced to play with the lone exception of archery. I kicked blue-polyester-butt in archery.

When I met my husband many post-traumatic years later, it took him months just to get me to play a little tennis with him. Despite enjoying dancing and gymnastics and hiking and rock climbing and many other sweaty pursuits I still thought I was a terrible athlete and moreover I hated anything that said “team sport.” This fallacy might have persisted had I not had a bunch of pregnancy weight and post-sexual-assault angst to work off . Thankfully I discovered fitness in my mid-twenties and it’s been a love affair ever since – something that one gym teacher came mighty close to ruining. (I’ve even discovered a love for team sports! The Gym Buddies and I have been playing a little basketball – read: calvinball rules - and it’s been a riot!)

Research says I’m not alone in my middle school reaction, saying that negative interactions with physical education teachers can cause a lifelong hatred of exercise. One woman in the study wrote, “I am a 51-year-old-woman whose childhood experiences with sports, particularly as handled in school, were so negative that even as I write this my hands are sweating and I feel on the verge of tears. I have never experienced the humiliation nor felt the antipathy toward any other aspect of life as I do toward sports.” I feel for her. Even 20 years later I still feel nauseated remembering the gym class that inspired a 100 angst-ridden diary entries.

Fortunately, the converse is also true. If a bad gym teacher or coach can inspire lifelong bad habits, a good teacher is even more powerful. Thankfully there are many P.E. teachers (like our own Turbo Jennie!) who realize the importance of what they are doing and work long and hard to help the vulnerable kids in their care. These teachers do a lot of good and deserve more attention, respect and pay than we currently give them. Sure there’s the much ballyhooed obesity crisis to think about but I think P.E. is even more important for teaching kids how good it can feel to exercise, how fun movement can be and, at the risk of getting all after-school special up in here, serious life skills. And we do this by helping kids find an activity they love – something you can’t do by belittling, criticizing or humiliating them. We can no longer afford to treat physical education like a throwaway class nor can we keep treating gym teachers as a joke – their role is so influential and important to our kids’ well being.

We need good P.E. classes in schools and to do that we need more great P.E. teachers - anything less and the consequences are simply too severe.

What was your school gym experience like? Did you have a particular physical education teacher who really stood out to you, good or bad? Can anyone top my embarrassing middle school moment?

*This story was a great “most embarrassing moment story” for several years as a teen but I have since topped it with waaaay more embarrassing moments. Like the time I peed my pants all over the gym floor as a grown adult. I blame the Gym Buddies – they made me laugh too hard!

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