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Surviving Gym Class

By Nancy Flanagan — January 22, 2010 2 min read
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True story. When I was in junior high (remember junior high? it’s what we had before middle school became a contentious concept), we wore hideous, balloon-butt red gym shorts and ugly white blouses, with snaps up the front and elastic hems, for physical education classes. Simply putting them on was an exercise in humiliation.

One spring day, our teacher, Mrs. Firm (yes, her real name), was putting the girls through our paces on the track around the football field. The boys’ class, in also-dorky red shorts, was on the other side of the field. The drill went like this. You lined up in alphabetical order, ran the 50-yard dash, and when you got to the end, Mrs. Firm jotted down your time. You got to run twice, then your best time became your grade.

I was strictly a C student in phys ed--and then only because I was a decent swimmer. Physical education kept me off the all-A honor roll for years. I don’t remember being particularly upset by that fact. What I do remember was the tedium and military ambiance-- endless numbering off, sitting in lines on the cold floor, captains choosing teams. I, needless to say, was not captain material.

After I ran 50 yards the first time, Mrs. Firm called me over. Lowering her voice, she asked “Did you have polio as a child?” I could feel my cheeks flaming; out of the corner of my eye, I saw boys waiting for their turn to run staring at me. Before I could answer, she said “You run funny. I wondered if there was a reason.” Unh, no. Just my natural deformities, I guess.

I thought about Mrs. Firm when I read “Gym-Class Humiliations Last a Lifetime,” at Inside School Research. My first thought: seriously? this is a research topic? One commenter thought that calling phys ed classes “Health and Fitness” would change the prevailing, Sue-Sylvester stereotypes. With all due respect--good luck with that.

My life was not ruined by Mrs. Firm, although details of that 50-yard dash are clearly etched in my consciousness, some 45 years later. Most of the phys ed teachers I know are genuinely concerned with building lifelong habits of exercise; many complement that with a side helping of competitive jock.

Once, when the gym teacher across the hall fell off his boogie board on a Florida vacation, I covered his class for the six weeks he was in a cast. His motto was “everyone who tries gets an A.” Possibly that was his way of avoiding collecting vast amounts of assessment data on a clipboard--but it worked for me.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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