I was that kid. The one who liked school. The one who put up her hand to answer all the questions. The one who obsessed about handing in her homework on time. The one who got teased by the other kids for always having good marks. The one who adored her teachers. Even the sort of scary ones.
But then there was gym.
Since I started school in the mid-1960s, both teacher education and the Physical Education curriculum have evolved a much more appropriate stance towards accommodating the needs of the differently abled. But when I entered school with a full-on case of Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, “accommodation,” when it happened at all, typically meant one of the following:
- Sit on the bench and watch. The best that can be said for this option was that it was crushingly boring. It could have been redeemed by modifying it to “sit on the bench and read a book” but I can’t recall that being an option. Presumably by watching I was going absorb some gym-related knowledge vicariously? More likely it just never occurred to my teachers that there might have been more worthwhile ways to spend my time.
- Do some benign alternate activity on the sidelines. I spent a great deal of junior high gym class listlessly lobbing a badminton birdie back and forth with my best friend who conveniently had asthma and needed to sit out even more activities than I did. You might be forgiven for expecting that this experience resulted in me becoming a badminton ace, but you would be very wrong. Since, in the mind of the teacher, I was never going to be an athlete, this activity really was just about killing time. Consequently I was never deemed worthy of any coaching or instruction that might have resulted in actual skill development.
- Try to participate as much as you can. This was the worst, by far. Because as soon I left my exile of the bench or sidelines, I stepped into the arena where, like it or not, I was up for comparison with everyone else in the class. And compare they did. I was the classic “last kid picked” for every team. And for some reason in that era it never dawned on the teachers that there was anything problematic with ALWAYS letting the most athletic kids (generally boys) select the teams. I was always the slowest runner, when I was enough in remission to run at all. I couldn’t catch a ball to save my life. To this day I still “throw like a girl.”
Even during the good times when I was fully in remission, which was the case by the time I reached my early teens, gym was unremittingly awful, because in all those years on the bench I had missed out on a lot of basic skill-building. This wouldn’t have been an issue for some activities, but most gym teachers at the time did not seem to possess imaginations capable of stretching beyond the tried and true triumvirate of volleyball, basketball, and baseball.
I was never wired for team sports, but for most of my gym career they were my only options. Even as an adult, I shy away from any athletic activity where my lack of skill and prowess might impact on another player. In my 40s I enjoyed going to a “master class” in swimming where we mainly did laps. One day the teacher decided to switch things up and teach us a bit of water polo for 5-10 minutes at the end of each workout. I dreaded those minutes so much I stopped going.
Grade 10 meant switching to the high school. It meant, at that time, the last year of mandatory physical education. It also meant the first time that gym would be a graded course, as opposed to something in which I would get a pass just for showing up.
Fortunately, grade 10 also introduced me to a new breed of gym teacher. She was young. She was easygoing. She was a she. And her philosophy was that since this was our last year of gym class we should be exposed to physical activities that we could do when we were no longer in the high school world with its obsession with volleyball and basketball. So we went swimming — which was always the one physical activity at which I was both competent and confident. We went horseback riding–which scared the beejeezus out of me, but had me on a level playing field with all but a handful of my classmates. We went bowling (OK) and cross country skiing (yes!) We did lots of things I sucked at, a few things with which I could sort of cope, and two or three things I actually liked. But nothing we did lasted more than a couple of weeks, and the main thing was you had to try everything. When I brought home my mid-semester report card, my parents and I were elated. I had pulled off a C+.
My gym teacher also happened to be my home-room teacher, so when my parents arrived for the parent-teacher interview, the teacher had seen my report card with not only my gym mark, but also the A’s I had received for all my other courses. When my parents introduced themselves, they could see that the teacher was very nervous. She began talking about my progress in gym class in the most defensive of tones, which confused my parents greatly until they realized that she assumed they were coming to berate her for “only” giving me a C+, when clearly I was a far better student than that. “Oh no,” my mom exclaimed when she finally put two and two together. “We’re absolutely delighted with Anna’s grade in gym. She has had the best experience in your class of any gym class she has ever taken!”
Gymnasiums can still make me break out in a cold sweat. I don’t see myself ever joining an athletic team. Fortunately I got enough “team” training in band and theatre to consider myself a fairly well-rounded adult. In spite of the inadequacies of my physical education, I have found ways of being physically fit and active that work for me. I still love to swim, and you know, dear reader, how much I love to walk.
In fact, it’s time to go for a walk right about now.