On High School P.E. Class

I saw a video online today that made me think about something that I hadn’t thought about in a long time. Well…I kind of spoiled it with the title, but yeah, everyone’s favorite, high school P. E. class.

The video was of a school in the 1950s-1960s called La Sierra High School in southern California. You can search for it online, because I’m too tired to link it after spending 6 hours in the theatre today and another few at the APO meeting, but basically, it’s a group of high school students working out and exercising like crazy CrossFitters, only in teeny shorts and no shirts and bad composition. The high school closed down in the 1960s (not sure why) but their athletic programs went down in history as being legendary, and now there’s an indiegogo fund going to make a film out of them, along with interviews of living alumni. If my P.E. classes were like that, I probably would have been more interested in it; it looks tough, but more fun than what we did, which was usually just “here’s a basketball, go play.” Why weren’t my P.E. classes like that? Have we gotten weaker/lazier as a society, placed less value on physical education, or did my high school just suck? Probably all three.

As I was saying, growing up, gym class was awful. It was my least favorite thing about school, and I was relieved when after 10th grade, we did not have to take it anymore, thanks to state requirements. I was terrible at it; I didn’t get along with anyone, so I was always among the last picked for teams, usually actually the last, which didn’t make me any more inclined to participate at all. Usually, I just sat down on the sidelines or stood near the goalposts, or refused to play at all. I probably attempted to feign injury at least once a week, or hide in the bathroom, and there really wasn’t much anyone could do about it. It was “just gym class” after all, and the gym teacher had 30 or so other boys to look after, so me crying or yelling or sitting in a corner by myself didn’t really register on the charts.

First, there was changing into the gym uniform. I hated that, because I hated taking my clothes off in front of anyone, anywhere, including in the old, smelly locker room of my high school, the one with the “spit wall” (yeah, I have no clue, other than it was a really gross, discolored wall with the occasional chewing gum stuck to it), because the shiny, airy new locker rooms hadn’t been built yet. The smallest size of gym uniform didn’t fit me, so I had to bring in my own shorts from home. Interestingly, I was not the only one with this problem; I don’t know what company they used, but even my “size small” hung like a tent on me until high school. I usually preferred changing in a closed stall, imagining it was a mall dressing room, and again, I was not the only one who preferred this, there were usually a few of us who waited to do the same.

Then, there were the activities. Usually, it was just “play soccer or baseball or volleyball or basketball or hockey with tiny plastic sticks” in the gym while the gym teacher watches and reads or listens to music or sweeps the gym floor (yes, this actually happened a few times) or something. On the few nice days we had, provided the fields were free, we would do said activities outside. It was always the same thing, and usually ended up being the same people playing the most, scoring the points, yada yada, while I made conversation with others or sat by myself or something. What was worse was high school, when gym class became optional if you were on a team that semester (you got to sit in the cafeteria and have a free study hall, which I would have loved), so it was basically all the less athletic kids running around doing things. I guess the one good thing was that I was very rarely asked to do anything at all, so if I was in my own world the whole time, it didn’t matter. I was never passed the ball or the puck anyway, and the few times we did play hockey, I usually either got hit by a hockey stick or got mine taken away from me for hitting someone or throwing it at someone. When it was football, I wouldn’t even try to understand the rules and would basically run around in circles if the gym teacher asked me why I was just standing there. One semester, I had this thing where I would decide to “accidentally” run into, hit, or throw the ball directly at the gym teacher. I don’t know why I did it, but at least it got me in enough trouble to get me out of gym class that semester.

Sometimes, we shared the gym with the girls, and I was always jealous of them, because their gym teachers seemed to care, and they did fun things like tumbling, handstands, and learning/choreographing dances to the songs of the Spice Girls, the Backstreet Boys, and cartoon theme songs; all things that us boys never got to do. I actually think I got more of a physical education from my physics teacher who had us test mass and velocity and stuff by doing long jumps and holding ourselves between two lab tables, iron-cross-style.

And then, there was physical fitness test week. They always sprung this on us every spring with no real warning or reason as to what we were doing and why it mattered. This was the one time each year when we did supervised things like pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, and the dreaded mile run. I hated that mile run so bad; it’s kind of amusing to think that these days, running a mile doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal to me (well, if it’s on a treadmill and I have music and water, I can go for awhile). But usually they picked the hottest day of the year, and it was basically running around our big field six times, which was just so darn boring. Usually I ran for maybe two minutes, then just walked because I did not care anymore. One time I actually just lay down in the field somewhere and hoped that no one would notice the human being lying face down on the ground as they walked by.

Fast forward to me in 2015. Even for hating gym class and refusing to participate, I’m not that much taller or heavier than I was in high school. I even sometimes wear clothes from middle school, and yes, I still go to the gym in my high school gym shirt sometimes because no one in Wisconsin has ever heard of my high school, so I’m safe. I look at other peoples’ photos from my high school, and some have just really let themselves go; I don’t know if it’s because they’re married or what, but other than going to the gym sometimes and dancing a few days a week, I’m not that physically active, and these days, when I’m not on my feet at the show, I’m on the couch with my feet up.

But getting back to P.E. class in the old days, and that La Sierra video…here’s why it worked the way it did.

1. Those kids lived in California, where it is beautiful, warm, and sunny every single day. I come from Maryland, where the weather’s made up and the seasons don’t matter.

2. Those kids probably walked a lot more, and the way things are these days, being a pedestrian is…pedestrian.

3. Those kids didn’t have the Internet as a distraction.

I want to say that life in America was simpler back then, but actually…it wasn’t. There were more diseases, like polio, and fewer vaccines. Sure, people recovered, but not as quickly. Kids today worry and stress over school, but it’s always been like that. Only kids in the 1990s and today are luckier, because there’s no Cold War, Cuban Missile Crisis, or getting drafted into the army and shipped to Vietnam. In fact, I don’t even know one person my age in the American army. A few people from my high school were/are in the Israeli army, though, including one younger than me wounded in Gaza. Yeah, all American kids have to worry about these days is bandwidth and wi-fi and test scores.

So yeah, maybe we’re just lazy, and our gym teachers are even lazier. Especially my middle-aged, out-of-shape gym teachers.

Then again, all the coaches in the NCAA are middle-aged out-of-shape men.

So at least there’s a reference point.

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7 thoughts on “On High School P.E. Class

  1. Just reading this, I can smell the gym in my New Jersey high school, and see those ugly PEACH P.E. uniforms we had to wear. Our gym teacher was fit (old, to us, at least 45) and Hawaiian, so we had to learn Hawaiian dances and have a Gymghana (? that’s what she called it) every year.

    • Gymkhana is the word I believe. I would have enjoyed learning to hula or whatever. I always loved to dance. About 20 of us in the dance elective class took a field trip once to see a Ukrainian dance troupe at a local theatre in senior year, and afterward we went backstage and they led us through their warm-up and taught us a short folk dance routine. I was sweating like no other but loving every single squat and high kick.

  2. The focus on exercise has changed dramatically over the years. Not sure what you did or why you didn’t enjoy it but many limes, like most classes it’s all about the teacher.

    • George: totally. I always wondered why our male gym teachers were all older men. The female coaches and gym teachers were always much younger women who were more in shape and qualified to teach, including one really neat lady who had just gotten her BA and was not much older than the students.

  3. I remember gym class all to well. But I remember it differently. In grammar school, as a female we never got as much time playing floor hockey as the boys did. In High School I signed up to take Project Adventure 2, but I was assigned to aerobics with all the other girls. Me and aerobics did not make a good mix.

    I still find it funny what we remember

    • Huh, that is interesting Emma. Hockey was always the most interesting; our old sticks would sometimes snap with a good flick so you had to watch your head and crotch for flying plastic. I am still wondering why they gave us potentially lethal weapons; you could poke an eye out. Also I used to hit the other kids with them on purpose.

  4. My unschooled children have never taken a P.E. class, and I’m glad. They sample things at the Y; my 13yo son likes to work out with me, doing weights and cardio machines. Both kids love the trampoline and swimming. Our 10yo daughter, loves to dance and run obstacle courses.

    Recently, our son’s been enjoying long walks (recently, 2.8 miles to a local shop), and he likes to do things like shovel snow, mow the lawn, and load and unload groceries, “for the exercise”, he says.

    I wasn’t at all athletic in school. We did have archery in the fall, and the option of unsupervised cross-country skiing in the winter. My best friend and I would sneak books out with us, and just stop in the woods to read!

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