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This post is part of my 2022 Word Project. You can read what that’s about here.

Friday, July 14, 2023

You know which teachers had a racket when I was in school? Gym teachers.

I have no idea what the qualifications were to be a gym teacher. I do know that in order to teach kindergarten, I had to have a double major in education and something else, where that something else was psychology. I do know that in order to teach kindergarten, I had to do a full year of student teaching, write lesson plans, be observed and evaluated. I do know that in order to teach kindergarten, I had to pass three different NTEs and then go on to get a Masters in education.

I don’t know if gym teachers needed a degree in education or sports or physiology or anything at all. I don’t know if they had to pass tests or get advanced degrees. It seemed, to me, that in order to be a gym teacher all one had to do was be able to yell across an open field.

Here’s what I can tell you about the gym teachers in my life.

There was always the fat one and the skinny one. The fat one would lumber around barking orders like she had any right at all telling you to run faster. The skinny one would blow whistles and point a lot.

They never taught you anything. They just dumped you in a gym or on a field, flung some equipment at your feet like hockey sticks or soccer balls, and stood around long enough to make sure someone picked teams.

I don’t remember a single lesson in how to hold a bat or block a goal. I do remember getting whacked in the shoulder a lot with balls and hit in the shins with sticks.

There always seemed to be some sort of assumption that if you existed as a human on earth, you inherently understood how to stand at home plate or set a volleyball. Anything I learned about a sport at all was either because I’d seen it on TV, like baseball or soccer, or I watched someone who was on a school team who knew better and I tried to copy them.

Sometimes, I guess it was sort of inherent knowledge. When someone kicks a ball at you with high force, you either put up your hands to stop it or you get the hell out of the way.

It may not come as a surprise that I hated, loathed and despised everything about gym class. I was the kid who got picked last for every team, every time, because I was slow and stupid when it came to sports.

I had no idea what right field was, let alone what to do there. Here’s what I did: stood on the grass in the general location of where I thought I was supposed to be, and prayed a ball would never come my way.

The only time gym class became tolerable was later in high school when we got to pick the activity we wanted to do for a quarter. It was a ridiculous process, really, and I think the gym teachers did it merely for their own amusement, but it worked like this:

They’d set up folding tables in the middle of the gym and then they’d all sit at the table like a bunch of lords in Game of Thrones, each with a different activity card in front of them representing something you could choose. The kids would sit on the bleachers across the room.

Everyone would get a ticket and then they’d call you by grade. Seniors got to go first. Ninth graders were out of luck.

When your grade got called, you raced down the bleachers and across the room and slammed your ticket down on the activity you wanted to take. Each activity could hold a finite number of people so when that activity got filled, you had to frantically run to the next one and hope that wasn’t filled, too.

My goal was to get whatever non-competitive sport I could, or something I knew I could do with my friends in a small group, like weight lifting or handball or tennis. I wanted to avoid anything that put me last on a team, like softball, volleyball or basketball.

There was a lot of pushing and shoving and clawing and falling and trampling of other people in the process. And if you weren’t a senior, you were pretty much stuck with the leftovers anyway.

Let’s put it this way: I played a lot of volleyball.

But perhaps the bane of my gym class existence was running. Running, which seems like it would be hand-picked for the least athletically inclined. A solitary pursuit for the most part, in which nobody but yourself cared if you were last. In fact, the more last you were, the happier other people were.

Of course, this fell apart during relay races but fortunately those were less frequent.

Running is another of those things that you, as a two-legged human, are suppose to inherently know how to do. Nobody ever told you how swing your arms or whether to heel-strike or ball-strike. Nobody ever trained you to work up from a jog to a sprint or taught you how to breathe. You can go on the internet today and find thousands of resources for improving your speed, the exact angle to land on your foot, what to eat before a run and after a run, as opposed to, say, pizza and French fries in the school cafeteria five minutes earlier.

I did not have that luxury. I had the fat gym teacher and the skinny gym teacher, and they both wanted one thing: for me to run a ten minute mile if I wanted to pass gym class.

No matter that you hadn’t run an any-minute mile because that was never part of the curriculum. No matter than you had lifted weights and smacked volleyballs and swung softball bats for ten months. The only criteria for whether you’d get to pass gym class or not was whether, during the last week of school and after eating French fries and pizza, you could run a ten minute mile when they threw you onto the track outside.

I suppose that if you are ever in the woods and a bear is chasing you, I’m the one you want to be with.

I did not pass. Not the first time. Not the second time. Not however fast I ran or however much I gasped.

You have to understand that I was essentially a straight-A student. I could do sines and cosines, I could translate entire novels from French to English, I could separate out a distillate like nobody’s business. The thought of failing gym class was preposterous on so many levels.

Long story short, I somehow, eventually, managed to run a mile in 9 minutes and 58 seconds.

And then I never wanted to leave the couch again.

But I’m a glutton for punishment, so in college I joined the track team.

This was cause for great hilarity in my family, but I thought it was the perfect chance to prove that I could do it. I figured someone would teach me something but all that happened was that I went out onto a track, someone said “run” and I did.

I lasted about two weeks before deciding I really, in fact, hated running, and quit.

But I’m obsessive if nothing else and for random reasons of nothing in particular, I decided I needed to conquer my fear and loathing of the ten minute mile. So some years ago, I got on my treadmill and worked up from walking a 20 minute mile to walking a 15 minute mile to jogging a 12 minute mile to running a 10 minute mile.

Then I did three miles in 30 minutes. Then I did six in an hour.

Then I got on the couch and stayed there.

These days I don’t know if I could run to catch the ice cream truck but if I know that if I worked up to it, I could, without much difficulty, run a ten minute mile. I’ve done it enough times that it’s not that interesting anymore.

But I do wonder, why is it a thing? Who decided, and for what reason, that running a mile in ten minutes is a thing you should do? I looked it up, believe me I did. Apparently it’s still a thing you have to do in gym class (just ask people on Reddit or any other network for whom this is a great source of woe) and apparently gym teachers are still not teaching anyone how to actually do it, if the questions online are anything to judge by.

But now everyone has an app for that, so if nothing else you can learn by robot. Still, there are no metrics, no readily available source that says it is a mark of fitness or aptitude. Why don’t you have to, say, catch ten dodge balls before they hit you in the face if you want to pass gym class? I found that to be a much more valuable skill.

It is one of those great mysteries of life that you do because someone told you to, because someone told them to, because someone before them told them to. And schoolchildren everywhere suffer, children who otherwise enjoy running in the back yard on a summer day, children who become adults who otherwise enjoy running down a grassy hill with the wind in their face.

When I’m Supreme Ruler Of All Things I’m banning the ten minute mile and all other forms of pointless running-to-get-nowhere. The only running that will be allowed is running to catch your train if it’s the last one into Paris, running to get your chocolate ├ęclair ice cream before the truck pulls away, and running for the sheer joy of feeling like you’re on the verge of taking flight at any moment. That, in fact, is the only reason to do anything life. Your Ruler has spoken.

Photo: my cat Ash who had a much better idea of how to use a treadmill.