P.E. started out fun in elementary school. It was like an extra recess and once a month – woohoo! – parachute day! This is how they get you, lure you in before they spring Field Day on you. Then you’re on the playground running back and forth to grab a pile of chalkboard erasers one by one, like anyone really deserves a blue ribbon for doing that the fastest. That was in addition to all the relay races and X-number-of-yard dashes you had to run. We were like race horses on that field. It was the one day a year the ambulatory kids envied the kids on crutches and in wheelchairs.
And what was with the shot put event? It’s not like I was in training for that. On Field Day I was just shoved into this contest for throwing a heavy metal ball the farthest into a sandpit. My spaghetti arms could barely lift that ball. For weaklings like me, it was like being slung into The Hunger Games, only instead of death the losers got white participation ribbons.
Then in sixth grade, when discomfort with our bodies and awkwardness around boys had peaked, we had a week of sex education. We were given information of such a sensitive nature that it required a signed parent permission slip. What did those sadistic gym teachers do then? They introduced square dancing. Every afternoon they played records in the gymnasium while we had to promenade, allemande left, and do-si-do with our partner. Because that’s exactly what we needed after embarrassing talk about anatomy, ovulation, and hair growth. Thanks for timing that just right, P.E. teachers.
Middle school offered a little relief but also a whole new set of problems. We were no longer co-ed but now we had to dress out in the most unflattering gym uniform ever designed. Seriously, it takes actual work to design a simple cotton tee shirt and pair of shorts that look hideous on every body type. Plus, we had to write our names on them in black marker. So when the 8th graders wanted to yell at you to get of their way, they could call you by name.
Even worse than the lame uniform, which we wore no matter how cold or rainy it was, we had to run a mile every week. Nothing got you out of this. I know because I tried. “Oh, you were absent that day? That’s okay, you can make it up at lunch.” Try skipping out on that and you’d be staying after school. You couldn’t just walk the mile either because my gym coach kept strict records of everyone’s times and expected you to do better each week. And if you didn’t? That’s right – you ran it again.
When you thought it couldn’t get any worse… BOOM. You got your period and it’s rope climb day. Because the ropes were only installed when they’d be used for P.E., lest the boys play on them unsupervised, this was necessarily a co-ed activity. The boys would shoot up and down their ropes like monkeys. Us girls advanced a few inches and hung there while the coaches barked at us to “just try.” We were trying – trying to look cute while dangling in the air without getting our hands calloused from the braided rope or letting the boys see up our shorts.
Finally, high school. Just this one more year and then we were done with P.E. for life. The activities were more of the same but the coaches were more lax. At least, my best friend and I got away with halfhearted performance. My daughter had it really easy. She was only required to have one semester of “traditional” P.E. The second semester was an elective of their choosing. It could be Yoga and Pilates or Aerobics and Nutrition. They could take a racquet sports class and spend their days playing badminton and tennis, or choose an outdoor recreation activity class and play sand volleyball and Frisbee golf. Or they could opt for women’s sports and bowl, golf, rock climb, and practice archery. That sounds so much better than the days of flag football on a frosty field that I remember.
I got to thinking about all of this the other night while laying in bed, pondering joining an aerobics class. It’s not that I want to exercise, per se. It’s that I’d like to tone my stomach and flabby arms and since that doesn’t happen while sitting on the couch eating Cheetos, I might have to join a women’s gym. If you would have told me when I was a kid that one day I’d pay to workout and hire a personal trainer, which is basically a P.E. teacher for adults, I’d have found the strength to hurl that shot put ball right into your face.