Friday, October 3, 2008

How Gym Class Scarred Me for Life

I am not athletic.

You might think, when you read that sentence, “Oh, she can’t be that bad. Most people have SOME athletic ability.” Well, you would be wrong. I have NO athletic ability, which is part of the reason why I believe I was scarred for life by public school gym classes.

Elementary school was not so bad. We played fun games; the other kids hadn’t gotten all competitive yet; and the teachers were pretty tolerant. Seventh grade gym class was bearable because I had an incredible teacher. (Beth Art, if you ever read this, thank you.) She was kind and understood that not everyone is athletic—all she asked was that I tried to do all the activities. My junior high years were not the best of my life, and Ms. Art helped me through some pretty tough teenage stuff. I thought (and hoped, and prayed) that maybe, just maybe, all my future gym teachers would be like her. Boy, was I wrong.

I started eighth grade in the fall of 1983, chubby and awkward and horribly shy, with dreadful white-girl-afro curly hair and all the wrong clothes. (There were NO good products for curly hair in the 80s, and my family didn’t have enough money for the “right” clothes.) It was there that I met Torquemada the dreaded Coach C. He was the exact opposite of my beloved seventh-grade gym teacher. He thought everyone, regardless of shape, size, or level of coordination, should be able to play all sports equally well. And he had absolutely no tolerance for anyone who couldn’t. Coach C. and I made it about halfway through the year with just a few minor skirmishes—I protested about some of the things he asked me to do, and he said some nasty things about my lack of athleticism, but it wasn’t in my nature to really make trouble with a teacher. That is, until we began working on gymnastics.

In all my previous years of gym class, the gymnastics equipment was pretty harmless: everything was low to the floor, and designed so that kids weren’t flinging themselves off into space and breaking their heads on a regular basis. That all changed in eighth grade: we were using regulation competitive equipment, which meant that the balance beam was four feet off the floor and the vault was almost taller than me. We were also expected to learn actual gymnastics moves and routines. I had never done well in gymnastics (fat and uncoordinated is a bad combination for performing complex airborne stunts), and I knew, when I saw that equipment, that this would all end very badly. I struggled through the uneven bars and the balance beam without too much trouble, except for landing on my head when I tried to do a round-off dismount from the beam. Then my group moved on to the vault.

The vault was set up with a springboard in front of it, and Coach C. assigned each of us a different stunt to perform. When my turn came, he told me I was supposed to hit the springboard, do this on the vault:

…then do a somersault in the air, and land on my feet. He could see my short fat self standing in front of him; did he really think I could do the splits on the ground, let alone while flying through the air? I gathered up every ounce of courage I possessed, and told him I just couldn’t do that. Coach C. looked at me coldly, and told me that, “failure to complete this exercise will result in an “F” for the entire unit of study.” This particular “unit of study” would comprise my entire midterm grade. I had never earned anything below a “C” on a midterm or report card in my life—I couldn’t ruin my GPA over a stupid gym class!

Up to this point, I have neglected to mention the student teacher we had working in our class. She was tiny, cute, and super-perky; I’m sure she had been a cheerleader from the moment she exited the womb. All the boys loved her, and she flirted with them like crazy. (Which is kind of gross now that I think about it, because they were all about 13. And she was in her 20s. Ewww.) On the day that I came face to face with the vault, she had been assigned to stand next to the landing mat and grade the class on our performances. Remember this fact, because it will be important later.

Resigned to my fate, I watched my classmates perform their vaults. While there were varying degrees of success displayed, no one did really poorly. When my turn came, I squared up to the “run” up to the vault, and ran as fast as my chubby, stubby little legs would carry me. I remember my feet hitting the springboard, and the realization that things were about to go horribly wrong. I didn’t manage to do the splits, or even get my hands squarely on the vault; I did, however, somehow propel myself OVER the stupid thing. At an incredibly high rate of speed, with no control whatsoever...directly toward Ms. CuteandPerky. I remember seeing her face, and the dawning knowledge of what was going to happen. She looked kind of like this:

And then, I fell on her. Yep—right, square on top of her, in front of everyone in the class, in a tangle of arms and legs. My considerable bulk had pinned her tiny, petite frame to the mat completely, and she was somewhat dazed. We managed, somehow, to extricate ourselves and get up. I stammered apologies and tried not to cry, and she tried to look like she wasn’t pissed that her hair had gotten messed up. It was so mortifying that I don’t even remember what grade I got for my “vault.” I just wanted to get to the locker room and escape the nightmare.

After that disaster, the rest of the gymnastics unit was mostly uneventful. Of course, all the horrible popular boys in the class did not let me forget my utter humiliation, but I would have expected no less of them. I managed to scrape by with a “C” for my midterm grade, somehow, and I was thrilled to have it.

As part of my "research" for this post, I learned that the regulating body for competitive gymnastics determined that the traditional vault was too dangerous, and had it redesigned to look like this:

Apparently, a couple of gymnasts were seriously hurt on the old vault, and someone decided that this thing would be safer. It still looks like some kind of medieval torture device to me, but what do I know about it? Once I was out of high school, the closest I've come to gymnastics is watching it on TV. Anyway, I have lots more stories of gym class horrors, but I’ll save those for another day, since this post is now approximately five miles long.

EDITED TO ADD: This was actually posted on Tuesday, October 7th. Again, Blogger is nuts. I don't know why the font is different on one of the paragraphs, since it all looked the same on the "preview" screen. Hopefully everyone is too busy laughing at my misfortune to notice the screwed-up aspects of the post.

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