In Junior high, was there anything more humiliating, scary and so full of life lessons than the gym class? By the time I hit high school, they had renamed it Physical Education. Physical Education is a much better term because we received education in so many valuable lessons and life skills; life skills that we would apply in our everyday world. I’m of course talking about things like learning how to propel myself up a 30 foot rope made of horsehair and then there was the lesson about how to obtain the self-inflicted rope burns on the inside of our thighs. The intention of this lesson, of course, was to teach us methods of applying Vaseline to ourselves or to learn how to walk like cowboys. I remember how proud I was the day I figured out that I could climb the rope in gym (hint: if you had skinny arms like me, the trick was to have clean sneakers able to grab the rope so your legs could do the work).
Gym class also taught us the 13 year old version of Emily Post ‘How to Dress for Success’ by issuing us thigh-high shorts that were three sizes too large. Gym is short for gymnasium. Gymnasium stems from an Ancient Greek term gymnos, meaning naked. Naked is essentially how we felt wearing our three sizes too large shorts along with our jockstraps, (unfortunately also three sizes too large). Black canvas Converse, (for the richies), or K-Mart specials (for the unfortunate majority), giant baggy shorts, (black or dark blue), and to make the outfit complete, a white tee shirt with yellow stains in the underarms. Oh, we were handsome, let me tell you.
One of the more important life skills taught in gym class was wrestling. The training for wrestling was intense! For 15 entire minutes we were shown how to get down on all fours while another larger kid got to kneel on one knee with one hand around our waist and another hand on our left arm. At the sound of a loud whistle, the larger boy was to quickly remove his left hand from our arm, reach underneath us to grab our right wrist thereby allowing the larger boy to thrust the face of the smaller boy immediately into a paper thin 25-year old mat aged with the saliva and sweat of thousands of small boys. That was training. The matches lasted an entire three seconds. I’ve never forgotten the value of this training – if ever I am confronted by a home intruder, I figure all I have to do is to trip the guy, getting him to land on all fours…..the poor sap won’t stand a chance!
Softball. A game played only once because it was mandatory to teach. We had no gloves. A ball was pitched and then hit. Fifteen boys then dodged it if it were a line drive. If it were a fly ball, one of us would park underneath it, let it fall hard to the ground and then try to catch it after the first bounce. If you were the lucky recipient, you then got to throw it hard and fast at another person nearest the base of the runner. The ball was never caught of course, not unless you wanted a broken finger or a bruise on your hand the size of a mango. There were 175 home runs hit by the visitors. The home team never got to bat.
Basketball was even more fun. Everyone played, no one sat on the sidelines. Therefore the games pretty much resembled a toddlers’ soccer match only we got to use our hands. A ball was tipped off into a crowd of baggy-shorted prepubescent teenage boys who would try to dribble, only to have the ball stolen by a mob of defenders. Every now and again a shot was made, typically from half court, often times getting stuck up above the backboard wedged between the backboard and the cables. The next part of the game then consisted of a dozen baggy-shorts tossing rubber balls up,at the basketball, usually only to wedge it in deeper. Final score – 2:0.
Dodgeball! Dodgeball was one of those activities we were told to engage in when the teacher had a hangover from the night before and just couldn’t contend with a bunch of baggy-shorted pimply faced teens. If the Principal was crawling up the butt of the Gym Teacher, you can bet that we boys were going to suffer the brunt of his pent up frustrations. In hindsight, what a great job – kids, I want you to hurl missiles at each other for the next 30 minutes. I’ll be right here ‘officiating’ (officiating definition – sitting on the sidelines with a whistle and trying like hell not to laugh at the scrawny kids being pummeled by the future local criminals).
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all bad. On special days I got to practice my nuclear bomb duck and cover skills while inflated rubber balls were being hurled at me from ten feet away by kids who outweighed me by 350 pounds. Let me tell you, once you get whacked in the side of the face by one of those babies, you very quickly develop catlike quickness….or die! On other days I was taught to run as fast as I could, jump onto a thin spring which would allow me to attempt a hand stand flip over a wooden obstacle. The object of this lesson of course was to learn to trust the gym teacher to not let my head go crashing into the hard wooden gym floor….I’m sure he was tempted.
So what was the best part of gym, what were the most useful life lessons learned? Why of course the most useful lessons were those learned with, and about, the fairer sex. I’m of course referring to square dancing and slow dancing, thrust upon us in December just before the Christmas break. I have some very fond memories of slow dancing with my very first steady documented in this story (read me).
I’m male so I’m not sure what gym class was like for my teenage female counterparts. I suspect however that the girls, like we boys, did quite a lot of growing up in junior high gym. If for nothing else, I hope a cute little blond four-eyed girl still has a very fond memory of holding me and dancing to Michael Jackson’s I’ll Be There…..because I do. All of these great memories can be attributed to wonderful, scary, and yes, sometimes humiliating days in junior high school gym. Likely none of us would choose to go back….but we’re damn glad we were there…..because a hell of a lot of growing up occurred in those three short years, 45 minutes at a time.