You wanna know where our modern education system falls apart?
The P.E. class.
I mean, you get a tutor if you’re not so good at English or math.
But not so in P.E.
In P.E., you’re on your own. You either get it or you don’t.
If you’re the type no one wants on their team in P.E., standing there just praying for some cooler-than-you-P.E.-teacher’s-pet “team captain” to pick you before there’s no one left but you, or the type who couldn’t climb that damned rope even if Godzilla was chasing you, well, you’re just shit out of luck.
My teenager had to take P.E. one year in middle school—I tried not to force my shitty P.E. memories on her.
Even though she was up to six-plus hours of dance classes a week by that time, she still had to take P.E. because of the health class part, which means they talk about you-know-what.
Seeing as how I only had so much energy to adequately pursue the “but she’s already active” argument, we went along with it.
And though the child moaned about having to take a class she didn’t want or need, I didn’t go (much) into my personal horror stories.
Instead, I told her to be ever so grateful for what she had going for her.
After all, she’d been dancing since the age of three, which had prepared her for P.E. way more than a life of bookwormy dorkiness does. Ahem.
“I’m terrible at basketball!” she told me.
My recollections of attempting basketball with neither skill nor coordination nor interest nor the least bit of height are very, very sad.
But I focused on the positive and reminded her that at least she was coordinated and strong.
And that she looked alright in shorts because she’s not paler than death in the winter.
And that the one-piece gym suit of days gone by is no longer required, but instead she’d be wearing fairly ordinary athletic wear, which has come a long way in its own right.
And that she wasn’t a glasses wearer in the 1970s, a time when no cool person wore glasses, and glasses themselves were big, thick, actually glass, and very heavy.
I pointed out to my child that there are kids who suck at every single sporty thing.
Kids like me, built like a cotton ball, flimsy and weak, the one “Coach” always stationed right under the volleyball net so someone could slam the ball into her big goofy glasses.
And god, nothing hurts worse than getting hit in the face when you wear glasses—contact lenses are why I live in these times.
I told her to appreciate that she didn’t have triple-D breasts to wrangle down like some girls do. (Not me—double-A power, yay!)
I told her to be thankful she could wear shorts without starting a fire from her thighs rubbing together.
I pointed out that there are kids who couldn’t catch a ball if Beyoncé promised to be their best friend.
That there are kids who look like they’re going to pass out when they sweat (me).
That there are kids who are loners and have no friends to huddle with in their gymn-ly misery.
Or kids who still look like they’re in fourth grade when they get to middle school (me again!), and the last thing they want is to publicly display their physical lack. Or just the opposite, the kids—girls, usually—who’re mortified to already look like adults in middle school.
Yup, I kept most of my P.E. misery to myself while I forced my child to endure just that one damned required semester.
I kept it to myself that I was one of the unfortunate kids with my big glasses, pale skin, and thick and utterly unstylish hair that no amount of Dippity-Do and Aquanet could tame for an entire day—hair that P.E. only made worse.
It’s a wonder I never put a hateful curse on the P.E. teacher. And seven generations of his offspring, too.
I was a proven failure at neighborhood sports, too, though once, to everyone’s surprise—including my own, I did catch a softball when I was stashed way outfield where I could do the least harm. It was pure coincidence that the ball landed in the sky where I held my glove to the air.
I kept it to myself that I would have given anything to be coordinated, strong, and confident. Oh, and tan. And even just sort of interested in P.E.
P.E. meant getting hit in the face with a ball or a body part or a field hockey stick, or hunted down in dodgeball by some giant bully boy.
The only activities that redeemed P.E. for me were parachute day (please tell me they still do this), and two measly parts of a thing we did in the 70s called the President’s Physical Fitness Test.
Though the running and jumping parts of the President’s Physical Fitness test were death traps for me—I mean, I really thought I would die trying to run the 600-yard dash, and the standing broad jump all but crippled me—I could do sit-ups until someone finally told me to stop. (“Crunches” hadn’t been invented yet.)
And I could do this thing they called the “flexed arm hang” (pull-ups for girls!) pretty much forever, probably because I weighed something like fifty pounds and could just hang there like it was nothing.
Halfway through high school, after my final four-eyed-face-to-ball collision under the volleyball net, I found out that summer school P.E. was where kids like me went.
I guess word got out to a certain set of us because summer school P.E. was made up of weirdos, dorks, and stoners. We played Putt-Putt on nice days and went bowling on hot days. Sometimes we played tennis, but that required effort, so mostly we just hung out with tennis rackets on those days.
In summer school P.E. we took a lot of breaks and laughed a lot. And we drank sodas from the snack bars at the bowling alley and the Putt-Putt course.
We checked in once a week with the coach, who didn’t go bowling or play putt-putt or tennis with us and didn’t even watch us—it was honor system summer school. And it was the life for P.E. rejects like me.
The most athletic I ever got in all my school years was playing clarinet in the band. Go ahead and laugh at me for being a band geek—but just so you know, I was a squad leader, so there.
After high school, in came the 80s, which meant Jane Fonda stepped in wearing a high-cut leotard.
I tried jogging—because we didn’t ‘run’ in those days, we jogged, and I tried aerobics, meaning I cannot to this day hear a certain Gloria Estefan song without feeling flabby, inadequate, and out of breath. None of this left me feeling better instead, but hey, at least I tried them.
Eventually, I just resorted to walking a lot and to riding my red bike all around the hilly college town.
At about the age of thirty I got brave enough to take a ballet class, which I’d always wanted to do. But I think you can see at this point that I may have suffered from a serious lack of confidence in these sorts of things.
I’m still taking ballet* and still working through that confidence issue (which could have been corrected with a P.E. tutor, hello!) I can’t exactly say I’ve turned into the dancer I pictured as a little girl—by a long shot—but whatever because I finally found a physical activity I like.
What happened was, I figured out that I had to manage my own “physical fitness.”
Hey, I’m still no one’s athletic child, but I’m competent now, so yay for determination, because P.E. prepared me for absolutely zero of everything I’ve figured out and accomplished and stuck with in spite of whatever challenges I had.
So my question is this:
Why is there no such thing as a P.E. tutor?
Wouldn’t it be cool if the un-gifted kids were provided a kind and sympathetic P.E. tutor to help ’em out? Someone who believes in every child’s inner athleticism or something?
I mean, you have trouble with your times tables, poof, someone’s there to help you. Trouble in English? Poof, they send you to the Sylvan Learning Center or some shit.
But why no help for the kid who can’t get the hang of push-ups or dodgeball or running or jumping?
Can no one offer at least offer some strategic techniques to the kid who’s always getting creamed in dodgeball?
Why is P.E. a survival of the fittest sort of thing?
So here’s to all the dorky kids out there suffering through P.E.
May your escape come sooner than later and more pleasantly than not, whether in the form of summer school P.E. or something far better.
And may you channel your miserable P.E. experience into something halfway useful, like maybe you start a band, or take up slam poetry, or you just up and travel the world and find out that P.E. was just about nothing compared to the rest of life.
And may you keep in mind that it won’t be long before you’ll never have to take P.E. again. So thank God and everyone in the heavens and beyond for that.
*Winter 2022 update: I’m no longer taking ballet, BUT my years of ballet training have paid off in my new type of dance—which I swear to you I never saw coming: pole dancing! Check it out HERE. Maybe I’m not such a dork anymore!