What a Dead Gym Teacher, a Former President and Teaching Yoga Have Taught Me About Embracing Movement
My grade school gym teacher died recently.
When I saw the post on Facebook my first thought was, “Wow, it’s been over thirty years since I was in grade school. I can’t believe that woman was still alive.”
My second thought was, “At least she won’t torture anyone else.”
With the perspective of adulthood, I can acknowledge that my gym teacher was likely a very nice person just doing her job, but to me she was the master of reign of terror that still scars me to this day.
Her co-conspirator: President John F. Kennedy.
I have a big grudge against JFK. My grandpa’s rolling in his grave right now since JFK was our first and only Catholic president and therefore was, in Grandpa’s eyes, perfect. But JFK was also responsible for the unique grammar school torture known as the Presidential Physical Fitness Test (PPFT).
If you went to grammar school (or if you didn’t grow up in the Midwest, “grade” school) in the 1970s you know exactly what I’m talking about. Once a year we were subjected to a series of tests ostensibly designed to evaluate our stamina and strength. I think it also had something to do with keeping us fit enough to fight Russians too.
I don’t remember all the components exactly but I know there were several including: pull-ups, some kind of thing involving running across the gym picking up an eraser and running back, a touching your toes flexibility test, a rope climb, and the worst part — mile run.
When I was a kid, I loved school. Back to School day was the best day of the year. I loved everything about school except for gym, which I hated with a fiery passion. But even regular gym class was a picnic next to the PPFT. I dreaded it all year. Even thinking about it now I want to throw up. It was the only time all year I tried to fake sickness and stay home, that’s how much I hated it. I never faked being sick.
School in the 1970s wasn’t like it was now. There were no anti-bullying campaigns, no tolerance for differences, no “everyone gets an award so no one feels bad”, and no political correctness. And unlike today where it appears a good portion of the kids are fat, there was only one fat kid in school — and that kid was me.
Grammar school was a freaking jungle where the strongest survived. A jungle where we had gym every day and gym involved getting hit on the head with dodge balls and being mocked for having no sports skills and being picked last for teams if you weren’t athletic or popular.
It was completely impossible for me, the lone fat kid, the pass the stupid PPFT test. Every single other kid in class could run a mile and pass the test — except me.
I would try of course. I’d go out too fast trying to keep up, then all the other kids would drop me in a few yards. I remember the humiliation of being out of breath, wheezing, having to stop and walk the final few laps. The other kids would taunt me as I lurched towards the finish line, sweat pouring down my little red face, bent over with hands on my knees, trying not to cry. My gym teacher would sigh at me, telling me I was the only one who didn’t pass and how it was making our school look bad. Every year the anxiety got worse.
I grew up in a family where no one was athletic. With a few exceptions no one did sports, honestly no one ever got off the couch unless it was to go to the refrigerator for a beer.
Instead of creating any interest in athletics, the trauma of the PPFT taught me to avoid activity, to fear it. It taught me that there was nothing worse than trying something active and failing because there will be a bunch of mean kids laughing at you while the teacher glares at you disapprovingly.
Those messages burned themselves into my brain. In adulthood as I’ve pursued various physical activities I’ve struggled with working out in front of others. It makes me anxious, as if somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind I actually think a bunch of adults are going to taunt me for being too slow or looking weird, which of course they are not. People mostly are too in their own heads to pay attention to me.
One of the best things I’ve done is become a yoga teacher. Standing in front of the class demonstrating poses has done wonders for my self-confidence. I don’t look like the Instagram yoga teachers, and neither do most of my students, and that’s OK.
Just like grammar school Rose, I keep trying, even if I am the slowest or the sweatiest or the least graceful. Because that’s all you can do — try your best. Try your best to be active, to move your body, to feel good. Life’s too short to do anything else.