Let's Talk About... P.E.


Courtesy Photo

The coveted Presidential Physical Fitness Award badge.

Ok. Do you remember P.E.? Or, as I like to remember it, "PTSD." You know, that class called "Physical Education" or some variant? Some remember P.E. with exhilaration. Some remember it with humiliation. I mainly fall in the latter category.

Many of you have probably buried those middle school and high school days but I am going to try to jog your memory around the proverbial track.

Although P.E. class entailed being physical, I am not sure what kind of "education" I received. I do remember watching sex-ed tapes in 5th grade P.E. wondering what all the fuss was about and being extremely curious about that secret film the boys were watching. And I also remember I learned how to catch and dodge a ball.

Let's review, in case you blocked it from your memory banks: P.E. generally starts in elementary school which, at that point, looks a lot like an organized recess and is a lot of fun. P.E. then graduates to middle and high school calisthenics, team sports, running, jumping, pull-ups, push-ups, and basically getting hit by a ball on a regular basis.

Sometimes it included fun sports like tennis, volleyball or badminton. Other times it included that ankle breaking sport of field hockey. And it was required every year. Today we would call that "an elective."

And all of that is done in a "uniform" which were globally designed to emphasize everyone's perceived body-flaws. A P.E. uniform also came with the humiliation of changing clothes in front of everyone, remembering your locker combination and remembering to take those clothes home every week to be washed. (For my kids, "every week" soon turned into "every semester").

In elementary school, uniforms were those stiff white t-shirts or polo looking tops and navy blue gym shorts my children still refer to as "clown shorts." Somehow the elastic waist on short shorts turned out to be embarrassing. Not everyone could really pull off that look.

Even worse, I had a P.E. uniform in middle school that was basically a polyester orange pinstriped romper (one piece) with snaps on the shoulders. We looked like we were on a chain-gang. Even fewer kids could pull off that look.

And remember this was all happening during the self-conscious, body-shaming times of middle school and high school.

Today you basically just need shorts and a top. Today, the minute the sun even hints it might come out, kids wear shorts and a t-shirt to school anyway.

Two activities come to mind when I think of P.E. back in the day. The Presidential Physical Fitness Test and dodgeball.

Remember the Presidential Physical Fitness Test? That test we had to undergo each year to prove we were in fact, not fit? The test was supposed to ensure children would be at a minimum fitness level but only underscored what the kids already knew: The athletic kids were athletic and the rest of us were failures. And in case you weren't sure which was which, the "athletic" kids had the Presidential Physical Fitness Award badge sewn on to their P.E. shirt (or on their shorts if they were really cool). It put those kids at a whole different level for the whole year.

One middle school I attended gave you a "fail" if you couldn't complete the requisite sit ups, pull-ups, push-ups, a standing broad jump, and the 50-yard dash in under something like 8 seconds. That C- in P.E. was crushing. All because I couldn't do a pull-up.

We never did any of those things at any other time, so we had no idea what a perfect pull-up even looked like. And I still don't really know what a standing broad jump is.

Ok, now let's talk about that P.E. staple: dodgeball. "Ok, kids, we are going to play dodgeball now" were words I learned to dread. It meant "Get ready to be tortured by your classmates." Why did they make us play that all the time?

I would come home after a bout of dodgeball bruised, battered, and frustrated. Why did they create a game where the mean girls with good throwing arms were allowed to basically shoot fish in a barrel? The smart kids made sure they got picked off early. I didn't figure that out until about the 10th grade.

And let's not forget the unforgettable showers in that smelly locker room. At one junior high school, we actually had to walk in a line through a tiled pathway of horizontal shooting shower heads while holding a towel above our heads. The "gauntlet" so to speak. So, you watched the naked body in front of you as did your schoolmate behind you and when you reached the end, the teacher would check you off on her clipboard. No shower? An "F" for the day. The only exception was when a girl was on her period, and she could take a "sponge bath" which was the only reason I can ever remember looking forward to my period.

I have a friend who loved P.E. She thrived and felt empowered. She had the badge on her shorts. She got "As" in P.E. I think that is fantastic. Or do I? Was she like one of those girls who pummeled me in dodgeball? I don't want to know. We all grow up.

I recently saw my 11th and 12th grade report cards. In 12th grade I was absent from P.E. more that I was there. I had gotten smarter at that point. I somehow had a lot of extra yearbook work to do that precluded my P.E. attendance.

How can something so healthy and positive like fitness and team sports be so traumatizing for some? I don't know. But I still have dreams where I can't find my P.E. locker and can't remember its combination. But I actually loved that I met so many people in P.E. who I would otherwise never have met. Everyone takes P.E. but not everyone takes Calculus.


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