It started when I was in junior high. President John F. Kennedy was determined to get us into shape, so we were condemned to physical education classes every day. Even if it wasn’t every day, it seemed like it because I spent the time I wasn’t in PE class dreading it. On top of that, every year we were confronted with Physical Fitness tests: softball throw, the broad jump, the 50-yard dash and other indignities I’ve blocked out.
I envied the girls who were good at sports. They made it look fun. And easy. But I was one of those who, when it came time to choose teams, was always left on the sidelines until the last minute. And with good reason.
I couldn’t catch. I was once hit directly in the nose with a basketball that somehow slipped through my hands like an eel as I reached for it.
I couldn’t throw. My thrown softballs tended to go pretty much straight up to land almost at my feet. (The only thing I can say in my favor is that I never was hit by one of my own softballs coming down.)
I couldn’t hit. That didn’t mean I couldn’t be hit. The backswing of a baseball bat once caught me across the forehead. And we were only doing T-ball practice.
I fell down when I ran. Somehow my upper body always ran faster than my feet and I’d go head over heels. Fortunately, I bounced well.
Despite all the obvious drawbacks to PE, namely personal injury, I might have come to enjoy it and even to achieve skill enough to be chosen next to the last when teams were drawn, if it hadn’t been for timing. PE classes are taught throughout the day. So why was I always assigned a class that met first thing in the morning? Should anyone, especially the more inept of us, be required to run around and move in a coordinated manner at 8 a.m.?
It seemed grossly unfair to have spent the night in curlers, and an hour or more getting dressed to compete with the other girls, only to have PE first thing. In a drafty locker room, I changed into an unbecoming outfit (always the worse for wear as the week went on), made a fool of myself for 45 minutes, got sweaty, showered, then struggled into stockings and garter belt (later pantyhose—not an improvement) in about a minute and a half, and rushed off to English or History or something. The girls who were good at sports managed to do all this gracefully and look good the rest of the day. I spent the rest of the day looking like an oil slick victim. So much for competing.
The worst was my senior year when we moved to California from Ohio. Being a land of swimming pools, California had a requirement that everyone take swimming in school. Ironically, the one athletic thing I could do was swim. I wasn’t Olympic material, but I could swim. I’d even won a ribbon at camp for the back stroke. (I’d almost drowned myself doing it, but I did win.) We’d had a pool when my brother and I were younger, and although we had both learned to swim in our cousins’ pool, our parents conscientiously made sure we got professional classes.
None of this made any difference to my high school counselor. I had to take swimming. At 8 a.m. During a cold, foggy, California winter. In an unheated pool. I had hated PE before. I began to loathe it. For the first six months of my senior year, in a new school where I knew no one, I went to classes looking like I’d suffered a personal typhoon.
The experience scarred me for life.
To this day, I associate sports of any kind with damp, bedraggled hair, twisted stockings, and hypothermia. I think that if it hadn’t been for PE, I might actually have become an athlete, maybe a swimmer. At the very least, I might be able to throw a ball.