The thing about gym class is that it has so much potential. It has the potential to teach young people to fall in love with fitness and self care. It has the potential to help teens appreciate their own strength and abilities. It has the potential to help young people who may be dealing with struggles no one else knows about to have some time to let go and have fun.
Unfortunately, gym class did none of these things for me. I have memories of being made to play dodge ball (a game I never wanted to play), only to have usually harmless balls fly by my head at a ridiculously fast pace and smack into the wall, leaving me to think, ‘That could have been my face.’ I was a pacifist with a dislike for team sports, and I had no interest in hitting anyone with a ball. This usually meant no one wanted to hit me either, so I stood there awkwardly until the game was half over and let a rolling blue or red ball touch the tip of my sneaker, allowing me to finally walk away to the sidelines.
Some days we were made to play my least-favorite sport– volleyball. I never found it fun. If you’re not good at it and hit the ball so it flies in the wrong direction, people look at you as though you have three heads. I have my strengths like anyone else, I didn’t care that volleyball wasn’t one of them. The judgement is one reason I didn’t like high school. Being in a classroom should be about growth and improvement, but in most cases, people were judged for the skills they already had, not for their ability or potential to improve in those skills.
This leads people to believe false things about themselves. It leads people to believe things like, “I am not a math person,” or “I am not an English person,” or in my case, “I am not a sports person.” I realize now that, quite frankly, that’s a load of crap. You can be any kind of person you want to be. The key is realizing you are not defined by natural abilities alone. You’re defined even more by the things you actually put work into. Skills are like seeds. If you nurture them, they are likely to grow.
On other days in gym we’d have to run around the track. There’s nothing wrong with having access to a nice, beautiful track. But these days always felt unstructured, no one ever wanted to do them, and people like me, who had asthma, had to walk more than run anyway. It was just another day of class that perhaps some people liked, but many people dreaded.
By the time I was an upperclassman, it was easier to choose the class I wanted, so I usually ended up going to the weight room. As far as weight rooms go, I think our school had a nice facility. I rode an exercise bike, walked on the treadmill, and used a couple other machines to pass the time. I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about being there, but it was better than being stuck in the middle of a dodge ball game.
Perhaps my dislike of most sports meant I wouldn’t have enjoyed gym, even if it were structured a little differently. The sports or related activities I do like include hockey, yoga, climbing, biking, and skating. I suppose the last two aren’t the most feasible in a class setting. I think it’s good we got to try different things, but as with most high school courses, I feel the overall purpose of the class (to help students be healthy and active) is lost in the fact that many of us were put into situations that only made us feel uncomfortable or inadequate.
Don’t even get me started on the locker rooms. I never had a problem changing in front of other people. Maybe I felt a little self conscious, but overall I didn’t care. But (and I can only speak from my own experience), I think in a time when our bodies as young women and people were changing, and as we were getting to know ourselves and our identities, I think the locker room of all places is a space where body positivity should be promoted. The idea that all bodies are beautiful should be plastered on posters all over the damned place. No teen should be made to go into a locker without first being taught the most important thing I feel gym could/should ever teach you: love your fucking body.
We did have one interesting day in gym class where two men (I believe they were both Indian) taught a session about breathing exercises and meditation. We were young, and not everyone took the session seriously, but I know that’s something that stuck with me. I knew they were there because they cared about what they were teaching us. They taught us coping mechanisms. They taught us a way to practice self care.
I remember other days in gym where people (who were able) were encouraged to donate blood and the way it helped many people. Days like that were good. They were important.
Unfortunately I associate most days in gym, especially before I started going to weight room, with just being unhappy. I felt out of place and awkward. I feel like it’s something that was supposed to be fun, but it was hardly ever fun for me.
I remember having teachers say that being on your period isn’t an excuse to sit out of gym. While I’m sure there are people who would abuse this as an excuse, I hardly see how pain, nausea, dizziness, or headaches aren’t an excuse to rest while loud basketballs are dribbling and sneakers are squeaking across the court. You can’t put an ultimatum on something that affects different bodies differently.
There are things I liked about our gym classes. We had nice facilities, the weight room was good, the locker rooms, as far as I remember, were clean and I felt safe. We had several teachers to go to if we had questions. If I could change anything about how the classes went? It would probably be the same thing I’d want for any class: Stop treating all students as though they learn, or play, in the same way, at the same pace, at the same time. Students shouldn’t have to feel like they are better or worse than anyone else in the classroom. They should feel like they can always improve and be better than they were yesterday.