Sunday, June 28, 2009

Musings on Exercise

About a year ago, I had a dream, one that woke me from a deep sleep. I woke with a smile on my face (a rare occurence for my sleep-deprived self). In my dream, I was running. I felt so free, so happy, so in-tune with my body. That dream shocked me. I thought about it for days. I'm still thinking about it, still trying to understand both the happiness I felt in the dream and the shock I felt at dreaming it.

See, people like me don't run. People like me are not athletic. People like me hate to exercise.

Wait. Is that true? Why does it have to be true?

When I was a child in elementary school, I was very active. The tribe of children on my road (we didn't have a street, but a road -- a gravel road bordered by a thick hedgerow of overgrown vegetation and, beyond that, a corn field) were always playing tag, olly-olly-in-free, chase games that involved throwing things at one another (apples, plums, peaches from the trees in our yards, gravel from the road, etc.), hide and seek, hiking in the woods, playing in the stream, building "houses" in the hedgerow by whacking at the vegetation with sticks.

No sitting for hours in front of flickering screens for us.

In school, we had a great gym teacher (Mr. Ahrens) who, in his first teaching position right out of college, loved us children and received our adulation in return. He encouraged us to do things that were at the limits of our physical and social abilities -- climbing ropes up to the ceiling, playing all kinds of games, learning to work together in teams. Mr. Ahrens made you feel good about exercise, made you feel good about yourself and what your body could do, made you feel strong.

At our end-of-year field day in fifth grade, Mr. Ahrens encouraged me to run in the hurdles race. He told me that I was really good at hurdles. I believed him and ran a great race -- I don't remember whether I won, but I do remember feeling really proud of myself, and really accomplished.

Fast forward to the horror that was middle school gym. When I mentioned writing this entry to my younger sister, M., she said, "oh, you mean the torture show? Those horrible women who were our "teachers"?" and we spent a good five minutes reminiscing about Mrs. S. and Mrs. O.

They spent our gym classes riding in a golf cart behind us as they herded us forward in the "cross-country running" portion of the class, at best. At worst, they sent us out in the rain to run as they stayed in the gym office playing Boggle and eating Bugles.

The nadir of my experience in middle school gym class came in the spring of 6th grade and serves as a perfect counterpoint to my experience with Mr. Ahrens. It also completely changed how I thought of myself in terms of athletic ability and coordination. During the track and field unit, we had to choose three "events". Naturally, I chose the hurdles. I was good at hurdles, remember?

I'm not sure what happened. Instead of gliding over the hurdles as I leapt like a gazelle, I knocked them all over, falling flat on my face at each. At the beginning and end of the course, Mrs. O. and Mrs. S. stood, watching, assessing, laughing.

Laughing. At. Me.

Mrs. S. thanked me, guffawing, for giving her the best laugh she'd had all year. "I have to give it you, though -- you kept going when anyone else would have given up," she said. Of course, when your teacher laughs at you, it's okay for everyone else to laugh at you too. When your teacher says, in effect, "you should have given up and spared yourself the embarrassment," you listen. I wasn't good at hurdles after all. I wasn't athletic after all. I wasn't "good" at the things you do in gym class.

From that point onwards, gym was a torture in which I had to participate. From the horrible uniforms -- one piece, baby blue "rompers" with a HORIZONTAL pinstrip at top (all the better to highlight our budding breasts and developing waists and hips) to the enforced communal showers -- teachers inspecting us as we left the spray, clutching our inadequate school-supplied hand towels to cover our nakedness. Team sports where teammates groaned when I was assigned to them. Mean girls making comments about other girls' bodies, attractiveness, prospects.

Obviously, I'm still working through all that -- how can I reclaim that child who was good at hurdles? How can I become someone who exercises and moves for sheer joy? How can I burst through the limitations that I let other people, people who didn't care a fig about me, impose?

Me. Somone who exercises. Someone who LIKES to exercise. Whoa.


  1. This is an appalling story. I hope that teachers are better now. It is absolutely horrifying that those teachers would respond to a student that way.

    I was never an athletic person and at some point I discovered running and I LOVED it. I ran 3-6 miles a day for a long time. Then I got out of the habit. I'm trying to get back there too.

  2. I miss the sheer joy of it. Glad that you are trying to reclaim it!

  3. Keep on keepin' on sistah! We all have a story, ya know?

    BTW you asked where I got the drop cloths and they were at Home Depot. Painting section of course. :)

  4. GREAT post Colleen. Whoa is right... i know you'll get to the point where you'll love it!