This week’s Chronicle of Higher Education contains an essay by Roger H. Martin, a former college president who spent a year as a freshman at St. John’s College in Maryland. Unlike Rebekah Nathan’s recent book, My Freshman Year,  Martin, 61, did not go undercover in order to study undergraduates. Yet both experiments point out how radically our perspectives change when we become the students. However, professors are used to the intellectual climate of a classroom. It’s easy for us to forget how uncomfortable some students feel in classrooms, how alien the experience can seem. For some, these seemingly neutral spaces are filled with memories of past humiliations, failures, and moments of exclusion.
I was thinking about Martin’s essay this morning while I was at the gym. For years I’ve been taking various aerobics and strength training classes. Although I could lift weights and run on my own, I love this time when I’m not in charge. As former chair of my department, a long-time teacher, and the one in charge of most household and childcare details, it feels like a luxury to be able to give up control and let someone else tell me when to jog, how many push ups to crunch, and what weights to lift. My mind wanders as my body moves and sweats. The sound system at my local gym is poor, so most of the time I can’t hear our perky teacher’s instructions; I just mimic her body’s movements. Monkey see, monkey do.
I hated gym class as a child. Raised by bookish parents, I wasn’t skilled and felt self-conscious. I begged my parents for excuse slips, and often cut class rather than face the humiliation of not catching the ball. (I claim the distinction of receiving an “NG: no grade” on my high school report card because I “didn’t attend enough to deserve a grade.”) In grade school I noticed that some of the boys who exhibited such grace and confidence on the basketball court sat frozen and fearful in the classroom. This gave me a rare moment of empathy: they feel like I do, in reverse, I realized.
At my gym, I watch how my instructor greets us, paces our routine, and reminds us to keep the proper form. At first I thought her makeup and constant joking were obnoxious, but somehow her persona is comforting. I notice that I work out harder when I trust the teacher, when I know that she will only push us so far. I wonder how I seem as a student. I don’t smile much while I work out. I occasionally glance at the clock, skip some of the plank pose, and leave early. None of this is a comment on the instructor’s abilities or my respect for her: I just get antsy thinking of all the tasks ahead.
An exercise class is a more intimate experience than sitting in a classroom. You reveal more of your body, you sweat and sometimes smell, and it’s obvious when you can’t keep up. However, it feels relaxing to me, perhaps because I’m older and care less about what others think. Or maybe it’s because the teacher doesn’t grade us, doesn’t compare or measure the performance of my body against that of others.
Although most of the women who appear at the gym are, by definition, in better shape than the general population in America, I’m surrounded by many types of bodies. There is the woman, a mother of three young children, with a long flat waist and round hips. Another woman, who I call “Gabriel Reese” in my mind, is about 6’ tall with broad shoulders and handsome features. Neither of these women is the standard ideal, but to me they are stunning.
I relish watching my four year old daughter move in her body, and I’d be pleased as punch if she became an athlete. However, I’m almost glad that I wasn’t, that I struggled to gain confidence in this area, because it’s given me some insight into the students who don’t seem to fit in my classroom, who freeze up when asked to contribute, who sit there just wanting the class to end.