We celebrated the last day of school and report card day at our house not too long ago. I know that one day I’ll get over this living vicariously through my son’s school experiences, but I still relive the trepidation I felt at opening up my end of year grades. There was one I always feared: my gym class grade. I was the quintessential anti-athlete and the slowest runner in my classes. Most of my grades would be S’s or S+’s (Satisfactory or Very Satisfactory)…and then the glaring S- (Less than Satisfactory) in gym.
So it was thrilling to see (among other good results) my son’s highest possible mark in gym (more a comment, really): “Exceeding expectations.” It’s not that he’s a natural athlete either — he’s my child after all, and my husband was a pretty gawky kid too. My son’s response to his grade was “Gym is fun! I like my teacher. He’s funny!” Amazingly, even with tumbling, sports, and all the running, gym was something he looked forward to during the day.
Me, I dreaded gym class, and the negative feeling toward sports or the resistance to try a new physical activity stuck with me into adulthood. Even though we played games once in a while, I just don’t remember gym being fun. And the teacher certainly wasn’t funny. Some days as I solemnly walked with my class down the long covered walkway to the gym I’d catch a glimpse of ropes hanging down over the center of the basketball court. I knew then what the next interminable twenty minutes would bring: rope climbing, or in my case rope sitting, my toothpick arms unable to lift me even a little bit off the knot at the end of the rope. Another part of the year would bring the Presidential Physical Fitness tests, which would also be sprung upon us with no advance preparation. Those with innate abilities sailed through the running, jumping, sit-up, and chin-up tests, while the rest of us hoped they’d be over soon. The fastest and strongest students were later presented with certificates “signed” by the President of the United States. We uncoordinated weaklings got to sit on the gym floor and watch the natural athletes receive their awards.
I don’t know much about what my son’s gym teacher did to make his classes so popular with the kids (maybe the skiing trips or the fun obstacle courses), but I do know he certainly didn’t have them do the weeks of square dancing we had to endure. Instead there was a unit on rock-and-roll dancing during which my son (who never before showed any interest or talent as a dancer) was allowed to bring in his favorite tunes (Elvis and select Grateful Dead) to which he and the rest of the first and second graders improvised wild dances. He’d come home and head next door where he and his school buddy swiveled and grooved to practice the moves they’d learned in gym.
The sense of enjoyment and playfulness my son feels through exercise and athleticism sustains him when he has difficulties or worries that he’s not as competent as other kids. He jumps into soccer games and eagerly participates in karate even when he feels his skills aren’t on par with those of his friends. I’m happy for the good foundation he’s getting so that he has the confidence to try something challenging.
My childhood experiences, on the other hand, were more of a deterrent to trying something new, and exercise in my early adult years was more about keeping off the Freshman Fifteen (pounds, that is) than about fun or taking on a challenge. It was only later in life that I learned to jump in and enjoy myself despite my protests that I really was no good at sports. Maybe it was meeting so many other academic women with similar gym class horror stories and sports-related anxieties that encouraged me to let go of my fears and join them in department soccer or vollyball games. In graduate school someone told me about a great aerobics class on campus that sounded fun, but as usual I was nervous about not knowing the moves and about being older and less agile than the fit undergrads I was sure would fill the studio. To my surprise, the class was filled with a diversity of men and women—staff, faculty of all ages, and both grads and undergrads, many as spazzy as I was but all laughing and having a great time. That class ended up saving my sanity as I finished my last years of grad school and wrote up my dissertation.
The lessons I’m learning about having fun with new challenges, both physical and otherwise, have extended into other activities and areas of my life. I’m happy for my son that he’s learning these lessons early on. Who would have thought that gym class could have such an impact either way? At least so far. To the perfectionist in me who says Don’t do it until you’ve practiced so that you’re good enough, I remind myself to stop thinking about it, just jump in, and have fun.