How High School Gym (and Jocks) Almost Made Me Hate Fitness

*the following story, I’m sure, will not be unfamiliar to most. That gives me the kind of solace that I hope this post gives back to you.

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If you knew me in high school, you knew I was no athlete.

My right-brained noggin found its comfort in the arts…I was highly involved in the school plays, choir, and marching band, and was totally content and happy there. Most of my physical activity took place either on the field during band camp, walking up 5 flights of stairs in the 2 minutes provided for us to transition to class (the struggle), or, horrifically, in gym class.

Before I dive into the dark underbelly of what it was like to attend a public school and NOT be involved in any kind of designated sport, it’s worth noting that I did encounter a handful of amazing, supportive, compassionate gym teachers, and yes, even some jocks. Like all of my posts, this is not to be viewed as a sweeping assumption of high school athletics in any way (can’t wait till I’m confident enough to not have to make that disclaimer).

However, it can’t be denied that 80% of those I encountered in the world of high school athletics seemed to make it a priority to make my life a little bit worse in whatever way they could. Like most public high schools, mine was dominated by sports…if you weren’t a part of improving the school’s sports status, you didn’t HAVE status. I thank the Lord every day for the music department, actually, because if it weren’t for me finding my value in the very thing that I was bullied for, I doubt my already melancholy, pre-pubescent self would have found value anywhere {shout out to everyone in there who impacted me. Y’all RULE}.

I can’t stress enough how much gym class actually ~negatively~ affected my day. I have a plethora of graphic and clear memories of high school which are slowly drifting closer and closer toward my subconscious now that I’m already working on one year out of college… but when they hit, they do so in one of two ways: warm and reminiscent, or freaking terrifying. When they hit, I experience every single feeling that raced through my body when the event actually happened, as if it had happened 6 seconds ago rather than 6 years. The one that drove me to write this post (spoiler: a bad one) happened in gym class.

If you’ve been following some of my life updates, you know that I am seriously into running. During these past few months, I’ve noticed such a change in the way that my body interacts with itself since becoming more of a health and fitness junky, and running is probably the most rewarding of all the daily exercises I do. When I run, I feel so strong, powerful, and able. There are also times when it brings me back to some significant high school trauma.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the moment, sophomore year, when we were running the mile in gym (gloat break: funny to think that I couldn’t even run a mile back then without stopping to dry heave: now I’m working toward 6.00 and feel amazing. Anyway…) and I accidentally cut a corner coming around the side of the field. Prior to this seriously heinous offense, I was feeling pretty good about my run (it was rare that I EVER felt good in gym class, being the awkward, skinny, out of shape band geek that never looked quite right in her gym shorts) and was prepared to finish strong. I honestly hadn’t even realized that my right foot landed in front of the cone set in the corner of the field, as I was so focused on finishing with as little discomfort as possible, until I heard a loud, angry voice boom in my right ear:

“NO CUTTING THE GODDAMN CORNERS, GO BACK AND DO IT AGAIN!”

{and under his breath}

“goddamn lazy kid.”

This is how this gym teacher spoke to us (can you guess what his favorite word was?), and this is what we were used to hearing. Back then, it didn’t feel outrageous because it was normal. But it still felt terrible. I totally understand that plenty of teens have had MUCH worse experiences than I have. I’m not writing this to trivialize their struggles…rather, I’m making a conscientious attempt to legitimize them.

A few months back, I couldn’t cut a corner while ice-skating with my boyfriend because it just doesn’t feel like an okay thing to do now. That’s kind of silly. What isn’t quite as silly, though, is how much that second statement has affected me through the years…the one calling me lazy. The one assuming that, because my face was not familiar in the realm of high school sports, I MUST have been lazy. I wasn’t worth a warm smile or the attempt at remembering my name (many gym teachers had a tough time remembering my name) because I wasn’t involved in their circle. At the time, my 16-year-old self ceased to realize that this incident was never actually about the cone in the corner of the field. It was about a kid like me only being visible when someone was in need of a punching bag.

I’ve already stated how happy I was in the activities that I belonged to in high school. I have absolutely no regrets about the social circle in which I chose to plant myself. Nonetheless, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t moments where I wished I was one of “those” athletes. The ones who got invited to parties, who never had to worry about the jockey boy who sat in front of them in class turning around and heckling them every single day to the point where it made them physically ill to even think about showing up; the ones who got to wear sports jerseys on dress down days instead of band tee shirts that plastered them with a “make fun of me” sign…the ones who were greeted with chummy conversation by the gym teachers instead of the alternative. Being a teen in my situation, who wouldn’t occasionally lust for that life?

The reality, though, was that I wasn’t one of those kids. Fitness wasn’t something that earned me adoration, friends, and feelings of accomplishment…it was a cruel punishment with the sole purpose of humiliating me even more than that of which I was already enduring on a daily basis. This is where gym class fails kids. Scratch that…this is where high school fails kids. Through this disappointing trend, too many teenagers are being taught that fitness is a punishment, not a reward.

“INSTEAD OF PASS/FAIL, KIDS SHOULD BE TESTED ON THEIR ABILITY TO RECOGNIZE THEIR POTENTIAL AND EMBRACE WHERE THEY ARE ON THE SPECTRUM OF PHYSICAL FITNESS, VIEWING IT AS AN OPPORTUNITY TO GROW RATHER THAN A DISAPPOINTMENT.”

The pacer test, physical fitness test, and other “pass/fail” testing methods utilized in gym classes across the country teach kids that there is a normal” level of strenuousness that their body should be able to endure at their age, height, weight, etc., and that falling short of that standard indicates literal failure. When I started running longer distances and becoming more concerned with my time, I became worried about whether my pace could be considered “normal” in the world of athletics. While speaking with a coworker (who also happens to be an avid runner) I said something along the lines of:

“I’m concerned about the fact that it took me 52 minutes to run a 5-mile loop last night. Is that a normal pace?”

Her answer, while seemingly obvious, hadn’t even crossed my mind prior to this conversation. “There is no ‘normal.’” She said. “You need to listen to your body and decide what YOUR ‘normal’ is, and grow from there.” (Remember that post I wrote about listening to your body? Clearly I need to practice taking my own advice.)

These words were such a revelation to me. Without even realizing it, I had allowed myself to grow into adulthood with the same outlook on health and physical fitness that had been planted in my mind in high school. In fact, the reason that I just started taking care of myself this year is due to the fact that I had never thought of myself as an athlete, or even being worthy of the title “athletic.” That was for cool kids, to which I was not one. To be able to live up to that lifestyle, I would need to fit the mold in so many ways that I just couldn’t manage to fit. Again, this followed me until I was almost 23 years old.

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While there’s little that can be done about the ever-present bullying issue that plagues our schools (I mean, we should all DEFINITELY continue to combat it, and it’s a worthy fight, but the reality is that kids will continue to bully as long as current trends keep up), the mentality and language surrounding fitness in schools could stand to endure some serious reform. Instead of pass/fail, kids should be tested on their ability to recognize their potential and embrace where they are on the spectrum of physical fitness, viewing it as an opportunity to grow rather than a disappointment. We need more gym teachers who are in it for the betterment of the health and wellness of the next generation; not to socialize, hold biases, and relive their own high school glory days.

Sometimes, I wish the guy who heckled me in class every day because I was an easy target could see how active and fit I am now. I wish the girls who dropped me from their friend group and went on to bully me once they realized I wasn’t like them in terms of mutual interests could see me when I run, lift, and crunch, and finally accept me as a real, worthy, living specimen. I wish that gym teacher could see me take three hours to meal prep after my insanely long Saturday morning run, for him to know that I do care about myself and know that I AM NOT GODDAMN LAZY. Most of the time, though, I appreciate the reality that at this point in my life, I’m doing it for me, not for anyone’s approval.

High school almost made me hate fitness, but it failed. Kind of like I failed that pacer test.

Be strong, former nerds. And embrace your normal. 

-B. 

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