Not-So-Fast Times at West Junior High by
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Arggghh.  “PE”. We called it “gym”.  My story is limited to experiences in junior high; I went away to school for high school where PE took the form of mandatory sports participation for each of the three seasons in the academic year.  By then I had achieved a sufficient physical and athletic maturity so as to have more than a little success on the field.  But junior high?  That was a different story.

Pause and conjure up the image of what we looked like. Clearly charter members of the Dork Platoon.

“Gym” class met once a week.  The school had a swimming pool and we had “swim” once a week, too.  I was a decent swimmer so “swim” presented no problems other than enduring the ambient aroma of the pool, a mixture of chlorine and God knows what else.  But “gym”?

To start with, literally, the first gym class of the year was a fitness test. The test evolved during my time in junior high.  At the end it made sense: sit-ups, pull-ups, squat thrusts and some other agility drill, and as I grew into my large-for-my-years body I developed a good facility for each.  But in seventh grade it was different.  There was a throwing drill with a tennis ball and some other questionable athletic tests. And the rope.  Climbing a rope may be easy for some, but for others, like me, it was Sisyphusian. Totally hopeless.

The purpose of the test was not meaningful assessment of our fitness but the division of the class into two groups, one for each PE teacher. Now, of course, the authorities could have designated these groups in any number of ways: A Group and B Group, for instance.  Or Mr. Ketcham’s Group and Mr. Tino’s Group.  But no.  We had the Strong Group and the Weak Group.  Those of us who did not score well on the “test” found ourselves in the Weak Group.  Bad enough that we had to bear the stigma of that call-out but the classification made a difference in our gym “uniform”, too.  The Strong Group, which included members of the “Leaders Club”, got to wear neat gray tee shirts and shorts.  The Weak Group, my group, had to wear plain white tee shirts and Kelly-green gym shorts with a white stripe on the side.  And high-top sneakers.  While we had the luxury of choice of brand and color, no one, but no one, would ever, ever be caught dead in white high tops, so black it was.  Pause and conjure up the image of what we looked like.  Clearly charter members of the Dork Platoon.  But at least we would not be seen by anyone, especially girls, because we never had to leave the gym thus attired.  Until the day we had a fire drill during gym class and had to parade outside in full view of the rest of the student body in our Wednesday Worst.  Ugh.

Subsequent classes were intended to develop athletic skills.  The Strong Group got to do fun things like try out gymnastic equipment.  The Weak Group got The Rope.  Again and again.  Repeated failure is not good for junior high male egos.  But all was not torture.  We also had our own sports and games.  We got to play basketball during the winter.  Now, being tall for my age, everyone assumed I would have a natural facility for basketball.  Nope. In the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s there was a highly successful Panamanian middleweight boxer, Roberto Duran, whose moniker was “Hands of Stone”.  That neatly describes my shooting touch.  I was a pretty good runner for someone my size. But foot speed without hand-eye coordination just makes one embarrass himself that much more quickly. Basketball was not fun.

We also played dodge ball.  Double ugh.  I was not only tall, but also a bit wide.  (Go figure: we were insensitively labelled the “Weak Group” but no child could be called “fat” or “chubby” or even “overweight”.  No, I was “husky”.)  I am sure, gentle reader, that you are familiar with this hideous game.  A cohort of participants, the “shooters”, form a circle, and inside a second cohort assembles, the “targets”.  The shooter with the ball, a so-called “playground ball” – an inflated rubber ball, usually red, about the size of a basketball but with a pebbly surface – would take aim at and try to hit a target.  If hit, the target was out of the game.  The object of the game was to be the last target standing, so the best “dodger” won.  Now consider: being taller and wider than my classmates, who would be the prime “target”?  Moi, of course.  My fellow classmates, all smaller and more nimble creatures, quickly realized that their best strategy was to position themselves in a line immediately behind me and away from the shooter with the ball.  If the shooter missed me and the ball got to the opposite side of the shooter circle I would turn to face the new shooter and the munchkins would quickly swing around behind, like the tail of a weather vane reacting to a shift in wind direction.  Usually it wouldn’t take long for a shooter to nail me.  I still remember the “smack” of impact.  But in spite of all, I got through the year, little the worse for the wear except to my dignity.  Though athletic success followed some years later, my seventh grade “gym” experience remains vivid in memory.

Profile photo of Tom Steenburg Tom Steenburg
Retired attorney and investment management executive. I believe in life, liberty with accountability and the relentless pursuit of whimsy.

Characterizations: funny, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Total cruelty to be designated as the “weak” group in your white shirt with the stripe on it. This sounds like “Lord of the Flies” territory. We lived in cruel times back then. And you are right…not chubby, but husky. In these politically correct times, when everyone gets a trophy for participation, I’m sure the strong vs. weak would no longer be separated as you were. Gym class did seem like the worst part of the day for so many of us at that vulnerable point in our lives. Glad you survived.

    • Thanks, Betsy. What’s the saying, that which does not kill me makes me stronger? Great notion in the rear view mirror but in real time, not so much. But certainly I was not alone: there were others like me, and, of course, there is strength in numbers!

  2. Marian says:

    Oh, my, Tom, the “Weak Group”? Yikes. Although it does remind me of being called, disparagingly, a “Cutie” when I had to lead a group of overweight girls (I wasn’t overweight but the gym teacher was cruel) in a dance exercise. It’s not fun to be a big target. We all survived to write about this!

  3. Yes, Marian. Exactly so. While I don’t wish our types of experiences on anyone, I find it one of my most valuable because it evokes not simply sympathy but true empathy for others who have endured similar experiences.

  4. Suzy says:

    Wow Tom, this is horrifying! The Strong Group and the Weak Group? And different uniforms so it was clear which was which? Who could have possibly thought that was a good idea? I’m surprised that the parents didn’t make any kind of protest. I know it was the early ’60s, before protesting was fashionable, but I can’t help thinking my parents would have raised a fuss about that. And naked swim class too! My mind is reeling with all these revelations! Thanks for sharing your memories with us.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    From one hopeless rope climber to another — I always thought part of the purpose of PE was humiliation, not fitness. I can’t believe they called it the Weak Group at your school. That would never fly today in the everyone-gets-a-medal era. 7th grade is the worst (ask my granddaughter), so no surprise gym was as cruel as other parts of junior high. Tom, the main thing gym did back then was to create bullies and empathic people.

  6. Risa Nye says:

    A story of survival! It’s amazing what we put up with as innocent and powerless kids! Thanks for sharing your story.

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