PE ABCs: Agony from Bombardment to C Stunts by
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In thinking about this story, I marveled about the nearly complete disconnect between school phys ed and my other physical activities. I’ve never been a great athlete, but I was a competent swimmer, could make my way around the ice skating pond, and had a decent forehand in tennis—none of which I ever did in school PE. As an adult, I’ve enjoyed fencing, go to the gym regularly, and relax and stretch in yoga. Alas, PE was about something other than positive experiences with fitness.

The bottom of the gym suit consisted of … bloomers. Yes, ballooning from the waist and ending in tight elastic at the widest part of the thigh.

My first memory of PE starts in 6th grade, when I went to a new school. By that time I was 5’ 6” tall and almost my full adult weight, which only increased my sense of awkwardness. The gym teacher, Mr. K, was from Greece, and energetic to a fault. We had to play a game called Bombardment, which was like dodge ball on meth. Two teams lined up on opposite sides of the gym and … wait for it … simultaneously threw balls at the other side. What the actual point was I can’t remember. Most likely it was to let the “wild boys” burn off steam. (This was before ADHD was recognized.)

We did get a measure of revenge on Mr. K, though. Apparently the other teachers thought he was arrogant and, in the winter, suggested an outing to the skating pond down the street. Mr. K had never been on ice skates, and he was way overconfident. The boys and one of the male teachers skated circles around him. Poor Mr. K looked like a cross between Moe on the Three Stooges and a clown at the Ice Capades as he slipped and stumbled across the ice.

Presidential Pitfalls of the Run/Walk

I believe it was in the 7th grade that we had to endure the President’s Physical Fitness test. I’m sure it was well meaning, but I didn’t enjoy the experience. Doing sit-ups wasn’t fun, but I think I did OK. Squat thrusts were really hard. I believe I did exactly one pull-up. However, the worst was the 600-yard run/walk. I had never run on a track in my life. We lined up at the start and had to run with cold muscles. (This was before the value of warming up was understood.) The evaluator explained that, to pass this part, we had to cross the finish line within three minutes. If we took longer, we’d be required to … wait for it … immediately run it again.

Why anyone would think that a runner would succeed the second time was beyond belief, so I became really nervous. At the go signal I began to run, but even though my lungs felt fine, it seemed my feet wouldn’t carry me forward efficiently, and I fell behind. About halfway through, I had to race-walk as fast as I could. It felt as if my entire skeleton was being hammered by the hard track. When I crossed the finish line, the evaluator shouted “2:54,” with a sneer, but I had made it within 6 seconds. (Over the years I continued to have problems running and jumping. Finally, at age 39, I was diagnosed with a hereditary condition that caused abnormal bone development in my feet. Turns out my feet are biomechanically useless for locomotion and levitation.)

Gym Suits and Goose Bumps

PE had a distinct formula from grades 7 to 12. We girls lined up in squads in our gym attire, which consisted of white socks and sneakers, and red one-piece gym suits. They were specifically designed to make every body type look unattractive, and were made of a stiff material that was as impermeable as cheap polyester but needed ironing like cotton. (This was before modern active-wear materials had been invented.) The gym suit had a row of snaps down the front, a notched collar, and a fitted waist.

The bottom consisted of … wait for it … bloomers. Yes, ballooning from the waist and ending in tight elastic at the widest part of the thigh. When the gym teachers took attendance, we were required to publicly call out if we needed a “shower excuse.” We could take a risk and cheat. However, the teachers kept a careful calendar, and there were consequences for exceeding the monthly excuse allotment.

Autumn activities consisted mainly of soccer and field hockey. I lumbered around the field and tried to evade notice. For field hockey my goal was to stay as far as possible from that rock-like ball and swinging sticks. I couldn’t risk ruining my major (and expensive) orthodontic work. The most challenging part of autumn was the rule that we had to stay outside until the Thanksgiving break, no matter how cold it was in New Jersey. (This was before the conclusion that maybe physical suffering didn’t build character.) The one concession was that we were allowed to wear … wait for it … a sweatshirt. Whoopee! A major frustration was watching the gym teacher on the sidelines, dressed like Nanook of the North, in sweatpants, a fur-lined parka with a hood over her ski cap, and a muffler that she removed from her mouth only to blow her whistle.

Springing to a “C”

The spring season brought my least favorite PE activity with my least favorite gym teacher, Miss W. She was infamous for her physical and verbal toughness, using all matter of insults for motivation. (This was before body shaming became taboo.) The gym was outfitted with amazing equipment for gymnastics, comparable to that of an Olympic-level tournament. I wondered if someone had donated the entire set. It was completely intimidating, and I felt vulnerable, now being 5’7” with a body type poorly suited to gymnastics. We had to do stunts on each piece of equipment, and were graded on the level of difficulty we could attain. There were A, B, and C stunts.

My goal was simply to pass the unit with a C grade. I did OK on floor exercise (based on artistic impression) and managed to walk and turn on the balance beam. Uneven bars, not so good. I simply couldn’t do anything, let alone stay on them. The next equipment was … wait for it … the Swedish box. This instrument of torture consisted of stacks of wood assembled together, over which we had to vault. Unfortunately, the levels didn’t break apart if we couldn’t make it over the box. I had a hard time believing that the peaceful Swedes invented it. Germans or Saudi Arabians, maybe.

We lined up in preparation to vault over the box. My mouth went dry. The girl in front of me, Maggie, was a reasonably good athlete. She attempted a vault, and bam! went down with a shriek. Her leg was broken. I took one look at the box and another at Miss W. “Give me an F,” I said. “I won’t jump over the Swedish box.” I walked away, pondering how I was going to explain this to my parents. They normally sided with the teacher, but this was an extreme exception. To my shock, Miss W was silent.

Luckily, there was one more piece of equipment to go, the standard pommel horse. I knew that to pass I had to jump on the springboard, grab the pommels, draw my knees up, and land on the other side of the horse. The best time was right then. With a lot of adrenaline to help and before fear kicked in, I took a run, over I went, and landed on my feet, to pass with a C!

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I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.

Characterizations: been there


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    I love your description of Bombardment as “dodgeball on meth”. That made me laugh; quite an image. The rest is all too familiar for those of us who were not very well coordinated and didn’t like sports – humiliating ventures of trying (unsuccessfully) to keep up to some standard and failing miserably. My teachers usually didn’t berate me (or if they did, I’ve blocked out the memory). Interesting that you were diagnosed with a hereditary problem in your feet that made locomotion and levitation useless. Would have been nice to know earlier in your life.

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Betsy. It’s amazing how similar our experiences were. I always blamed myself for not being able to run, so it would have been useful to know the source of the problem. Funny, I like individual sports, but like you, team sports were never my thing. Interesting that we are diligent about the gym now, but organized PE was a bust.

  2. Suzy says:

    Great story, Marian! Much of it is similar to mine, especially the gymsuits (which you describe so well), and the autumn sports. I don’t remember the part about freezing in November in our gymsuits and sweatshirts, but the whole experience was so miserable I have probably just repressed that part. If it was a New Jersey requirement, it would have applied to my school too.

    Your experience with the gymnastics equipment was shocking! Luckily we didn’t have any of that stuff. You are making me realize that it could have been even worse! Good for you for refusing to jump over the Swedish box! Was that only for one year, or did you have a gymnastics unit every year?

    This is a great prompt! I wonder if we will get any stories from people who actually enjoyed PE.

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Suzy. I’d guess that the November “freeze” requirement was specific to our school. We had gymnastics from 7th to 12th grade, but I don’t remember the Swedish box after about 9th grade. Maybe someone got the message it wasn’t such a great piece of equipment!

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    Wow, Marian, you really unearthed some PE memories I had repressed. Those gym uniforms with bloomers, for one. What was the point of those? Since my main objective in dodge ball was to get out as quickly as possible, I would have hated Bombardment even more. And I had forgotten about the physical fitness test, for which we were never prepared. No point in learning to run properly before being tested. Like you, I could do the sit ups, probably because I did practice them at home. Pull-ups — forget it. I guess I was lucky to have come from a poorly equipped school without gymnastics. Thanks for thinking of this prompt.

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