PE and other Sorrows by
(89 Stories)

Loading Share Buttons...

/ Stories

Before I can start talking about PE, I need to explain a couple of things. When I was in elementary school (fifth grade, I think), I came down with pneumonia. I believe I missed an entire month of school. The teacher had all the kids in my class send me get well cards, which I saved for many years. I’m sure she got some blowback from the boys, but bless their hearts–they all made cards. This was during the bake-and-freeze-ahead sessions my mother held in our tiny kitchen in preparation for my sister’s Bat Mitzvah. So locked together in my memory are my ghastly endless coughing fits and the tantalizing smell of freshly-baked rugelach.

I had a bad run with pneumonia, but then I got back to school and all was well.

Junior high, as we called it then, required all the girls to wear crisp white blouses and blue shorts. The uniforms would be inspected each week, and we were obliged to respond to roll call with “Clean and complete!”  (Those of us who had started our periods were also obliged to announce when we were “observing” so we got excused from anything strenuous and didn’t have to put on our uniforms either.) For whatever reason (body shaming?), my mother insisted that I get the baggiest possible gym shorts they sold at Penny’s. Big, baggy Bermuda shorts that only drew attention to what they were  meant to conceal. A popular television ad at the time urged homemakers: “don’t wrap it, bag it” with Baggies. My so-called friends thought it was hilarious to sing this as I took the walk of shame from the locker room. We also had to embroider our names on our shirts (which had to be starched and ironed!) and shorts. Embroidery!

My family moved after my seventh grade year, so I changed schools. This new school had a much more rigorous PE program, with hard-nosed, no nonsense, whistle blowing dictators in charge of our physical fitness. We were required to run. A lot. Fifty-yard dash, hundred yard dash, relay races, etc. I was terrible at it, and felt terrible afterward. I may have mentioned this to my mother, or maybe she got wind of it somehow. But she took it upon herself to get me into “Special PE” which was a horror unto itself. Why was I, an able-bodied kid, forced to be in this class? Oh, right. I ‘d had pneumonia three years prior. One teacher in particular gave me a hard time. I guess she thought I wheedled my way out of regular PE for some bogus reason. My mother must have been quite convincing. Maybe you’ve heard of Munchausen’s Syndrome by proxy? I’ve always suspected there was a little of that going on.

An unintended consequence of being in this PE gulag was that I made a really good friend. She had a legitimate basis for being in special PE, and showed me how we could leverage our position to do some serious goofing off while making a good show of doing the busy work we were assigned. Without her, I might have remained bitter and defensive all year.

I apologize in advance for this, but if you took PE in the 1960s or ’70s, this will ring a bell. Now, up out of that chair!




Characterizations: been there, right on!, well written


  1. Robert Preston? Robert Preston!! Yes, Risa, as a fellow traveler of the era I remember the drill (although not the song). And as to your good friend you found in “Special” PE, well, that’s why the call it Education, yes?

    • Risa Nye says:

      Indeed, Preston is the guilty party. That song was the bane of our existence. I saw something on YouTube while I was searching and found a guy who claimed his PE teacher played it at the wrong speed and nearly caused everyone to collapse! And yes, that friend is still a friend lo these many years later. She was a lifesaver.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    So many terrible memories we all shared from PE, Risa. Having to declare yourself “observing” at that age must have been humiliating. And “special PE” — really cruel. Instead of striving for any form of fitness, PE in the 60s and 70s, especially for girls, is a sad memory of awful gym uniforms and activities that managed to be too challenging without teaching us to be healthy.

  3. Suzy says:

    Risa, where on earth did you find that Robert Preston song? Dreadful! I couldn’t even listen to the whole thing!

    Baggy shorts and the Baggies commercial, having to declare yourself “observing” . . . you might win the prize for most shame endured! Glad that at least you found a friend in “special PE.” I’m intrigued about your comment that she showed you how to leverage your position – is there more to that story? Would love to know what she taught you.

    • Risa Nye says:

      Thanks, Suzy! That song is way too long, I agree. But we all had to listen to it and do all that stuff back in the day. My friend in “special PE” (ugh) came up with a brilliant idea: We would make pillows in our school colors in the shape of a “P” since our school’s name was Portola. Hilarity ensued as we dragged out the design and construction of our “P pillows.” Still good for a laugh.

  4. Marian says:

    Oh, wow, Risa, this is amazing! I don’t remember that Robert Preston record (think I would have), but the rest resonates. So interesting that there was a “special” PE class and how you coped and prevailed.

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    “Observing”; are you kidding me? Total embarrassment in front of the whole class! And the uniform sounds like a horror. That next teacher sounds like a drill sergeant. Why were many PE teachers so mean and unaccommodating in that era? They didn’t want to make the class fun and too many mocked those who couldn’t perform well. This does bring up ghastly memories for so many. The Robert Preston song sounds vaguely familiar. Do we all remember the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, with emphasis on sit ups, pull downs and the like. It was from just about the same time.

    • Risa Nye says:

      Hi Betsy,
      Things being the way they were, the girls who hadn’t “started” yet were more embarrassed, I think. Since girls and boys didn’t mix for PE, our secrets were safe! But this brings back another memory of when the girls had to watch that strange movie and read the booklets about getting your period. It was a weird time…And yes, I think Chicken Fat came right around the time of the Council on Physical Fitness, 50-mile hikes and all of that.

Leave a Reply