You Don’t Mess Around With Gym* by
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Physical Education, or Gym as we called it, was by far my least favorite class in high school. First of all, we had to wear these horrible gymsuits, one-piece numbers that snapped up the front. They were hideous looking things, as you can see from the Featured Image. No girl looked good in them, no matter how she was built. And woe unto anyone who had to go to the bathroom while wearing one, because she would have to take the whole thing off! We changed into and out of our gymsuits in the Girls’ Locker Room, which had a few individual stalls for privacy, but if those were occupied, you had to change in the main area, right in front of everybody. Oh yes, there were showers there too, but nobody would have dreamed of using them! I don’t even know if they worked, because they were never tested. If gym wasn’t your last class of the day, and if you happened to work up a sweat (rare for me, since I tried to do as little as possible), you just changed back into your regular clothes anyway and maybe put on some perfume to cover the odor. I heard that the boys actually did take showers, but I don’t ‘know if that was true.

Then there were the sports we were forced to play. The main ones were field hockey in the fall, and softball in the spring. We played both of these out on the same field, which was near the railroad tracks. When a freight train went by, I would watch the train and count the cars –often a hundred or more — totally ignoring the game I was supposed to be playing. I hated both of these sports, as well as soccer (not quite as bad as field hockey, because at least you wouldn’t get clobbered by a stick) and volleyball (which had the benefit of being indoors). The one sport I somewhat enjoyed was basketball, because I was tall and could occasionally make a basket. It wasn’t too taxing because under the rules of girls’ basketball at that time you only played on half of the court. The forwards stayed near their own basket and the guards stayed near the other team’s basket. One person was designated as a rover, and she was the only one who was allowed to cross the center line. If anyone else crossed the line, she was out of bounds. Also, we were only allowed to dribble the ball 3 times before passing. If there was a 4th bounce, that constituted traveling. So I would mainly just stand near the basket waiting for someone to pass me the ball, catch it, and then shoot. I wouldn’t say it was all that much fun, but it was okay. Once I caught a basketball the wrong way and jammed my finger, which didn’t heal right and as a result is a little misshapen and doesn’t bend properly even now. But I was happy about it, because it got me excused from gym for about two months while it mended. (I later learned to love basketball, as described here, when I played because I wanted to, not because I had to.)

Senior year, we suddenly had swimming too. My high school was on a college campus, and either they built a new pool or just decided to give us access to the one that had been there all along. We had to wear these awful tank suits that were made of thin nylon and, while they weren’t sheer, they pretty much left nothing to the imagination. Even more so after they were wet. It was hugely embarrassing to have the boys see us in those suits. And there was also the problem of making one’s hair look presentable after it got wet in the pool. Not so bad for the straight-haired girls, but for us curlylocks it was excruciating. One of my friends often missed half or all of the next class because it took her so long to dry her hair and make it look acceptable. I wasn’t brave enough to do that, so I often just brought a scarf to wear after gym class.

We had the same gym teacher, Miss Shiposh, all six years at that school, and I could not stand her. The best conversation I ever had with her was at the end of senior year, when I told her that I was going to Radcliffe because they had no physical education requirement! And while that obviously wasn’t the reason I chose Radcliffe, it was definitely one of its pluses.

*with apologies to Jim Croce

Profile photo of Suzy Suzy

Characterizations: been there, funny, right on!, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    First, I love the appropriation of the title. No apologies to Jim Croce needed; very clever. Your school was more advanced than mine. We didn’t have field hockey or softball (I would have hated both anyway), but we did gymnastics, volley ball and other things to torture me. We only had to take PE for two years of high school, and only one year in college, and by that time they were enlightened enough to include Modern Dance in the repertoire. But I am with you every step of the way with the rest. And I don’t have your height to help me with basketball. Just no fun at all. Same gym uniform but ours were blue. Can’t believe you still have one, or is this one left over from one of your daughters?

    • Suzy says:

      I confess, the photo is from the internet. I certainly don’t have my gymsuit, I probably ripped it to shreds after my last gym class in 12th grade! By the ’90s, gymsuits were no longer being worn. Both of my daughters had the same gym uniforms as the boys – t-shirts and shorts with the school logo on them. Molly still uses her gym uniforms from both middle school and HS as pajamas!

      I had forgotten that Jim Croce was one of the many singers who died in airplane crashes, so I guess he doesn’t need my apology after all. 🙁

  2. John Shutkin says:

    Great story, Suzy. Moreover, you totally captured my — admittedly stereotypical — view of every high school girl’s view of gym class, and especially of the locker room. I mean, why did they even bother putting showers in there? And your gym suits obviously came from the same place as our high school got them — even the faded yellow.

    I will be most interested in whether you get a lot of #MeToo comments from the other Retro females. But, if you never took showers there, how could you ever learn to snap towels at everyone else’s butts?

    • Suzy says:

      We did have yellow gymsuits, I think – school colors were black and gold, so it was supposed to be gold – but as I admitted to Betsy, this pic is not mine. I did know girls who liked gym class, and they were the ones who joined the GAA and competed against other schools. But even those girls wouldn’t have dreamed of taking a shower at school. Learning to snap towels would have been nice though. 🙂

  3. Marian says:

    Suzy, amazing and fun story. Thank goodness we didn’t have swimming with those embarrassing suits. How awful for you! We, too had basketball with girls’ rules, which was great for me. I could shoot competently and was on the tall side, so I was a stationary forward, which, as you say, meant I could do more standing than running!

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, Marian. I had forgotten the term “stationary forward” which is what I was too. Thinking about basketball nowadays, that seems like such a ridiculous idea! Sounds like you and I had similar gym experiences, not surprisingly since we were both in New Jersey.

  4. Great choice for the accompanying photo. I have a sister two years older and another one year older and that picture reminds me that they wore precisely the same uniform. Blue I think. And we had a pool in our junior high school so “swim” was part of the curriculum. Not coed. The girls did indeed wear those tank suits – I remember how my sisters hated them – but we boys swam nekkid. Thank God there were no fire drills.

    • Suzy says:

      OMG, naked swim class? That is astonishing to me. Didn’t anyone object? As the parent of a son, I would have been horrified if that had happened to him!

      • John Zussman says:

        Perhaps you didn’t know that freshman year at Harvard, swimming was at the Indoor Athletic Building — men only and suits were not allowed. And then there was the Adams House pool. Different dynamic about nudity by then, of course. But you have to wonder about the rationale.

  5. Indeed it was. Just like at the “Y”. Honestly I don’t remember anyone raising even the slightest whisper of a protest. It’s just the way it was.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    Suzy, I will give you the #MeToo for this one. I wonder if any female of our generation enjoyed PE class. Even without a shower, having to squirm into and out of those uniforms in front of others was awful. Like Tom, my husband says the boys swam naked at his high school. It is unbelievable that no parents objected, but then, I don’t remember my parents questioning anything during my entire school career. Thought you would pick “Let’s Get Physical” for this one, so stayed away from using it. But I love Jim Croce and your title made me hum his song.

    • Suzy says:

      Didn’t think of “Let’s Get Physical,” that would have been a good one too. I feel like there were some girls in my HS class who enjoyed PE – the ones who joined GAA, and were into all those sports. Obviously nobody writing here liked it, at least so far, but maybe during the week we will get someone who did.

  7. I do recall those suits. Didn’t they have a built-in chastity belt? Actually they remind me of Mormon underwear called “onesies” for adults. The whole ritual seems primitive now. The approach to the body, so obligatory, so without wonder. Nicely told. You remember the rules to girl’s basketball! Now that IS a wonder.

    • Suzy says:

      The gymsuits certainly would have promoted chastity without any built-in belt, since nobody looked appealing in them! As to girls’ basketball, you may recall that I wrote a whole story about it a couple of years ago, “Law School and Basketball,” which I link to in this story.

  8. Risa Nye says:

    Suzy, some great (by that I mean awful) memories of your high school gym days. We also played many of those sports and had modern dance as well, for which we wore tights and leotards. I actually enjoyed playing softball and was an OK hitter. It’s so funny about the showers! No one took them. Ever.

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