Thursday, November 17, 2011

Reflections on gym class

I have always remembered my gym classes in school with dread.

There were two types of students in gym class: those who were GOOD at sports and those who WEREN’T. It was immediately apparent to both the students and the gym teacher who fell into which category. We were required to perform various activities in order to “try out” for the President’s Physical Fitness All America Team, which included performing (or, in my case, attempting to perform) a series of exercises including sprinting, sit-ups and pull-ups.

I could barely do 5 sit-ups, while many of the students beside me were doing them as fast as they could, seemingly without tiring. I couldn’t even do one pull-up. It was obvious to me, my classmates and my teacher that I was not “presidential” fitness material which, as you can imagine, made me feel ashamed of myself and my body. I was deeply embarrassed.

Now, as a teacher myself, I can’t help noticing that NONE of my gym teachers EVER TAUGHT ME ANYTHING. No one ever said, “Try doing some sit-ups every morning for a week, and then come in and show me how many you can do.” Or, “Take longer strides when you run to help you speed up. Try running from here to the end of the bleachers and back, and we’ll see if that helps you.” They just observed that I couldn’t do what I was asked, made a mark in their little grade book, and moved on to the next student. (If I did this in my classroom, I would have a room full of students who had no idea how to draw.)

Fortunately, when I was about 14, I began taking ballet lessons, and here my body gained strength and coordination. I learned the joys of physical expression and achievement. So my frustration that I couldn’t keep up with others in the area of fitness wasn’t a permanent experience. But those years of embarrassment in gym class left permanent doubts in my mind about my overall capabilities as an athlete.

About a month or so ago (at age 49), I decided to deal with a recurring backache by taking on a 30-minute yoga and stretching routine every morning. At first I was very stiff, barely able to touch my toes or extend my legs. But after a very short time, I have found that my body has developed markedly improved flexibility and that I can hold poses and stretches for much longer than I could even last week. I am getting excited thinking of how much I can improve over the coming months as I continue to work at it. And my back feels simultaneously strong and relaxed: much, MUCH better.

Looking back on my miserable experiences in gym class, I’ve realized an important lesson about the human body: with gentle persistence, anything is possible. A consistent routine can work wonders.

I've also realized that some bodies aren’t strong and other bodies weak; all bodies can become stronger and healthier, slowly but surely. The inability to perform a certain exercise doesn’t mean you “can’t” do it; it means you have the opportunity to start from where you are and keep working at it until you can see improvement. Then you can savor a sense of pride in accomplishment as you enjoy your newfound physical abilities. Just as in life!

2 comments:

Stephanie Hoff Clayton said...

you and i are close in age. i can so relate to your gym class experience, catherine! i learned nothing of value in my classes, either. those physical fitness tests were awful! i could do lots of sit-ups but i was terrible at the other stuff. pull-ups, push-ups, forget it.
needless to say, i hated most everything about P.E.!
yoga is a back pain sufferer's secret weapon. :) due to yoga's many benefits for body, mind and soul, i cannot do without it. isn't it wonderful?

Catherine Carter said...

I feel like it was a wasted opportunity, Stephanie. I would have enjoyed learning how to use various sports equipment, etc., but no one ever explained anything and I was too shy and embarrassed to ask for help. ... Just about a month of the yoga, and I am so excited at my progress! I can bend forward and put my hands flat on the floor, etc.

Thank you for writing; I always enjoy your feedback.