Every fat kid has a gym class humiliation story.
Or two or three.
Well, me too. I was raised in a strange cocoon until the 7th grade. We had been living overseas on military bases, where the curriculi in our schools varied considerably from the American norm. We had recess, not gym class, when I sat around with my friends or read. I was blissfully unaware of the existence of “physical education.”
Then we returned to the States, to Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. I entered civilian life, a civilian school, and the 7th grade in one horrible swoop of fate.
We moved to this neat little Midwestern cow town straight from our post in the Philippine Islands, where our palm-tree-lined yard framed million-dollar sunsets every evening while we slurped the juice of mangoes plucked from our back yard tree. No kidding. My dad had rank on this base, and so, by association, did we. Kids played with us, regardless of our personalities or the way we looked. They had no choice.
We’d had it made, we kids. But what we didn’t know was that we weren’t cool. Not by current U.S. standards. We had lived a beautiful life in the Tropics, but returned to the States wearing G.I.-issue hornrimmed glasses, handmade clothing made to look sort of like what the Sears Catalog was selling.
But we returned to find that no one in the 7th grade wore clothes from the Sears Catalog. We looked strange, had strange accents, had weird clothes and shoes. We were military people. I always thought that put us within a higher order of human being, but it turns out civilian people think just the opposite. We were really very odd and out of place. And I was both odd and fat.
And so, an easy target for cruel wit of 7th graders, I entered my first big school, my first school with many rooms, hallways, staircases, elevators and lockers. My thick hornrims slid down my nose, and stuffed in my bookbag was my very first gym uniform.
It was a one-piece baby blue jumper with bloomer bottoms. Size Large. I have been guilty of exaggerating things in the past for the sake of a laugh, but I swear I don’t exaggerate this piece of apparel. This uniform must have been designed in the 1930s. I’ve scoured the Net to find an image that comes close to depicting my uniform, but apparently there are parameters of taste on the Internet that prevent posting such distasteful displays of female flesh.
Bloomer bottoms, snaps up the front, a camp-shirt collar. Crisp cotton/poly blend so it wouldn’t wrinkle. Or breathe. The snaps gaped open over my tummy bulge. The elastic dug into my chubby thighs. The one-piece construction meant the thing rode up my bum when I squatted or bent over, for instance, to pick up a dropped ball. And I was nothing if not a ball dropper.
Now, uniforms are meant to equalize the playing field. Right? Put everyone in the same fashion boat? Unfortunately, I lacked the critical piece of information that this school had just dropped their ancient gym bloomers the year of my entry. They’d just adopted cherry red short shorts and a red and white striped T-shirt.
I had the only blue bloomers for miles around. And, my family being on a budget, this uniform was just going to have to do.
It was a bad way to start things at a new school among snotty 7th grade civilian girls. Girls who grew up knowing everyone around them, who had never considered making a new friend. Apparently had never encountered a stranger in their lives, judging by their bubble-gummed, strawberry lip-glossed gapes, which fell in a perfect wave, girl by girl as I walked down the halls.
My weirdness left me clinging by my bitten nails to the bottom rung of the social ladder by the middle of the first period of the first day of the 7th grade. My complete demotion pretty well established BEFORE getting naked with these girls in the gym and then climbing into my brand new, last era, baby blue bloomers. That was before trying to run around the football field, and coming in dead last. That was before getting hit in the head with baseballs, in the face with dodgeballs, in the gut with basketballs. Accidents, I’m sure.
I quickly developed all the classic anxiety symptoms before and during gym class that many people have toward math. Gym anxiety gripped me every other day, wrapping me in icy, clammy skin. I could hear my heart in my ears, I flushed, I panicked. Something humiliating happened in every class, leaving me skulking home, taking a different route every day to avoid being reminded of it by classmates. I can still feel it 30 years later.
I feel it every time I start to run. I feel it every time I walk across the pool until I can slip into my lane and be invisible again. I feel it in every workout class.
I feel it everywhere except in dance classes. And I know why. During this same time, my mother signed me up for ballet classes taught by a lady at the end of our block. Mrs. Holleman taught ballet in her basement. On the first day, in the first class, wearing my ballerina tights, and my new pink slippers, Mrs. Holleman told me I had beautiful feet. Dancers’ feet.
It was a simple thing. And a sweet lie. I later learned my feet are not at all good for dance. My toes are all wrong, the arch too high, but this kind little fib gave me a great deal of confidence. I was a chubby, awkward, strange-looking, farsighted little girl. But I had dancers’ feet, by god.
That just had to mean something.
I worked hard for Mrs. Holleman. Dancing required thought. You must think to dance, remember routines, remember many steps, counts, repeats. In Mrs. Holleman’s class, I had potential. In gym class I was a loser who dropped balls and couldn’t run around the football field, who came in dead last, with the teacher hovering over her stopwatch and calling out a time that was more than triple that of the faster girls. To peals of laughter. In dance class, I soared. Sort of.
Stopwatches and whistles still grab me by the gut. It takes a lot of work for me to loosen up during a run and remember that I’m working on my own best performance, not racing a bunch of 7th graders. It’s three or four sessions in a new Yoga class before I remember that everyone there has their minds on their own bodies, and not on mine.
We’re not all runners. Some of us are dancers. We’re not all team players. Some of us are loners. But we do all have a way to move that works best for us. None of us were built to sit still. It may take a lot of trial and error to find the movement that works best for you. But keep trying. You will find it.
And God bless Mrs. Holleman, wherever you are.