Outside of mathematics, the class that perhaps most installed in me a sense of desperate terror was physical education, or ‘gym’ to the layman. Nowhere else could a person find the raging hormones of young adults and the intense social stratification of high school thrust inside the sweet clash of competition.
This medley of components created a perfect storm for the complete and utter destruction of self-esteem. Being a spindly ninety-pound kid, as I was, I simply wasn’t equipped to enter that battleground. Instead, I utilized my time in gym as means to practice the art of camouflage.
The ability to disappear into one’s surroundings is an important survival mechanism. Small birds and rodents do it all the time, it gives them an advantage against the larger predatory animals that hunt them. If the teacher was looking for a volunteer to climb a rope or perform some sort of physical feat, I could phase into a group of teenagers and become completely invisible by holding my breath and not moving. Usually, the teachers forgot I was even there to begin with.
Now that I am an adult, I feel like I can say without fear of reprisal that that the gym teachers at my school were sadists. They were an unholy duo of torment. First, there was Mr. Coates, with his overlarge and intimidating calf muscles. He always looked like a feral dog that wanted to bite every time you got too close to him. Next was Mrs. McCheran, wafer thin and wispy as a ghost, she had the dead eyes of a sociopathic serial killer whose condemnations could undermine any success. Together, they took a sick thrill in our agony, teaching for no other reason than to watch children suffer. Luckily, I learned there were times where the teacher couldn’t watch all of us at once. That meant the second he or she looked away, I could and would cease whatever torture they expected us to inflict upon ourselves.
This understanding was pivotal to me surviving gym. I only had to run laps when the teacher was looking! When their attention was elsewhere, I would be free to walk peacefully or sit and pull tufts of grass from the school field. The same applied to performing sit-ups and push-ups. I would only actually do the exercise when the teacher was actively watching me, otherwise I would just lie there and count the repetitions aloud.
If, god forbid, the teacher decided we would participate in some sort of sport then it became exceedingly difficult to use my camouflage skills. Also, it was nearly impossible for me to exert a minimum of effort because sports have positions. Unfortunately, that means I had a place I was supposed to be and job I was supposed to do. I couldn’t wander around and look at bugs because the teacher was always watching.
Now, violence is commonplace in gym, especially when playing a game. It is a veritable battleground of teenagers proving themselves the social better through armed conflict. If I had the piss knocked out of me, the teacher would usually scold me with a, “keep your head up.” I’m not certain if this was because they felt like the wounds inflicted upon me were my fault or if it was simply because they didn’t want to have to fill out the requisite paper work on a kid who was body checked through the bleachers.
When the bell rang for the end of the period, the misery that was gym still wouldn’t take its claws out of my skin. There simply wasn’t enough time for me to get to the change room, shower, get changed and make it to my next class by second bell. This meant a hurried paper towel bath courtesy of the dispenser in the change room. Besides being late for class, there was a shameful second reason that I was unwilling to shower. This being that I didn’t want to accidentally see someone’s penis and be labeled a homosexual (it was high school. I didn’t know better, okay?).
As a result, I would rush into the change room like a soldier running up the beach to an entrenched gun. I would keep my head low and my eyes locked on my feet. I knew that there were penises all around me; I could feel their intimidating one-eyed glare. Awkwardly, I would fumble myself into my clothes and rush out, stressed and bruised.
It is a small wonder that I turned out to be such a well developed and high functioning individual.