I have yet to meet anyone who loved physical education as a kid.
All right, I’ve crossed paths with a few people who enjoyed P.E. more than any other course, but only because it was their only “goof-off class.” I, on the other hand, had to work harder in physical education than any other school subject, as I’ve been an accident-prone, bony maladroit all my life.
Like many uncoordinated, shy children, I was terrible at sports. I lacked hand-eye coordination, had zero grace, and never overcame my fear of balls (I continue to have this problem, but guys don’t usually buy it). Most of all, my lean, spiderific figure weakened my inherently-atrocious athletic skills, and to this day I believe I simply wasn’t designed for team sports.
All of my attempts at athleticism were met with disaster. I sent the baseball bat flying into the air every time I tried to play baseball, was completely incapable of throwing a Frisbee or football, and, in spite of my tiny frame, could not run a mile under ten minutes. You know that cringe-worthy-but-hysterical scene in “Princess Diaries” in which Anne Hathaway shrieks uncontrollably as her classmates chuck soccer balls at her during her failed attempt at being goalie? That was me whenever our P.E. class played soccer….and pretty much any sport involving balls. No one wanted to be the goalie, so my classmates bullied me into taking on the role, even though I’d inevitably lose them the soccer match as a result.
As you can imagine, this didn’t fly with my P.E. teacher Coach Kelly, a big-boned 23-year-old novice educator with no patience for weaklings.
Though I tried to explain that I really was doing my best and simply had no talent for sports, Coach Kelly argued that anyone could be an athlete with the right amount of effort. What she didn’t understand was that I had no interest in becoming the next Serena Williams. Because of this, Coach Kelly would lose her cool anytime I ducked from the ball or failed to throw it further than a few feet away. I’d be a soccer mom’s biggest disappointment, Coach Kelly said, as if this would somehow be a bad thing, but thankfully my own mother was too busy working to fret about my athletic ineptness. She was, however, required to attend several parent-teacher conferences with the livid Coach Kelly, who was convinced that I suffered from polio or some sort of disability. Looking back, I think Coach Kelly was taking out her sexual frustration on me, but I was too young to recognize that she merely needed a good lay, so I just viewed her as an roided out wannabe policewoman.
After Coach Kelly set up a second meeting with my mom and dad, I decided it was time to fly under the radar and do my best to avoid participating in P.E. I took longer than everyone in my class to change into my P.E. uniform, frequently ran off for bathroom breaks, forged sick notes, and came up with a list of ways to stay away from the ball at all costs. During baseball, I hung out as far outfield as possible to lower my chances of having to catch the ball. When my team was up to bat, I lingered at the back of the line and struck up conversation with classmates in the dugout so no one would notice I was never making my way up to first base.
Things changed one afternoon in second grade, when James, a staunch bully of mine, outed me in front of class.
“Laura keeps running to the back of the line so she doesn’t have to hit the ball!” he yelled in his shrill voice, which, according to several reliable sources, didn’t drop until the end of high school.
“James, be quiet,” I said. “I’m on your team, you know. If I go up there, I’m going to lose us this game!”
“I don’t care, you don’t get special privileges!”
And so I went up to first base, shaking with the metal bat in my sweaty palms. The first two times the pitcher hurled the ball, I threw the bat behind me, but on the third try, I sent the baseball far into the outfield. Beyond shocked that I’d hit the ball so hard, I stared ahead in amazement, believing I’d already achieved all my P.E. goals for the day.
My teammates, however, were on another wavelength. They shouted for me to speed through the bases and make a homerun, as I was certainly capable of doing so, and so I did take off. In the wrong direction. My teammates began screaming for me to run the other way as students on the opposing team told me through bouts of laughter to continue with my incorrect strategy. I didn’t know what to believe, and the differing orders and ululations became so overwhelming that I fled the scene and retreated to the bathroom, where I hid for the duration of the afternoon.
At the beginning of P.E. the next day, Coach Kelly put me on the spot in front of my classmates and said I needed to go to the principal’s office.
“From here on out, you’re to go to the principal’s office at the start of P.E. I forbid you from participating in my class ever again.”
Upon nodding in accordance, I said, “Thank GOD!” and scrambled to the principal’s office, where I found the good old leader of the school sitting at his desk with a copy of the L.A. Times in hand.
“What brings you here, young lady?” he asked.
“I’m bad at P.E.,” I confessed, “but I love reading.”
Thankfully, he didn’t probe me on my uncomfortable exchange with Coach Kelly. From there on out, I formulated stories in my head and wrote in my journal during the hour-long P.E. class. Coach Kelly may have believed that robbing me the opportunity to chase around a germ-infested ball all day was the ultimate punishment, but in reality, it was the greatest gift she ever could have given me.
Of course, I still had half a decade worth of P.E. classes ahead of me. Physical education continued to suck until high school, when my hippie dippie instructor said my best effort was all that counted, even if that was zoning out on the bleachers 90 percent of the class period or running a 20 minute mile. Thankfully, I completed my P.E. requirements at the end of sophomore year, and it wasn’t until my last semester of college, when I signed up for Dance 101, that I had to get physical again. I specifically enrolled in Dance 101 because the syllabus stated there would be no dancing at all whatsoever, just the study of the art. Naturally, the professor altered the course requirements three weeks into the semester and informed us we’d have to do salsa, the waltz, and jazz every week. One session of movement and gyration was enough to send me sprinting to the administration office, where I begged to drop the course.
“I’ll do anything to get out,” I pleaded with the administrative assistant. “Even if it means graduating a semester behind schedule. I was terrible at P.E. all my life and do not want to endure that kind of embarrassment ever again.”
Upon explaining that the school forbids students from adding new classes so late in the semester, she placed me in an art history course and winked, perhaps because she too knew the humiliation of P.E. class. I was happy to wake up early three times a week for the academic class, as it saved me from having to dance. I didn’t have the choice to opt out of classes growing up, but that’s the beauty of college: You don’t have to dance if you don’t want to.