The experience that I remember most vividly from middle school is P.E. (Physical Education). I remember hating the class because I didn’t consider myself the least bit athletic. When I was little, I’d enjoyed playing pickup baseball and basketball, but I later developed a performance anxiety that held me back from doing any official team sport. My P.E. teacher, Mrs. Garner, always seemed surprised at my lack of sports interest and skill because she swore that I “walked like an athlete.” I did not find this complimentary at the time, envisioning myself swinging my arms in a lolling, ape-like caveman stride. Did I actually walk that way?
Back in middle school, the only things I remember liking about P.E. were:
1) Square dancing, especially with my crushes.
2) Pickleball, a game like ping pong played on a tennis court. We were coincidentally playing Pickleball this week, and I found that I still have some skillz.
3) Mr. Turner, the hot new 25-year-old P.E. teacher. I imagine that good-looking Mr. Andrew Ryan, who graduated from Altimira the same year I did and now teaches P.E. and Leadership, is the new Mr. Turner for the current middle school girls.
In middle school, I especially loathed these things about P.E.:
1) Tumbling, a.k.a. Gymnastics.
I have never been able to do a cartwheel, or a roundoff, and looked ridiculous trying. When my P.E. teacher said, “Come on, you can do it if you try!” I was tempted to say, “I’d like to see YOU do a cartwheel!” (A few weeks ago, guided by my third grade friends, I made some pretty valiant attempts at a cartwheel and got pretty close.)
2) Running the mile.
As a preteen, I hated to run because I struggled with asthma, for which I carried not one, but two, inhalers. Darren said that if he’d been in my class, he would have called me “Quickdraw.” He pantomimed a Wild West cowgirl dueling with inhalers instead of pistols. Thank God I didn’t go to middle school with Darren.
3) Relay races.
I never found these as fun as the teachers made them out to be. I couldn’t stand the pressure, and the risk of letting down the team.
This week, I came to school prepared to change for P.E. and join the kids in whatever activities they were doing. For some reason — over-the-top sentimentality? — I’d saved the t-shirt of my P.E. uniform, stenciled in black ink with my last name and big enough to still fit me now. Apparently I hadn’t been so attached to the vibrant green sweat shorts that reached to my knees and didn’t flatter anyone’s body type, because I’d long ago given them away.
My first day back at Altimira, I followed my sixth grade guide, Jane, into my old locker room and past rows of lockers until we arrived at hers. I awkwardly maneuvered my large backpack through the dozens of girls already changing clothes and found a cramped area where I could change.
Jane said that she’d been nervous at first to take off her clothes in front of the other girls, until she realized that they weren’t looking at her. I remember feeling self-conscious in the same way, perfecting a rapid shirt-changing technique that revealed the least amount of skin. A couple of girls actually wore their P.E. uniform under their baggy clothes so they didn’t have to reveal anything. I just felt grateful that we didn’t have to use the open showers, as girls did in my mom’s generation.
Now that I was a grown-up, it wasn’t just my imagination that the girls were looking at me as I changed clothes. I’m normally fairly modest, but in the name of showing the girls that real women have curves — I imagine that they see very few women’s bodies except for those of Jessica Alba and Katie Holmes — I didn’t make too big a deal of covering up. Jane, who had already changed and was waiting for me to finish, stared at me without subtlety. On my second day with her, when I tried a new technique to swap a sports bra with a regular one, she appraised the method with her trademark seriousness and said, “That way was better than the last one.” Jane doesn’t miss much.
We walked out to the blacktop together, where kids sat on their assigned numbers, painted on the pavement in rows. I found a vacant number in the back and sat down on it. My classmates kept asking me, “You’re doing P.E. with us?” and “Is that your real P.E. shirt?” and “Can you put me in your book?” You’d think that I’d blend in more with the older, bigger kids than the little ones, but the opposite is true. Whereas the younger kids just seem happy to have a big playmate, the older ones have a lot of curiosity about what I’m doing back at school and are constantly asking me questions. My favorite question was from one quirky boy, who approached me with a determined look on his face and said, “No offense, but are you a girl, a teenager, or a woman?” I was tempted to answer him by breaking into the Britney Spears ballad, “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.”
As Ms. Wilson, Jane’s P.E. teacher, approached, a few kids began to lead us in warmups and stretches. At 10 seconds apiece, they didn’t seem to be doing much good. Situps on the hard blacktop hurt my spine more than I’d remembered. I was unable to do a single regular push-up, and the kind with knees to the ground wasn’t allowed. I found it impossible to keep up with the chant of “UP! one….UP! two….” all the way through ten.
After stretches, the kids and I crowded onto the track to run. Every class kicks off with a lap or two, except for Fitness Day, when everyone runs a timed mile for credit. Today, as luck would have it, was Fitness Day. The kids each held an index card, which was marked as they completed a lap, and they received a certain number of points for completing the mile in 15 minutes, 14, 13, and so on. I was curious to see if I could beat the best time I’d ever gotten — 8 minutes, 20 seconds in sixth grade — now that I’m a regular jogger, have longer legs, and have outgrown my asthma (except for flare-ups when I sprint).
At the word, “Go!”, we all lunged forward in a mess of brown dust and flying elbows. I felt like a marathon runner, eager to advance but blocked by a phalanx of other people. I dodged kids left and right so I could run hard, and eventually I broke free of the masses. As I circled the track, I observed the tall, lean kids sprinting ahead like gazelles; chubbier ones gasping for breath; groups of girls chatting, unconcerned about their time; and a couple awkward kids ambling at the speed of molasses. I felt a familiar asthmatic coldness tightening in my lungs but kept pushing forward, sprinting the final stretch. As I crossed the finish line, I demanded of my old classmate Mr. Ryan, gasping for breath, “What’s my time, what’s my time?”
“8:17,” he replied.
I grinned, still breathing hard. I’d beaten my sixth grade mile time by three seconds. Not bad. I’m going to tell Mrs. Garner — who subs regularly at the school — that 17 years after middle school, I’m learning to think of myself as an athlete after all.