Secretly, I called it hell. I made a calendar of school days for my bedroom wall and outlined Fridays in purple, because I liked them. Fridays had a double period of art class. But Thursdays were outlined in red, to symbolize the hell of Thursday afternoon: a double period of P.E.
When I look back on well over a decade of P.E., there are a few bright spots. In elementary school, our greatest treat was a massive, ancient white silk parachute. Our circled class clutched the edge all around and flung our arms up, letting the air rush under the parachute while we dodged underneath and plunked to the ground, tucking the parachute’s edge under our behinds. We grinned at each other in the pearly twilight under the giant mushroom of the ballooning fabric. What purpose this served for our physical fitness I never knew, but I was never happier than when the parachute made a glorious interruption in the grinding anguish of P.E.
One of my earliest P.E. memories involves a horrid gymnasium with a shiny wood floor and some kind of game involving piggy-back rides. I slipped and landed full-force on my knees. After a bit of weeping, I was sent back into the game by a teacher whose heart was apparently as hard as the floor of the gym. The wrenching pain in my kneecaps as I hobbled obediently back into the game marked one of my earliest and most enduring realizations that life is not fair.
The pain continued over the years. There was the large rubber dodge-ball that slammed straight into my face – I don’t know if I cried more from the pain and shock or from the mortification of the hit. There was also the time our P.E. teacher decided the 4th-grade girls should learn bar-dips. I got through almost all of one before something seemed to tear loose in the left half of my ribcage. That night I was supposed to go to training class with my puppy, but I could hardly sit up, let alone walk a dog.
Other incidents were less painful than they were humiliating – dangling desperately from the bottom of the climbing rope, or worst of all, a videotaped “tumbling routine” whose sole mitigating factor was that the boys were stationed in the library where they couldn’t watch. I tried for hours to master a cartwheel, but all I could manage was a labored somersault. And then there were the Physical Fitness Tests, whose tortures included pull-ups and running a whole mile within a certain time limit. Lithe, athletic students got the “Presidential” Physical Fitness Award, and their intrepid but less extraordinary peers achieved “National” status. Guess who got “Participant” year after year? The first few laps of the mile were ok. But then the agony set in – my face grew numb, my lungs caught fire, and my heels screamed with shooting pains. Other kids lapped me mercilessly to do the mile in seven minutes, but I could never clock in under eleven, after which I would collapse in the shade, shaking and retching. Just as I’d struggled to learn a cartwheel or finish a bar dip, I forced myself to practice running at home. On one particularly memorable occasion, my left foot got snared by the overlong loop in my right sneaker’s lace. No-one else was home at the time, so I bandaged myself in the bathtub to keep from getting blood on the floors.
Oh, yes. P.E. was hell. If I learned anything on Thursday afternoons, it was that exercise equals pain, disgrace, and unutterable nausea. Last summer I left my early twenties behind, and I still shuddered at the humid, rubbery smell of the gym. I saw the commercials and I knew who was in there – the seven-minute kids, grown tall and muscular, wearing sleek, colorful sports bras. If I were to go in and get on the treadmill or pick up a barbell, I knew what they’d say: “What is that unfortunate, clumsy little tub doing in here?”
A few medical diagnoses in my late teens and early twenties finally helped to explain why forced exercise caused me so much stress and pain. But the fact remained that in one decade, I’d be well into my thirties. A young body might keep relatively healthy without workouts, but what about an older one? Now the P.E. teachers are compelling the next generation up the climbing robe and around the track. Who was going to make me exercise? Nobody, that’s who.
All my life, I had never exercised for myself. It was always a tortuous effort to meet a time, speed or number of reps someone else had set, or to measure up to the other kids: one afternoon a week of enforced hell. But what if I had control? I pondered the concept over many weeks. What would it be like to exercise for my own self?
One of the hardest things I did this year was walk into a city gym and ask for an orientation. I explained my medical issues to a personal trainer. The first thing he showed me was a recumbent, non-impact cardio machine I’d never seen before. Exercise without pain in my feet was a revelation almost as wonderful as the ability to set the time and speed I wanted. I was so enthused that I learned a full roster of weight-training exercises. That was seven months ago.
Of course I worried what the seven-minute kids, now grown up, would think of me. But from what I could tell, none of them minded my joining the gym. But maybe that’s because, shockingly, they were the minority. There was a large contingent of stringy, determined older men. There were the young men I secretly labeled ex-frat boys –sturdy, handsome guys with tattooed arms and a spare tire beginning under T-shirts with crass slogans. I think they graduated college a few years ago and suddenly realized that their beer-swilling ways are catching up with them. There are the graying ladies in faded “Race For the Cure” T-shirts, and chiseled college girls who highlight textbooks in between reps. There’s the obese 40-something lady who cycles in velour lounge-pants and sockless clogs, a Terry Pratchett paperback inches from her nose. There’s the middle-aged man with the Fresh Prince haircut who has admirable biceps but skinny calves, and who seems more interested in chatting with everyone than he does in working out.
I started short and light on everything, knowing that my first main accomplishment was the habit of walking into the gym. But as I controlled the progression to higher weights and more sets, with no-one urging me but myself, I didn’t get hurt. In an iPod cocoon of my favorite music, I pretended I was pedaling away from the day’s most annoying customers. My mind, usually racing over a dozen upcoming assignments or responsibilities, threw out everything but finishing twenty minutes at ninety steps per minute, and then later, the sweaty counts from one to eight.
The seven-minute girls might laugh if they knew I’d lost only about ten pounds in six months. But as I was driving home from Pep Boys one evening after my work-out, and I was floating on an unexpected euphoria even after having learned it would cost $700 to fix the car, I realized an even better benefit to the workouts. Further perks made themselves known at bedtime on workout days, when my limbs relaxed in a heavy, contented way and I slipped easily into an early sleep.
In January, I was annoyed to find that the locker room seemed overly crowded. There was hardly a free bench and my favorite lockers were occupied. I had to wait for machines on the gym floor because of the mysterious, pudgy new crowd in pristine, expensive sneakers and shiny, brand-new leggings.
“New Year’s resolutions,” one seven-minute girl giggled to another.
It took a few weeks for the gym to clear out, but we’re back to the regulars again. Did you hear that? WE’RE back to the regulars. For the girl who dreaded Thursday hell, I feel that this should just about wrap up the accomplishment of the decade.
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