Following my last post on bullying, I talked to some friends about their own experiences with bullying. I think men are always surprised by how much bullying girls endure, and that was certainly the case. But even more surprising was this: ask your friends where they were most often bullied and they will almost certainly tell you gym class.
The highlight of my own “physical education” was in my first year of high school, lined up outside the locker room. Tom, a thick, dull, brute got bored. A day earlier, he pushed a fully clothed kid into the pool, books and all. That day in 1988 it was my turn. Tom stepped out of line and gave me a “titty twister.” It hurt a lot. I punched him. He kicked the crap out of me. The gym teacher, who my memory has warped into looking like an aged Spike the bulldog, didn’t care that Tom had assaulted half the other boys in class. I was suspended for fighting.
My school had a “zero tolerance” policy for this sort of thing. This was a genius plan for the school administrators: they could put on a good show of doing something by coming up with a tough-sounding policy rather than doing something difficult, like intervening in the maladjustment of thugs like Tom. (The only good thing about that day was that I asked the dean, a humorless refrigerator of a woman, what she would do if someone grabbed her breast and twisted. A minor joy of already being suspended.)
I already hated gym for years by that point. I hated it from the time I was little and was introduced to dodge ball. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that dodge ball was the official sport of the Khmer Rouge. Strong, fast kids launched high speed assaults on the faces and crotches of the less physically gifted with balls special designed to leave the largest red marks possible. I hated gym because I wasn’t particularly strong or especially fast, and the gym teachers seemed to enjoy watching the powerful prey on the weak. Maybe they thought PBS nature specials didn’t involve enough wildebeest taking blows to the crotch.
Gym class was required in Illinois. In high school, you didn’t have to take four years of English or Math, but you were required to take four years of gym. Mr. Harrison, my school’s vice principal, explained that this was because legislators wanted to make a good show of looking like they cared about kids’ health, and this was faster than doing something difficult, like revamping the cafeteria’s menu or turning down income from all of the vending machines. Teaching generations of kids to associate physical activity with pain, humiliation, and genital injury is probably a lot of the reason we all turned out to be so fat as adults.
I’ve been angry about being suspended for 25 years. Of course, I learned something about the world from gym class. And I don’t mean just the bullying world of professional sports, where the teams bully cities and states for new stadiums with specious arguments about economic benefits, and bully the fans by seizing on their nostalgia to squeeze more money out of them every year. The players bully each other, their wives, and girlfriends, and the fans bully other fans – but that’s allegedly part of the magic of Wrigley’s bleachers. We tolerate all of this because having sports teams is a very visible way to pretend you have civic pride and unity without actually doing anything difficult, like improving urban public education.
I was thinking about gym class in this season of the State of the Union, the Superbowl, and the Olympics.Gym class taught me that no matter what you did in the other seven periods, you were going to be put in your place by someone stronger than you. In the high school hierarchy, the physical kids were dominant. Who have we been celebrating as heroes for the last few weeks? : Soldiers and athletes. When we see America on TV, we see large people staring steely eyed into the middle distance. We see the flag wrapped around our corpulent middles. We see people sitting in F-150s, the bed full of apple pies and AR-15s. And when we see heroes, we see those people possessed of exceptional physical strength: soldiers and athletes.
Surely there are other kinds of strength. Somewhere in America are people who have toughed it out against the odds with their ideas, their inventions, their presence of mind or exceptional emotional strength. Of course, they’re probably only featured on PBS in a non-prime time slot, and they’re crap for the quick and inane soundbites we get from football players.
Now that we’re adult citizens pretending we care about things like STEM subjects and K-12 education, perhaps NBC or Fox could dedicate an hour or two to the teachers, inventors, artists, doctors, and activists who show the triumph of the human spirit with something other than well toned arms and broad chests. But they’d rather look like they were celebrating heroism, while not actually doing anything difficult.