Physical Edumacation

The Horrors of Junior High Gym Class

(This story was published in 2002).

By: Mike McGinty

I never open the sports page of the newspaper. I can’t press the "channel up" button on the remote fast enough when I come across a game of any sort on TV. And for as long as I live, I will never understand how it came to pass that a society as evolved as ours – one that has sent probes to Mars and mapped the human genome – created the broadcast aberration known as ESPN2.

I blame my aversion to organized athletic endeavors of any kind on Coach Crumley, my junior high school P.E. "teacher" who, in three long years, never taught me a single thing except that middle-aged, pot-bellied men with hairy thighs really shouldn’t wear running shorts. Every day, we’d "dress out" in our gym clothes, which for me consisted of an old, tight-fitting pair of brown shorts and a white T-shirt. Then we’d perch on the bleachers in the echoing gym like birds on a telephone wire as Coach Crumley sat before us, tilting his orange, molded-plastic chair back on two legs, and called roll.

"Castleberry!"

"Cox!"

"Davidson!"

"Davis!"

"Eaton!"

Coach Crumley used only our last names, referring to us like some sort of sports all-stars with numbered jerseys and legions of fans. Of course, he did this because no other moniker would sound macho enough. As if gawky seventh-graders in orthodontic appliances had anything on earth to feel macho about. But this was East Tennessee, where football, squirrel hunting and Red Man Chewing Tobacco ruled, and the value of your existence in everyone’s eyes – including the faculty’s – was directly proportional to the number of team sports about which you could spew useless statistics.

Being Picked Last

The year always began with football. We’d file outdoors and do our required lap around the track to "warm up" before spilling into the middle of the field and choosing teams. Naturally, I was always one of the last ones picked. It only bothered me during the final few seconds, when the appointed captains would survey the leftover kids with undisguised contempt, like we were half-rotten bananas they’d rather chuck into a dumpster than deign to eat.

During the games, I’d line up at the far end of the scrimmage line facing one of the dregs on the other team, who was usually a good friend of mine. With every "Hut, hut, hike!" we’d execute an anemic block against each other and watch in boredom as the quarterback faked the ball to the something-back and passed it down the field to the something-else-back.

After football season, when it turned too cold to go outside, Coach Crumley would have us play Crab Soccer. The entire class would flail and clump from one end of the shiny gym floor to the other on all fours, face up, while trying to kick the ball into the other team’s goal. I usually contributed to the crustacean theme by imitating a hermit crab. I’d pick a corner of the gym and stay in it until Coach Crumley noticed and yelled at me to "Get back in the game!"

Winter also had us playing basketball ("Oh God, please don’t let me be skins"), volleyball, trampoline jumping and – one year, believe it or not –square dancing. Never mind math and science. What colleges really look for in applicants is a knowledge of how to dosey-do.

It was during the winter months that we’d also get to skip "dressing out" and spend two weeks studying what passed as "Health" in Appalachia. We endured sophomoric lectures from Coach Crumley on the human reproductive system and poorly produced films from the 1950’s on the evils of STDs and drugs. He gave us the same handouts, quizzes and vocabulary terms every year, but at least I wasn’t in a huddle being told to "fake right and go long."

As spring broke, we took up baseball. I’d sit quietly at the end of the bench, hoping to be forgotten. And when the other team went to bat, all the other skinny, uncoordinated boys and I trudged to the outfield. The way, way outfield, as far removed from the game as possible. Balls rarely came to us and we liked it that way.

After baseball came tumbling, and all those summers I spent practicing backbends and round-offs in the front yard with my sister finally paid off. I was the only one in the entire class who could do a cartwheel. Coach Crumley had me demonstrate it several times for the others. Of course, turning a cartwheel did not involve shoulder pads or sweaty socks – or the distinct possibility of sustaining a concussion – so all the other guys considered it a girly thing, an opinion they often shared with me in the locker room.

The only tumbling move I couldn’t put everyone else to shame with wasn’t really a tumbling move at all. Coach Crumley would have us squat to the floor, put our hands down flat and flex our elbows out to our sides, place our knees on our elbows and lean slowly forward, head down, balancing our weight. He called it the "tripod position" and was fond of showing off "how easy it is" by doing it himself at regular intervals. But I never got the hang of it.

Into the Showers

After every class, no matter what time of year, we were required to take a shower. No exceptions. Evidently, 35 minutes of Crab Soccer in a frigid November gym makes you sweat. Who knew? Our cue to stop whatever we were playing and head to the locker room was Coach Crumley’s exhortation, "Getcha share!" Which is Redneck for "It’s time to bathe yourselves, gentlemen."

He usually gave us about seven minutes to strip, wet ourselves, dry off and change. Nobody brought soap and the school didn’t supply it. I’d come out of the locker room feeling clammier and wetter than I ever did on my way in. My friends and I used to compare foot fungi and its effects on the webs of skin between our toes. By the time we left junior high, we had identified several new strains.

So, in the end, the only thing three years of Coach Crumley’s P.E. classes taught me was a persistent and lingering hatred of all organized sports. Or so I thought until one day, about 10 years ago, when my brothers and sisters and I were kidding around, showing off to each other.

"Can you do this?"

"Oh yeah? Well can you do this?"

Tongue rolling, ear wiggling, nostril flaring, that kind of stuff. Quickly and without thinking I leapt up, squatted on the floor, hands flat, put my knees on my extended elbows, leaned forward, head up and … balanced there. Perfectly still in the tripod position.

"Oh my gosh, I’m doing it!" I exclaimed.

My siblings all stood and gathered around me.

"That’s pretty good, Michael."

"Oh, I could never do that."

"Where’d you learn to do that?"

"Hey, look at him!" "Go, Mike!"

As the seconds ticked by and the blood rushed to my head, I realized three years of snapping towels, missed baskets and dropped fly balls hadn’t been for naught. Somewhere along the way, I had actually learned something.

"Hurry!" I yelled at the top of my lungs, silencing the room. "Someone go get Coach Crumley!"

Mike McGinty is a Clio-award-winning ad copywriter living in San Francisco with a love-hate relationship to sports. His last column for Outsports was on Little League. His work has appeared on Gay.com and in the Noe Valley Voice newspaper. He is a regular contributor to "San Francisco Bride" magazine and this spring will be published in "Naturally" and "Whispers from Heaven" magazines, as well as SiliconMom.com. He much prefers writing personal essays to coming up with ad headlines for hemorrhoid cream.

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