A popular topic for many male comedians seems to be the angst they feel when remembering the suffering of school gym class. They recall the hilarious horror of being forced to climb a rope, wrestle a sweaty Sasquatch, or run a torturous mile around the track while being harassed by a drill sergeant-esque P.E. teacher. If it is a movie there is always a brainless early blooming bully that makes the pipsqueak’s academic adventure a living hell, an antagonist with evil intent, or the perfect creation whose ultimate goal in life is to advance their fragile ego by mocking those less physically fortunate. In that world, gym class is/was Dante’s inferno, purgatory on earth, a suffering rite of passage survived with dread and agony.
I rarely find those portrayals funny. Maybe it’s because I was less like Greg Heffley (Diary of a Wimpy Kid), more like Jesse and Leslie (Bridge to Terabithia) when I was in school. Gym class was fun to me. Unless it was square dancing week, which I loathed, I was the guy who looked forward to gym class each day. In the hall after first period, I always looked for the guys who had first period gym class and asked them what they did in class that day. I liked to run, loved any kind of ball game, accepted fitness testing as a competition and challenge. Never was I tempted to hide under the bleachers. I lined up at the start line with the thrill of the race coursing through me.
Don’t get me wrong. Steve Henry was not the big oaf nor was he the overly physically gifted perfect creation (I know that’s hard to believe). On the contrary, both the Greg Heffleys and the Sasquatch despised me and for the same reason. Steve Henry was the average overly enthusiastic gym class kid. I was the try hard, the guy the gym teacher would use as an example in an attempt to get my classmates to break a sweat.
The only near exception to my gym class enthusiasm existed at the beginning of my freshman year of high school. At that time, I still had a little bit of growing to do, was probably 5’11” tall, 130# when sopping wet.. and all of my weight was below the waist (no, not that.. I was not and never will be a porn star candidate). I still brought bounding enthusiasm to each gym class but coming to gym class some days held a bit of an element of fear. Why? Neanderthals. Seniors who must have surely been held out of school to work the fields, man boys who wanted to put gym class over achievers like me out of commission.
There were two man boys in particular who struck exceptional fear in my heart — Robbie Cheffe and Elmer Boehme, both high school seniors. Robbie had a large black curly afro, mutton chop side burns and a fu Manchu, covered in black body hair. His nick name was “Fur Burger”. Elmer was an unwashed beast, lived in an old wood sided farm house that looked like it had been painted white at one time, surrounded by the carcasses of old farm machinery and trucks. Elmer had long scraggly hair and an equally scraggly dirty beard. He was large and muscled from years of farm labor. Elmer’s presence always made itself known before he entered a room, if you get my “drift”. Both guys usually smoked outside of the gym before class, a practice that baffled my young mind. And they both despised my type, an opinion that was not helped by the gym class teacher the first week of gym class.
Robbie and Elmer were not gym class over achievers, especially when it came to running. The first week of gym class focused on physical training, all spent out on the high school’s track. I loved it, eagerly ran each assignment and finished before most of the class. Our gym teacher had a bright idea to motivate the seniors in our class. He called me to the front of the class. Next, he called Robbie and Elmer to stand next to me. If either Robbie or Elmer could beat me in a mile race, the teacher announced to our class, all seniors in our class would be exempt from running the rest of the week. If Robbie and Elmer did not finish the race, all the seniors would be running double laps. A collective groan emanated from the class, simultaneous grunts from each of the hulks next to me as we lined up at the start line. Our gym teacher had an even more humiliating idea, likely inspired by the glares and groans from Robbie and Elmer as they stood next to me. He led both seniors to the other side of the track, lined them up there to give them a half lap head start on the quarter mile track, a smug smirk on his face as he returned to where I lined up to race.
The starting gun went off as I casually sprinted off the line. My hope was that pride would motivate my opponents to at least try. They did try. But it wasn’t fair. I passed both before they finished the first lap, their bulk and smoking habit working against them. I slowed down, tried to keep them close, but the gym teacher yelled at me to keep running. It was never a fair contest and I finished more than a full lap ahead of them, barely a sweat on and my breathing easy as I watch both man boys wheeze around the track. To their credit, they kept running. They crossed the finished line, bent over and throwing up.
And I was a marked freshman from that day on. Out of sheer self preservation, I usually had to skip taking a shower and changed into my clothes as quick as possible. Luckily, my gym locker was close to the gym teacher’s office or I may not have survived the first semester of my freshman year.
With cold weather our class moved inside. Our gym teacher always ended class with a line drill, where everyone in class lined up at the baseline to wait for the whistle. When the whistle blew, everyone ran to the first free throw line, touched it and ran back, repeating the drill at half court, the other free throw line and baseline, finishing where we started. You may have guessed that the teacher used me to motivate the seniors and our other classmates. If you didn’t beat Steve Henry, you had to run the lines again. Stupidly, mainly because I loved to run the lines, I ran them full speed. How I lived through that first semester is a mystery.
A favorite Friday gym class activity, one that most people enjoyed, was a sadistic game called Team Handball. The wooden bleachers were usually pulled up to the side so that two games could be played simultaneously. A large box was taped on the bleachers at each end of the court to make a goal. A small gym ball was tossed onto the court, passed around with the objective that the ball be thrown past a goalie inside the taped goal box. When thrown by the right person, the small gym ball became a frightening projectile, a small cannon ball that hurt like the dickens when it hit you. Most goalies left class with round purple bruises on their bodies.
Robbie and Elmer were proficient at team handball. They relished the fear that they created, knocking players down and throwing the ball so hard that we all sweared there was the smell of burning rubber. No one wanted to play goal when either Neanderthal was on the opposing team.
Can you guess what the gym teacher did? I bet you can. One Friday, both Robbie and Elmer ended up on the same team. No one wanted to play goalie against them. That’s right. The teacher put me in goal.
Crap. I was scared to death. For possibility the first time, I was not enthusiastic about the gym activity of the day. My terror escalated as both Robbie and Elmer sneered in my direction, drool dripping as they expressed their intentions of revenge.
You’re going to die, freshman.
The whistle blew and the gym ball was tossed on the court. Everyone wanted to see the carnage that would be inflicted on me as goalie, especially the seniors on the court. First pass was to Robbie, the area around him cleared to give him a clear shot.
I remember screaming as the smoking ball rushed at my face. I closed my eyes to prepare for the certainty of intense pain.
To this day, I don’t know how it happened. Much to my astonishment, I caught the ball, perhaps the first miracle that I had ever experienced in my life. Incredulous, I looked at the ball in my hands and passed it to a team mate who easily scored a goal against opponents who were frozen in amazement.
The whistle blew, the ball was tossed on the court again, our gym teacher not only smirking but laughing hysterically at what had just happened. This time the ball went to a determined Elmer, drool still on his lips from his earlier anticipation of destruction. Elmer laughed maniacally as he fired the ball at me with a loud grunt.
I smiled this time, even as I still shook from the adrenaline rush that lingered from the previous shot on goal. This time I smirked nervously, caught the ball with the confidence learned from unexpected success. Once again, my team scored an easy goal.
Don’t ask me who won that game. I don’t remember. Most likely, it was my team.
What I do remember, besides the victory of stopping those shots on goal, was the respect I won from Robbie and Elmer. From that day on, I could do no wrong. They told their friends, even protected me in the halls if someone tried to cross me.
And that day helped Robbie and Elmer. It was the last day that the gym teacher used me as motivation for the seniors. Maybe he didn’t need to after that. I don’t know. I’m glad I was too stupid to shrink away from the challenge, more than a little bit grateful that I lived to tell this story….