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DECEMBER 2, 2010 8:47AM

Nazi Gym Teachers and Avoidance Strategies

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I suppose some might not consider this a “con” in the traditional sense. Nobody lost money; nobody really lost anything except me. I didn’t con people directly, just a system I didn’t want to conform to.

I had always hated gym class. It wasn’t that I hated physical activity, but I was a geek, I wasn’t good at sports, I hated the humiliation of being the last one picked for teams, I hated being called a “lily” by testosterone-poisoned gym teachers. And the closer I got to adolescence, the more intolerable it got.

Junior high school is a hard time for most teenagers; it certainly was for me. High School was like a breath of fresh air. There was a change of faces, so you had a new chance to make friends before they learned that you were unpopular and not to be associated with. And now there were enough kids who thought being arty, musical or even nerdy weren’t necessarily horrible things.

The only thing that got worse, was gym class. Our junior high gym teachers, for all their faults, were basically decent people, and when I think honestly about it, I have to admit that they did spend time encouraging me as well. It wasn’t their fault that I’d much rather be reading a book about Cambodian verb forms than playing tag football.

But high school… Kids frequently call teachers they don’t like “Nazis,” but this gym teacher came as close as any I’d had to truly earning the title. (Well, there was that physics teacher who knocked a black girl’s pencil off her desk, and when she stooped down to pick it up, lifted her dress with his crutch and made a comment about the only good n****r being a dead one. But he was fired.) This guy, on the other hand, was a museum piece, and one could only wonder what favors he had done for whom to avoid swift termination. He was unadulterated vileness, and we knew about him even in elementary school from the spray-painted swastikas that frequently appeared with his name on the outside wall of the gym. His “encouragement” to an overweight student who was doing his best in a 600-yard run was, “Move it, fatso.” He singled out a friend of mine for harassment in class because her older brother refused to join the football team. I had light gynaekomastia - i.e. breast development in adolescent boys - and it was bad enough getting comments from fellow students (how many times I prayed to be on the “shirts” team). From a teacher? No way.

And whereas in junior high, gym was three times a week, in high school I’d have to face this ass every day of the week.

A friend of mine, by the way, had faced the same situation in his high school, and I wish I could say I’d been as brave: He went straight to the counselor at the very beginning and said, flat-out, that he refused to go. When they told him, “you won’t graduate if you don’t,” he said “okay, then I won’t graduate, but I won’t put myself through that.” They eventually worked out a deal where he tutored students in math instead.

But I wasn’t nearly so self-possessed at that age, and I’d always been a person to take my own tack with a minimum of conflict, so my solution was simply to stop going. Not all at once – first I didn’t go for two weeks. When I went back, he asked where I’d been and I said I’d hurt my foot. Then I just stopped for good. For three years. I don’t know why there was never a call to my parents. The “I(ncomplete)” on my report card I explained away somehow, said it meant the class wasn’t graded or some such excuse. It was so easy that I never even worried about it.

Until a month before graduation, because I knew that Iowa state law dictated that to graduate, we had to have attended gym class every day for three years. So I went into my counselor’s office and told him the story. “You realize this is a serious situation, don’t you?” he said. Would I have been there if I didn’t know that? (To this day, I wonder if it would have even come up if I had just kept my mouth shut.)

So we went into our family doctor and explained the situation. He wrote a letter to the school basically saying that the psychological discomfort that came from the classes would outweigh any benefit I’d get from being in it. And told me that he wanted me to be able to ride my bike to West Branch and back with no problem. (I already did anyway.)

Was it a con in the true sense? Maybe not, but it was a good lesson in manipulating the system for the sake of self-preservation.


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Sorry ... that definitely sucks.

2 questions:
1) what did you do while you were skipping gym class?
2) how would you feel about any "typical" course where class-participation was a large proportion of the grade and students avoided attending because they had stage-fright or didn't want to appear scared/unprepared when called upon by the teacher?
CrazeCzar: The first and second years, mostly read in study hall. There weren't many other options. In the third year, when the class was first period, I just skipped it and went to my second period class on time. Never did figure out why I got away with that for 3 years. 2) If the teacher encouraged the kids with stage fright and worked to help them get over the other issues, then I would say the kids were missing out. If on the other hand, the teacher praised the ones with natural talent and ridiculed the kids with stage fright, then I'd say "what who the hell is this teacher blowing to keep his job?" I can think of no other class in any public school where the kind of humiliation and abuse gym teachers get away with would be tolerated. I'm not even sure they'd be tolerated today the way they were "back in the day." I didn't like gym before but I went, and part of the reason I never skipped it was that the teachers were decent human beings and did try and encourage me. But I can assure you that after just 2 weeks of the high school guy, I swore I would never set foot in a gym again.
Rated, and I wish I'd had the presence of mind to recognize truly unacceptable adult behavior at that age. But since I grew up with a parent with unacknowledged mental illness, my view of what was normal was really skewed. Unacceptable behavior happened every day at home and everybody accepted it. Good for you for figuring out how to save yourself. And well written to boot.

Where in Iowa was this? (I ask as a fellow Iowan. Sigourney, Keokuk County, where I was blessed with a truly progressive and kind sports coach and great music teachers, but rotten PE teachers.)
I was by far the weakest and least coordinated kid in my gym class and always picked last for team sports. High school gym was four years of daily attacks on my self-esteem. So like you, I hated the class - but I went. It didn't occur to me not to go. There was a guy that attended but never dressed for class, he'd always be sitting in the bleachers with whoever else had a temporary note excusing them from participation. I wonder now how he graduated. Hmmm....
@Mary-Anndroid - Well, it wasn't Keokuk! :) I wish I'd had the presence of mind to actually speak out about it. But I think a lot of people who were the brunt of this kind of attack on self-esteem often went into it with low self-esteem in the first place, and end up on the bottom of the pecking order. (And people who aren't direct recipients often don't have enough motivation to speak out.) So we tend to either just resign ourselves to it or take the self-preservation route!
Nice play, you outflanked the kraft-durch-freude-guy. The crutch guy was disgusting beyond words.
First...really well written.
Second...I've worked in and around schools enough now to know that they want students to graduate and are willing to bend and look the other way. It helps their stats.
My husband is very tall and big. HIs high school had a winning football team and the coach (and gym teacher) recognized a prize linebacker when he saw one. My husband comes from an immigrant family, had no interest in football and less knowledge. He hated it and hated the gym teacher more for non-stop harassment to join the football team and get his head bashed in on a regular basis.

When making his senior year schedule, he "forgot" to sign up for gym, taking an extra math class instead. At graduation, he marched up and collected his diploma from the principal, who shook his hand and said congratulations. He got back to his seat and looked at it. Instead of a diploma, inside the leather case it said, "missing gym credits."

In Massachusetts, at the time, you did not need to take English or Math in your senior year, but you did need to take gym.

Husband's college failed to check that he actually graduated and it wasn't until ten years later when he's applying to grad school that he suddenly wonders whether he should lie or confess. In the end, he put the HS name, but didn't fill in the graduation date. No one noticed.

Thanks to the excellent foundation in math from his HS, my husband has been in Finance all his career. He's gone from being the son of a man who arrived in the US with no money, no education, and no knowledge of football to being part of the oft-vilified rich class.

The math helped, I doubt playing football would have.
@Malysinka Exactly, the idea that graduation should be contingent on that seemed just absurd to me.
I take it you were not a jock?
@David Price
Gee David, what was your first clue? ;)
I'm with you 100% here.

I thought I had it bad in Chicago pre-7th grade when I had asthma and the gym teachers would make me dress out for class each hour even when I couldn't participate. Did they understand that it actually took me the entire hour just to change my clothes since I was wheezing and couldn't catch my breath?

But then we moved to Arizona, the land of the jocky female PE teachers. They'd order me to run laps in 115 degrees and point to their star athlete who somehow had some mild form of asthma. Just my luck.

By high school I had a medical exemption, at the beginning! Surprisingly enough, I went back in gyms once it was safe and the nutcases were gone. Ironically, I now exercise 6 days a week. Go figure.
The nutcases are gone?

Gee, I heard you had a "healthy set of lungs". But maybe that means something else.

: )

Gee, I heard you had a "healthy set of lungs". But maybe that means something else.

: )
what's so bad about being called "lily"?
:) With all due respect to people named Lily, there's a difference between being called "Lily" and "a lily!"