Bellwarians React: Is P.E. Class Terrible?

Last week, Atlantic staff writer Alia Wong lifted the lid on the often-satirized state of physical education. Despite all the gym class parodies, Wong points to a real problem: sometimes gym class is so bad that kids skip school to avoid it.

So I asked our team: what are some of your most salient P.E. memories? (As a place that champions ideological diversity and doesn’t take organizational positions, Bellwether encourages staff to share — and to disagree.)

Here are a few quick takes from across the Bellwether team:

Alyssa Schwenk, director of development:

P.E. at my high school was designed as a student-herder: you basically got dropped into whatever class worked with the rest of your schedule. One-seventh of the school was in P.E. at any given period, and this meant that a.) it was an enormous group of kids, and b.) you were probably friends with very, very few of them. It was democratizing and bewildering and generally barely tolerated.

Once all 200 kids were in the gym complex, you selected a couple of sub-units for the semester, like yoga, volleyball, or Billy Blanks videos. At some point I selected “aerobic activity,” which consisted of lapping the indoor track and keeping your heart rate above a certain level. But the heart-rate monitors were calibrated based on your age and weight, not fitness levels…and I was on the swim team. And had been since I was seven.

So while the true purpose of signing up was to walk and talk with the people you knew, I suddenly realized I would need to be running sub-eight minute miles for forty minutes every other day to pass. I hated running then (like, really hated running) but was simultaneously terrified that I would get a C in gym and wreck my GPA, therefore ruining any and all chances at getting into college.

Eventually I managed to wheedle and cajole enough that I was allowed to participate without the heart-rate monitor, and everyone involved agreed that I was getting “aerobic activity” via swimming three hours a day after school. GPA disaster averted.

Lynne Graziano, analyst:

I’m from a different era where we still did square dancing in middle school (you read that right…), including having to pick a partner/get picked as a partner. In fairness, we alternated who made the selections, but as the quiet nerdy one, it did not go well.

And I actually LOVED dodgeball because those of us who were not cool — relatively quiet, and often bullied — got to aim for our persecutors with impunity. It was one of the few times I felt empowered and strong.

Finally, I have worn glasses forever it seems. I got hard contact lenses in middle school and shortly thereafter got hit square in the eye by a hockey puck. I was sure I would be blinded forever, but fortunately, despite a little swelling and a trip to the eye doctor, I survived and continued to wear contacts (and hide during hockey).

By the time my kids went through school, the main component of P.E. was “dressing out,” that is, if you were ready to be physically active (i.e., dressed in a weather-appropriate outfit for outdoor activities), you could get an A.

Tanya Paperny, managing editor:

I’ve worn eye glasses since age five (and have never worn contact lenses), so P.E. class was always the time I worried about getting hit in the face with a (dodge/volley/tennis/squash) ball and having my glasses break, rendering me largely sight-less for the rest of the day. I’d mostly cower in the corner for team sports.

My middle school didn’t have a gym so we’d run around the block a bunch of times for P.E. We’d pick up the pace when we passed the teacher and immediately start to walk once we turned the corner. We got good at faking breathlessness.

I recall my first P.E. class of ninth grade. I was the new kid at a K-12 school so most everyone already knew each other and the rules. I showed up wearing something the teacher deemed inappropriate. I had to ask my mom to buy special workout pants and felt embarrassed asking her to spend money on something I’d only wear for a few hours a week.

Hailly Korman, senior associate partner:

Having gone to a performing arts school in Hawaii, I feel very lucky that I was able to meet most of my P.E. requirements through a combination of dance classes and lifeguarding certification. Much like Tanya, I have a deeply emotional memory of showing up to an elementary school P.E. class in the wrong clothes. My mum had bought a cheaper gray t-shirt and green shorts instead of the school branded ones. I was technically following the rules, but I look back on that moment when I think about how small indicators of belonging can make such a difference for kids.

Starr Aaron, executive & business systems assistant:

High school P.E., which lasted only one semester and was for 9th graders, was terrible for me. I went to a nerdy school, and it felt like the coaches enjoyed picking on those of us who weren’t into athletics. I remember failing a basketball test — both the skills and the rules test (which was true/false and very tricky). I had never played basketball outside of the game H.O.R.S.E. Plus the coach called me “Red,” and it wasn’t endearing in the slightest. I was so grateful to get the class over with and never have to do it again! Man, just remembering this stuff makes me want to call my therapist. 🙂

On a more positive note, my children have had great experiences with elementary P.E. They all agree it’s a ton of fun and wish it were an everyday class.

Jennifer Schiess, senior associate partner:

I didn’t love P.E., but we actually had pretty good P.E. classes all the way through high school in my school system. We learned games and sports to the point that you at least understood basic rules and had some facility such that if you were invited to play volleyball at a cookout, for example, you would understand what that was supposed to look like. I never viewed it as particularly necessary, but now that I am a parent of at least one child who has to move his body on the regular in order to concentrate on anything, I see so much value in both giving kids the time to move and providing some instruction in social games that could promote inclusion down the line.

One of my sons is legitimately worried about going to middle school next year where they only take P.E. one semester each year, and there’s no recess. He told me the other day that he’s not sure how he’s “going to get his energy out.”