Respect teachers, even those who make you sweat

Respect teachers, even those who make you sweat

There’s an old saying that goes, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; and those who can’t teach, teach gym.”

That’s pretty harsh.

No one wants to see his or her profession dismissed as a joke, though as a journalist for more than 40 years, I’m used to that kind of canard.

All you can do in the face of that kind of snarky cynicism is point out the obvious: Any politician hanging his MAGA hat on the “fake news” peg, crowing about the press being an “enemy of the people,” is doomed to reap the bitter harvest of retribution.

There’s another old saying that goes, “Don’t pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the gallon.”

But to get back to physical education, which is the subject of this week’s essay, it’s possibly the most misunderstood of all junior high classes, at least in my case.

Half a century ago, I was part of the public school system after having spent my formative years in the protective cocoon of the Catholic way of doing things. In it, I felt insulated, inured, utterly invulnerable to the roughhouse rigors of Protestant methodology.

It wasn’t that the parochial way of doing things was any less physical. I’d been through enough playground battles to pit my scars, both real and metaphoric, against anyone else’s.

Take, for instance, the downhill slope that abutted the convent.

That stretch of asphalt, when coated with ice and a dusting of snow, promised glory to those who could navigate it — in hard-soled shoes, no less — and utter ignominy to those who couldn’t.

You’re probably thinking, “If it was so dangerous, why was it allowed?” And you’d be right to ask, but as any guy who lived through it could tell you, part of the fun was breaking the rules.

Remember that scene in “A Christmas Story,” the one that involved putting your tongue on a frozen flagpole?

That’s what I’m talking about.

You had to challenge authority, even when you knew it was stupid.

The nuns made it quite clear that anyone caught taking a running start, sliding down that hill, taking flight and landing perfectly would be punished.

I guess that’s why the line stretched all the way to the cafeteria.

Who could resist that kind of dare?

It’d be like refusing to buy “Louie, Louie” because some adults said it was obscene or not seeing “The Graduate” because Dustin Hoffman’s use of the crucifix was deemed sacrilegious.

One way to make sure something becomes popular is to ban it.

And the Catholic Church was very much into that kind of thing. Priests railed against the music, the movies, the books, the TV shows that we liked, thinking, probably, that we’d heed their words.

Well, no, that’s not what happened. We knew it made no sense, so we rebelled against authority in its most reverent form.

And that’s what made phys ed so confusing to me. After all, why would I be scheduled to have gym class right after biology?

In the second period of the morning?

Seen through the public school system’s eyes, there was nothing outhouse-rat crazy about making a guy get out of bed, shower before school, learn how to dissect a frog before subjecting him to all kinds of sweat-inducing activities, making him shower again.

No one needed to be that clean.

So I rebelled, again.

But the lesson I learned from that act of scholastic disobedience was twofold: First, puberty, for a ninth-grader, was a non-negotiable fact of life, and second, no one, especially girls, wanted to be anywhere near you when you stank like sweaty socks.

So I adjusted my priorities. Three times a week I simply slept in, eschewing my date with Prell shampoo and Dial soap, delaying my morning ablutions until I’d shinnied up a rope or played battle ball or done as many pull-ups as my 98-pound frame could muster.

I wasn’t happy doing all that private stuff in public, but that’s what gym was all about. You had to swallow your humiliation in order to survive. Already an outsider owing to my religion, I was determined to fit in, even if it meant being the worst wrestler in class.

At this point, mention must be made of the phys-ed teachers who, taken collectively, were adherents of the “I was just following orders” excuse that doomed so many during the Nuremburg trials.

They were intent on breaking your spirit, to demeaning you in front of your peers, to taking the term “Neanderthal” to such a level that it would shame even cavemen. In ninth grade, had I the means, I’d have doomed them to Dante’s seventh circle of hell.

But what did I expect, really?

It could easily have been worse. Freshman lore was replete with tales of brazen cruelty that I never experienced, and the only time I was subjected to physical abuse was because I’d willingly earned it.

“Which one of you played basketball in hard-soled shoes?” the teacher barked. “Who made all them marks on the floor?”

Like there was any question.

So I took my whacks, scrubbed away the evidence of my rebellion, showered quickly and returned to the hallways of education, where my next stop was French class. There I learned to conjugate verbs, match masculine and feminine nouns with their proper antecedents, and always wore my Chuck Taylor high-tops.

Was I a problem in the public school pipeline? Probably, but in my defense I never sought a nurse’s excuse to skip gym class, which others did on a regular basis. I took every pulled muscle, neck spasm, jammed digit, swollen joint and visible bruise as easy A’s.

Because in the final analysis, I learned a valuable lesson.

Sometimes life asks you to step outside your comfort zone, to confront what waits behind a closed door, to make the best of a bad situation. In short you do your best to survive and then walk on.

I’m of the opinion human beings can get used to anything, that we’re vested with reservoirs of strength and tolerance that defy easy explanation, and that in the end we can all take a nice shower.

Gym class wasn’t the worst thing that ever happened to me, and I’m still sort of proud of that one pull-up I managed when I was 14.

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