Heather Wolpert-Gawron

To P.E. or not to P.E.: that is the (fitness) question

By on April 25, 2008

Today’s Sacramento Bee is reporting a new movement to promote fitness. For 500,000 unfortunate students out there in many districts, the new rule is: if you fail 5 out of 6 PE standards in 9th grade, you have to re-take PE in 10th grade.  Reading this made me flashback to my nightmare-past in all its Adidas glory.   

It’s not that I believe that students shouldn’t be fit, but many of these physically failing students wait with baited breaths (I was one too, can you tell?) for the promise of a sans-PE day.

For some of us, PE was a time of great embarrassment.  It was a time of changing in front of your peers, struggling to pull yourself up on the bar in front of your main crush, and striving to accomplish physically what others could do as if eternally brushed with pixie dust.

I remember spending weeks behind so many other students.  I wanted to learn the skills.  I liked the feeling of playing well.  But, frankly, I sucked.  I remember, to this day, that we had to run the track 2 times after suiting up in elementary school.  We would all run out of the locker area.  Some of us sprinted like Mercury’s wings blessed their travels.  Others of us ran as if we had blocks of concrete strapped to our shoes.  

One day in 5th Grade, I remember getting so embarrassed by my own lack of speed that I ran out of the locker room, looped the damn track once, and pulled in next to the two fastest kids in class.  I just wanted to know what it felt like to wait for people, rather then be the one waited for.   My coach eyed my and asked if I ran both laps.  I lied.  I just didn’t want to be the only one running while the rest of the class moved on to learning the skill of the day.  For every day I struggled to run my laps, watching the rest of the class circle up around a cone or goal further down the field while I shuffled to finish, I had to play catch up the rest of the week.  So I lied, and while I looked at him asking silently with my eyes to “please just cut me a break just one day,”  he called me out in front of Greg Frinifrock, the fastest, most skilled athlete in Mrs. Spindler’s 5th Grade homeroom.  God, how I loved Greg Frinifrock. 

In 10th Grade I remember thanking God when I got Mono and Hepatitis because I didn’t have PE for a semester.  

In 11th Grade I had a car accident and as the paramedics arrived, my parents later told me that I blearily asked, “Will I get out of PE for this?” 

OK, so clearly my hatred of PE still runs a little shallow under my skin, but I am not alone.  There are a percentage of students out there who are like me, having not had fitness modeled or not even growing up with sports in the home.  And the need to go through the horror of another year should not be hinged on the time spent in school doing physical activity when there are clearly so many other factors involved that go into what makes a successfully fit student.   

In fact, physical fitness cannot be taught in 45 minutes a day.  Actually, when you break it down, with dress up, dress down, instructions, and clean up, you’re actually dealing with 20 minutes a day.  

Fitness starts at home.  And it has to start early.  And it has to be loved.  My husband’s family always had this great rule.  The boys had to be in an after school sport every season, and no matter what they thought about the given sport, they had to finish out that one season.  But if they didn’t like that sport, they could move to something else, anything else, the next season.  Great rule.  I’m sure we’ll adopt it too.  

A lot goes into a child’s fitness level and, let’s face it, by the time they get to High School, there are skills and tendencies in place that were put there from long ago.  If you weren’t exposed to sports as a child, you weren’t going to feel at ease donning a jersey in middle school.  And by then, most people knew how to throw a ball or run the mile efficiently.  

I’m not saying it’s too late to become fit in High School, but you sure as hell aren’t going to learn it from PE teachers.  Look, I know I can’t dig into all PE teachers, but I sure can dig into those I had.  

How ’bout the coach who called Dodge Ball “Smear the Queer?”  Or then there was the one who always reminisced about how he “almost made the minors” and was “stuck here.”  

Look, maybe the teachers now have the sensitivity that they didn’t then.  And maybe they are really working on skills and not sitting on their beach chairs in the shade, listening to their iPods while the kids run the mile (again, I am only talking about the ones I have known).  And maybe they don’t leave school early, letting the students roam around campus with no supervision (true story).  And maybe they don’t watch soap operas in their office while kids are having their hair lit on fire in the locker room (true again).  I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt.

I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt because I know, logically, that these are just a few PE teachers out there giving the whole lot of them a bad name.  PE should be about fitness and nutrition.  PE, as the only required 45-minute  period other than lunch, should be involved in the philosophies of the school.  These teachers, after all, see every student every day.  

These teachers see more students daily than any Language Arts or Math teacher.  They can really set a tone in the school.  PE teachers can be an incredible resource and can give incredible insight into the other faces of our students.  But until some of them learn their students by name and stop referring to them as, “Hey, you!  Short dark kid!” I would like to hold off exposing them to the weaker and more vulnerable students for another year if at all possible.

There.  That’s it.  My therapy’s session’s over.  Maybe I can move on now.  That’ll be me, shuffling around the track.  


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