“Miss Kerner! Where. Are. Your. Sneakers?”
About that. Apparently I had developed a persistent mental block about Tuesday being Gym Day. Until Tuesday. At gym.
By now the entire class had turned, anxious to hear what brilliant excuse this straight-A student might have that could possibly be recycled for their own personal use. My cheeks grew red and hot. I stared down at my Stride-Rite brown patent leather shoes where my self-loathing was just starting to sprout.
Good Lord, my feet are so long the tips curve upward like skis!
“Ms. Kerner!” I looked up from my Salomons. Ms. Militia was apparently eager to get on with her masochistic agenda. “Go get a pair from the box, and hurry up about it!” she roared. She then turned to the class, her eyes filled with…was that hatred? “We will be playing Dodge Ball today. Line up against the wall! Now!”
Great game. Flimsy, frightened children scattering in terror, trying to escape a spherical missile sent into a search-and-destroy trajectory by strapping, self-assured, junior commandos whose sole intention is to strike them dead.
I mean, out.
Predictably, the two most popular kids in class would volunteer to be captains and stand before the rest of us, evaluating each potential teammate for sport-worthiness. Of course, the first selected was always The Best Friend, followed by The Incredibly Fast and Confident, hands waving wildly.
“Ooh, pick me, pick me! I am so good!”
To this very day, I have never been so certain about even the pronunciation of my own name.
At some point, the captains would be stumped into a pensive silence. How to choose between the fat kid, the kid with his own personal aide, and the scaredy-pants-can’t-even-catch-a-ball-if her-life-depended-on-it kid? I, being of the latter, highly distinguished category, would stand and gnaw nervously at the inside of my cheek, praying that maybe I would only be second to last choice this time.
This scene played out time and time again throughout elementary, middle and high school. On one such occasion in the tenth grade, the captains actually finished making their selections and started playing the game. There I stood in my yellow ochre, name-embroidered gym-suit, trying to will the oak floorboards to part and suck me down into the bowels of the school basement. I recall the deafening, blurry buzz of the game before me, as though I were somehow just a spectator in someone else’s nightmare. Just as I was contemplating the possibility that my sudden bout of nausea might be enough to get me excused from class, the whistle blew, the earth shook, and the gym teacher pointed to me.
“There’s still one more person that hasn’t been picked! Who wants her?” she offered dispassionately, like a final scoop of mashed potatoes scraped up from the bottom of the bowl and half-heartedly presented while suspended above the garbage can.
Right. As anticipated, there were no takers for the leftovers. She assigned me to a team, already handicapped by Fat Boy (who was now heaving sighs of contempt at me, as if I had ruined his chances for making the Olympic volleyball team). I volunteered to be designated ball-getter and stood outside the foul lines until the conclusion of the game. And so it went, week after week, year after year, standing on the sidelines like an odd, useless item at a garage sale; the kind you give away free with the last purchase so you can just get on with it.
By most accounts, I looked like a normal kid. But something about the way my face flushed when I stepped onto a highly polyurethaned floor; the way my lip quivered as I headed out to the hot, black asphalt, gave me away every time. I like to think I was maybe allergic. But pretty much every other school kid thought I was just clueless when it came to, oh, everything they held sacred and dear. I could see their disdain by the way they smacked themselves in the head and looked to the Almighty for assistance when I passed off a basketball like a hot potato--to the other team. Other kids had clearly been pre-packaged with rules and special equipment for at least three sports. I, on the other hand, was a rather stripped down model with a modest grasp of activities like jump rope (and I am not talking fancy Double Dutch here) and hopscotch, which involved bold extravagances such as a rope, a rock, and a discarded nub of chalk.
I dodged recreational play like shrapnel. It was actually my best event. As a result, by the end of elementary school I was not only ignorant to the rules of every schoolyard game, but also lacked an apparently critical skill set. Certain tasks completely eluded me like how to keep my eyes open when a meteor sheathed in a red rubber disguise was rocketing toward my face. And what’s with all this rope climbing business? When exactly would proficiency in such a task become essential? Should I be so misfortunate as to plummet into some previously undiscovered crevasse in suburban New Jersey, would my only chance for salvation really be to shimmy up a three inch thick rope while onlookers shouted helpful tips like, “Come on already!” and “Ah-ha-ha-ha, I see London, I see France, I see Loren’s underpants!”?
There also seemed to be a limitless demand for participation in grossly undignified activities, as though there was some unspoken inherent value in utter humiliation. What, for instance, might one hope to gain from imitating the walks of various crustaceans and forest animals? The Crab Walk would apparently keep me in tip top condition should there be a necessity for underwater travel, like maybe A Little Mermaid scenario? And of course, the staple of the gym class “warm-up” and prerequisite of all civilized life, the Bear Walk, would be useful should I become one of those animal trainers that return endangered zoo animals to their natural habitat through modeling techniques. If, on the other hand, my career path does not take me through the rain forest, how will lumbering around on all fours, my hind quarters thrashing wildly about like a U-Haul crossing over the railroad tracks, prepare me for life?
I will tell you what it prepared me for: bench warming. Slowly but surely, like an insidious cancer, I became infected with the crippling idea that I should stay in the stands rather than play on the court. I created a story of epic proportion that explained my reasons for not participating in sports, and often, in life. Chapter one was about how I did not want to look like a fool or let other people know that I didn’t know what I was doing. Chapters 2 through 99 were about all the reasons I had to justify my not playing. In the end, my story was all about loneliness and growing disdain for my wobbly U-Haul.
They say a first draft is crap. Fortunately, I went off to college and rewrote the book.
This was an era of movers and shakers. Olivia Newton John was singing, Let’s Get Physical, and Jane Fonda encouraged us to “feel the burn.” I signed up for an aerobic class given in my dorm. Dancenergy!, it was called. That’s dance, with energy and exclamation, and not a hint of crab or bear.
After four months, the instructor, Kitty, who was every bit as cute and tan as her name implies, approached me after class and encouraged me to come to an audition for new instructors. Imagine that, me, a first round draft pick! No one here at school knew my old story. And since I had written it, I figured it was my prerogative to edit it. Heavily.
I lined up with the others auditioners and on cue, attempted to replicate a rapid succession of combat moves with jazz-hands, shaking my groove thing, albeit often involuntarily, and trying to pretend to be someone else. Specifically, I was masquerading as my skinny, popular, cheerleading sister who would have probably picked me second to last had she been captain.
When my name was called at the end of the audition, I could hardly suppress my urge to turn myself in as an imposter. I had been summoned from the stands to come suit up, but surely when I got out on the court it would be abundantly clear that I did not fit in my sneakers.
The first class I ever taught was a corporate fitness program for Avon. I wheeled in my record player and collection of 45’s, looking every bit the part in my new pink and blue striped leotard with matching belt, leg warmers, and headband. Nervously, I set the needle down on Diana Ross’s I’m Coming Out and immediately wished I wasn’t.
“The time has come for me to break out of the shell; I have to shout that I am coming out…”
For the love of God, Diana, shhhh…they are going to find me out!
Forty women eyed me intently. This Lycra wasn’t hiding anything. I surveyed the room to determine which of them was about to take me down for impersonation of an athlete.
But here’s the thing. As I scoured their flushed, tentative faces I realized that they were actually looking to me for guidance. Some may even have found it. And that’s when I first got it. I had finally stepped away from the wall and onto center court where I made up my own game, called the shots, empowered myself, and inspired others.
33 years later, I still teach exercise classes, though I begrudgingly had to give up the leg warmers. My friends, family and students think of me as an athlete. On a good day, with the lighting just so and a particular kind of squinting, I even see one in the mirror. And though I never did master rope climbing or find a socially appropriate place to perform the Bear Walk, I have closed the book on an old story. Free from the sidelines, I can be in the game of what’s possible rather than a spectator of what’s not.
Man, I just love new sneakers--
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