Saturday, August 16, 2014


I remember it clearly. From grade to grade, it was the established routine. The teacher announced the group game for gym class, picked two students to be captains and then instructed the rest of us to line up against a wall.

It always felt like a firing squad proceeding.

One by one, we’d be pardoned from imminent execution. Steven M., Stephen P., Kevin, Cam, Tim G., Jeff, Becky.

When the first girl’s name got called, I’d start to sweat. We were nearing that shifting point, going from optimal draft picks to making the most of The Leftovers. Still, I knew I had plenty more time to lean on the wall. If I’d wanted to say a prayer, I could have mumbled it in English and in Latin. After learning the language with a handy Rosetta Stone kit.

But my prayer was simple. Even without words—in whatever language—the message was clear. Please don’t let me be last. This time, let it be Mary Novakovic. Yes, hail Mary. This was a brutal game of survival of the unfittest. She was my only hope. I never figured out the logic over which of us got the begrudging last nod. Hell, it wasn’t even a nod. When you ended up last, no one even called your name. You just knew which team you were on by default…and by the grumbles of your “teammates.” Really, you were the enemy.

And then, when it was game on, the playbook was simple. Whatever it takes, don’t let him get the ball. Ever.

I should have been happy when my grade nine P.E. teacher introduced an individual sport. No more letting the team down. But wrestling? Really?! That was worse. As we’d practice with a partner on mats spread around the gym, I’d always get the guy who wasn’t quick enough to find someone—anyone!—else. “Don’t you dare touch me, faggot.” He never attempted to whisper, but the teacher never seemed to hear. And then, after an awkward thirty minutes of being repeatedly pinned to the mat, the teacher would call us all to gather around a center mat for impromptu wrestling matches, viewed by all. Watch how fast the wimp surrenders. I was the unwilling participant in a comedy routine. Unbeknownst to me, I was a master at physical comedy, feebly flailing about for all but a few seconds. Snickers all around. If I had even a shred of masculinity in me, I was stripped of it then and there.

When my family moved to Texas at the start of tenth grade, I knew the misery would somehow increase. Football ruled. And I always found the ball too large for my hand. I didn’t like stretching my palm so much. I always felt like the football had a glaring design defect, but no one else seemed to notice. Somehow I stumbled upon the swim team and, though I was clearly among the worst, I never let people down as long as my coach kept me off the relays. The swim team became a place of refuge. It’s what helped me survive high school, at least until my two best friends on the team started a rumor in twelfth grade that I was gay. Mortified, I quit. They’d outed me before I’d figured things out for myself. That’s when I first thought of suicide.

I could go on and on with tortuous stories of how much my lack of athleticism shattered my self-esteem. It didn’t help that I was two years younger than my classmates, but I knew my coordination challenges were about more than age. I’d never catch up.

That’s why it astounds me to think of where I am, only a couple of month shy of fifty. I’m no jock, but I am athletic. Sort of. Now, when I swim up to one hundred minutes nonstop in lap pools, I consistently take the Fast lane. It stuns me that, as I go from city to city during my travels, I belong in the same lane. It’s not just that people in my community are freakishly slow swimmers with an affinity for the dog paddle. I am a swimmer.

I’m also a runner. All summer, as I ran in groups, I always finished first. I’d run the six miles at a comfortable pace, plenty sweaty but never out of breath and never sore (other than the pesky foot blisters that grew so large I named them. Ernie. Howard. Clarence was particularly menacing). I’d finish several minutes ahead of the next runner. Minutes! Ample time to cool off and take in the ocean views before dinner.

I no longer have to give myself pep talks before going to an out of town gym. Wimps have just as much of a right to use the gym. Even greater. You need it. Who cares if you have to share your weights with women. (Say, is that Mary Novakovic?!) I’ve made progress. I am not one of those steroid oddities with puffy muscles who sounds like he’s giving birth as he lets a monstrously weighted barbell crash to the floor. I don’t think I have the right demeanor to be a barbarian anyway. But I do find myself regularly lowering the weight pin when I hop on a machine after another guy. And I don’t gravitate to the low-lit corner of the weight room to complete a set of bicep curls. If I peek in the mirror, I can even see a bicep muscle finally adhering my plea: come out, come out, wherever you are. I fit because I’m fit.

I survived that prolonged humiliating boot camp known as Physical Education. Thankfully, most of us do. What amazes me is I found a way to escape the Wimpy Kid label. Without all those horrid group games and beyond the mocking scrutiny of classmates, I actually transformed my identity. The self-esteem issues have never been fully repaired, but I am athletic. I actually look forward to heading to the gym right after I post this. I won’t flee after ten minutes. Most likely, I’ll extend my workout. Tack on more ab crunches. They seem to finally make a difference.

It’s astonishing. Back in third grade when there was something about Mary and me, I’d have never imagined a day when I craved exercise, when I found it rewarding. I never thought I’d belong. Seems I faced the firing squad hundreds of times and lived to tell about it.

Remarkable, indeed.   

1 comment:

oskyldig said...

It's good that you have overcome your struggles, but in truth not being good at sports at any age is no indication of ones lack of ability, esteem, or masculinity. I was always quite good at sports and helped people along that needed it, and it was never a reflection of what I was, or what I wasn't, apart from being deceivingly athletic and a kind person.

While events as you've described would be huge at that age, in retrospect they are just moments that teach us about ourselves. Just because someone says you're something, doesn't mean you are. What you are and what you want to be is your decision and it has little to do with other people. Unless of course they are there helping you.