Let’s talk about gym class here for a minute.
I wasn’t a particularly fat kid, but I was always slightly larger than average. I was heavier, and a little taller, than most of the kids my age (until they caught up with me, height-wise, later on — then I was just heavier.)
And though I’m a naturally pretty strong person (HULK SMASH), and have always had a freakish ability to do sit-ups, I have never been athletically gifted. There are lots of reasons for that, biomechanically and personally, but I’ll just leave it at that to avoid the million-word rant on growing up a flat-footed, bookish girl in contemporary America.
Nevertheless, the memories of my childhood are filled with movement, with gleeful sweat and breathlessness. I was terrified to learn to ride my first bike, but I did it, damnit, because there is pretty much nothing better than the feeling of being on two wheels, of that flexible, dynamic balance that depends entirely on speed.
Before we were old enough to know better, my girlfriends and I spent large chunks of our adolescence doing insane things on bicycles. Unfinished construction sites, vacant lots, empty meadows, random kid-created trails through the forest tracing the precipices of ravines that would’ve made our parents faint if they’d known what we were up to — that’s where we spent our time as girls, just average girls, none of us particularly athletic — on mountain bikes in Oregon.
Then there were the summers spent in pools, developing underwater sunburns, learning to hold our breath for a solid two minutes, sinking to the bottom of the pool and screaming to each other in a cataclysm of bubbles. My dad would hide quarters on the bottom of the pool, and this chubby, short-sighted kid would surface dive eight or ten feet to retrieve them, sans glasses or goggles, with absolutely no problem at all.
And then there was the issue of gym class.
It started off well enough, in elementary school, when it was just glorified indoor recess, with floor hockey sticks, pillow-soft dodgeballs, and the occasional “slightly irregular but for-reals” parachute donated for the purpose of making little kids pee themselves with joy — and, once a year, the climbing rope that only one strangely monkeyish kid would ever be able to climb. (Thank you, Mr. Jukkala, for the memories.)
At the end of the school year, we’d have a field day, where everyone ran in goofy obstacle courses and sack races, just for the excellent ridiculous fun of it, and — God’s honest truth — I even once did a charity run when I was ten, because I had two secret weapons: Fleetwood Mac on my dad’s cassette Walkman, and I skipped the entire way. Because I sucked at running even then.
In short, I had a pretty happily active childhood, despite being the unathletic and slightly fat child of two decidedly unathletic and slightly fat parents. Until gym class became a “thing,” that is. A graded, micromanaged academic requirement, starting in junior high — unhappily coinciding with the absolute social, emotional, and physical nadir of human existence. Or at least of mine.
If you want to destroy all the inherent joy in something, slap a grade on it. Go ahead; I’ll wait. Put a grade on your bleary, early-morning coffee-making skills, or set a number of minutes of daily television-watching required to achieve aptitude, or hell, challenge yourself to finish peeing in record time, and watch as the fun (or even the absolute neutrality) of these things is eroded, little by little, until it becomes a chore to drink coffee, watch TV, or take a leak.
Then compare how well you do on those chores compared to your peers, and watch your self-respect begin to circle down that little, demoralizing drain shaped like a “C” — a statistically average mark — written in red ink.
Now, this isn’t something I’ve made up for the benefit of a bunch of lazy icky fatties who want an excuse to feel like they’re not total losers. It’s a phenomenon confirmed by behavioural research — and one of many reasons why I have mixed feelings about school in general, though I’m naturally a good student.
But it’s one thing to destroy the intrinsic joy of doing, say, a set of math problems or memorizing the names of the presidents of the United States — and if a kid has a good enough teacher, or naturally enjoys a subject enough, they might even make it through school without having their spirit crushed in a particular topic.
It is another thing entirely to interfere with a person’s joy in one of the basic requirements of biological life.
When you put a hamster in a cage, you’re preparing to give it a pretty bare-bones existence. And what do you provide it? Food, of course, and definitely water. A place to poop and a place to sleep. And a hamster wheel.
It’s considered cruel to keep a dog tethered to one spot without a place to run, or cooped up in a tiny apartment unless the owner is really dedicated to going on walks. Even my cats, the most indolent creatures ever to occupy the earth, need strings and foam balls and random, crumpled up pieces of paper to bat inconveniently beneath furniture. They sleep, eat, and poop for twenty-three-and-a-half hours of the day…but for the remaining thirty minutes? They are tearing it up like it is their mission in life.
Animals need movement, and even have an appetite for it, just as they do food and sleep. Also, humans are animals. We need to move. All of us — even those of us who are not physically gifted. But, just as with eating, external pressures and expectations get in the way of our ability to negotiate this very primal urge.
People say we need gym class because OMGCHILDHOODOBESITY!!! People say that this generation of children is hopelessly addicted to screens of every variety, that they will be the first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
People, in short, say a lot of stupid things.
You want to help fat kids move? Help them enjoy moving. Help all kids to enjoy moving. And how do you do that? Well, I can tell you how you don’t — by throwing a bunch of them together like army recruits to do bootcamp calisthenics, and then give them mostly-arbitrary grades for it.
Just like with eating, helping kids to move well requires a division of responsibility — which, strangely enough, is pretty much what happens when you turn kids loose on a playground: the adults choose when and where and what to make available, and the kids take it from there. They get to decide how much, and whether, and which. And, unless you’re a disgusting misanthrope, you’ll trust the kids to work to their own level, to their own strengths and capacities.
You won’t interfere, you won’t get heavy-handed, you won’t suck all the natural joy out of it. And you’ll leave the red pen in the classroom.