“Tale of Two Gym Teachers”

Thinking about competition and winning and losing, I thought back to my two very different experiences with gym teachers. Mr. Graven was my teacher throughout elementary school. Mrs. Allen ran the physical education program at my high school

For Mr. Graven sports were for fun with competition playing a minor role. All the girls in the seventh and eighth grade were on the school teams, both volleyball and softball. I was short, not particularly skilled, and pretty nearsighted. Nonetheless I played with heart in both sports. Mr. Graven used to take me out of rotation every time I got to the front row in volleyball, wisely realizing I was more likely to walk under the net than to get the ball over it. I was a pretty good batter, but a pretty mediocre fielder. Right field was perfect. At the end of the eighth grade I got a letter in recognition not of my ability but about my playing to the best of what ability I had. I didn’t feel patronized, but grateful that he had seen me.

High school athletics, run by Mrs. Allen, were a different matter. Team sports were just for boys. Gym class seemed aimed at shaping our bodies to cultural standards. We actually did one exercise where we chanted “we must, we must, we must build our bust” and another to the tune of “go you chicken fat go.” Our teacher wore a skirt and nylons and yelled at us to work harder. I learned that our bodies were unacceptable and needed improvement. Needless to say, I came to hate exercising.

As those of you who have followed me for some time realize, I eventually came to love exercise for the way it makes me feel. As I work out in my “home gym,” I often experience the same joy I felt with Mr. Graven. It is good to move with the body I have, not the one that Mrs. Allen would have approved of.

31 thoughts on ““Tale of Two Gym Teachers”

  1. When I taught elementary school, I was that oddball teacher running around playing games with the kids. We played for fun. Most times, we wouldn’t keep score because competition changes everything for kids. As kids get older, there’s plenty of time for that, and I understand it. It seems like the first question for younger kids should be, “Did you have fun?” instead of “Did you win?”

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    1. We had no extra teams such as the travel teams of today. No one spent half of their free time in organized sports as I see now. We had a lot of fun. Even my brother’s Little LEague team only played once a week.

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  2. I can’t remember any particular PE (physical education) as it’s called in NZ – however I remember something akin to baggy bloomers were had to wear with a type of blouse…along with either bare feet or sandshoes (sneakers) with nice white socks.

    most of us preferred the shoes because in the summer one of the random grass weeds had prickles which were meant just about every class, we were sitting on the ground trying to remove said prickles…

    now it seems every school has a snazzy trendy labelled PE gear…

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  3. We called gym class PE (physical education) when I was at school. The teacher was an ex-army martinet who was very cruel. He also hit us, using the end of the climbing rope, or one of our own gym shoes that he made us take off first. I hated that man so much. When I was unable to climb a rope, he made me keep trying while all the others who could climb it stood and laughed. I slid down a long way, and got bad ‘rope burns’ on my palms.
    In swimming class, us non swimmers were sat on one side, and he walked around pushing us in with his foot, seemingly delighting in watching us panic and splutter. By the time I was 14, I had started to suspect that he might be some sort of serious pervert, as he always stood and watched us shower too, claiming it was to stop us ‘fiddling with each other’. I asked my dad to complain to the school, but he said I was just being ‘soft’.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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    1. Our woman teacher watched us shower too. I only wondered in retrospect why she did that. Your dad’s response was very typical since parents never got involved with mean teachers as far as I ever knew.

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  4. I really enjoyed this post. It shows how important the right approach and understanding is in teaching. I had a similar experience in high school gym, and I know the chant all too well. Do I workout today? No.

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  5. Reading this I am reliving a scene in Mrs. Maisel with that same or a similar chant. I was lucky enough to go off to Quaker boarding school for high school where girls had sports teams and competition equal to that of the boys. Our headmaster always said that competition on the athletic field strengthened character and competition in the classroom or the dining hall weakened it. I like that idea that there is a time and a place for competition and one should know the difference.

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