hands while you type.
"All right, girl scouts. It’s time to pick teams. Winchester and Harris, come down here," said Mr. Wilson. Mr. Wilson always referred to the boys in gym class as girls, girl scouts, or ladies. I think it was meant as a challenge to our pubescent masculinity, impelling us to prove ourselves as men in the big maroon gym of Belzer Middle School that was to serve as our field of battle.
Mike Harris and Carl Winchester walked down from the bleachers. They stood in front of the class preparing to pick through the assembled group of boys. They were the two best athletes in the class, one black and the other white. Only about six boys were ever chosen to serve in the relished position as team captain. The officer class was reserved for the largest, most athletic and socially adept of my fellow students. I would have loved to become a team captain, but my dreams always remained more realistic.
First and foremost, I wanted to get through the locker room and into my gym clothes without being ridiculed, punched, or attracting any unwanted attention. Second, I did not want to be picked last out of the lineup. These were simple goals, but I still had problems attaining them.
"Jones, Ray, Allen, Jameson, Cook…" as our newly anointed team captains made their selections, the group of boys sitting in the bleachers began to thin.
"Whitley, Ingle, McDonald, Bergman…" only a handful of us remained on the bleachers, I among the unfortunate few. I looked around to see who would be more offensive to the team captains’ athletic sensibilities than I. I sized up my fellow students, noting any physical or social defects that might give me that upper hand in the selection process.
Finally I was chosen, third to the last pick. Not the most dignified position, but I had at least avoided the stigma of the last pick. I happily jogged from the stands to join my new teammates. I did not even have to look back to know who the last two picks would be.
Ian Murray and Sean Starkey sat together at the top of the bleachers. They had been trying to stay as far away from the rest of the class as possible.
"Are you and your girlfriend going to pay attention or would you rather just sit up in the stands braiding each others hair?" said Mr. Wilson. Ian and Sean were talking about the Dungeons & Dragons game that occupied most of their free time. They were two of the smartest and least athletic kids in the class. I was in the advanced classes with them and shared many of the same teachers.
Ian and Sean sat in the back of every class. They did well even in the most difficult classes despite justifiably spending most of their time trying to forget that they were in middle school. They sat in the back of the class and played Dungeons & Dragons and calculator watches games or read science fiction novels. Everyone picked on them. Even people like me who also got bullied. They in turn picked on each other.
I actually had a hidden respect for Ian. Despite the consequences, he refused to conform to any social standard or request from the teachers. Mr. Wilson despised Ian for his complete lack of coordination and his audacious attempts to defend himself from Mr. Wilson’s constant attacks on his character. Mr. Wilson's affections were in direct proportion to the athletic ability of each student. I was far from being his favorite student but luckily for me, he had a much bigger target in this class.
"Are you two still making out up there? Get down here!" Mr.
Wilson always overtly suggested that Ian and Sean were homosexuals.
The boys roared with laughter every time Mr. Wilson would hurl another
insult towards Ian. Mr. Wilson was one of the most popular teachers
because many of the students loved this type of humor.
"We are all going to sit here until Murphy can hit one of these balls back over the net," said Mr. Wilson. The class groaned, and Ian looked pale.
"I’m trying to hit the ball as best I can. What do you want me to do?" said Ian in a desperate high-pitched tone. This was obviously true. You could tell from the sweat beaded across his forehead that he was fanatically trying to end this spectacle but his body would betray him every time he swatted at the ball. Mr. Wilson answered by throwing ball after ball at Ian until finally, mercifully, one of the balls flopped over the net.
I am not sure how Mr. Wilson justified his unconventional teaching methods. His public humiliations and constant derision never gave Ian or me any newfound respect for exercise. It did, however, declare to the rest of the class that it was open season on Ian anytime he had the misfortune of being caught in the locker room. It amazed me that he ever managed to get in or out of the locker room with the brutality he experienced. When the class ended, I ran to the locker room, relieved to leave Mr. Wilson and gym class behind.
The following day I reported to my gym class as usual. I sat in the gymnasium bleachers as Mr. Wilson started with his daily pep talk. Two minutes into the Vince Lombardi speech, Ian appeared from the locker room. He had a bright red mark across the side of his face and he was not wearing his gym clothes.
"Can you help me get my clothes off the top of the locker?" said Ian sheepishly in front of the class to Mr. Wilson while clutching his left cheek.
"Tell me Murray, how did you manage to get your standard issue Belzer Middle School athletic uniform on top of our lockers? Does it belong on top of the lockers?" said Mr. Wilson.
"No," replied Ian.
"Are you actively disobeying the rules and authority that the Lawrence Township school system has provided for your physical education, Murray?" said Mr. Wilson.
"No," replied Ian.
"You already have a D in this class. If you cannot get yourself in that uniform in the next five minutes, you can change that to an F and repeat the seventh grade," said Mr. Wilson
I don’t know how Ian managed to get into his uniform but he reappeared in his gym clothes five minutes later. But I knew exactly how Ian’s uniform managed to get on top of the lockers. One of Mr. Wilson’s favorite students, a football player and star athlete, pushed Ian to the shower floor as his friend grabbed the uniform and threw it on top of the lockers where it would be difficult for Ian to reach. Mr. Wilson could not be this oblivious. Muffled laughter could be heard throughout the class. I noticed that Mr. Wilson seemed to be suppressing a smile.
Despite these daily tortures, Ian and I had to do the best we could in the class. The grade was averaged right along with history, algebra and literature. It amazes me that our Indiana State educators have seen fit to count this bizarre gym curriculum that included such enlightening activities as square dancing, floor bowling, and tumbling as the academic equivalent of algebra or literature. This forced us geeks and computer science enthusiasts to take the freak show seriously.
At the end of the semester I watched as Ian argued convincingly with Mr. Wilson about his gym grade. Ian excelled in each of his advanced classes and was rewarded with A's across the board. Unfortunately, this had to be balanced with the “D” that was beside the little square box marked “physical education.” This grade was impossible to avoid as the class was based on athletic ability, not something that can be changed by effort alone.
As the winter semester began, gym classes went from bad to even worse. The square dancing part of the class was beginning. Square dancing was a unique sort of torture for us seventh graders. It lacked any dignity, and it involved the object of all seventh grade boys’ desire: seventh grade girls.
"Here come the ladies," said Mr. Wilson as a group of thirty stone-faced girls entered the boys’ gym. I am sure that they were equally thrilled with the prospect of humiliating themselves in front of us. Mr. Wilson grabbed the softball coach, Mrs. Dearson, and began demonstrating some of the dance steps that we were about to learn. Mrs. Dearson wore exactly the same uniform as Mr. Wilson, and their closely cropped hair was almost the same length. Their athletic whistles swung around their necks, sometimes intertwining suggestively as they danced to the rhythms of the Virginia Real, Dose Do and other square dancing classics.
An old record player sat at the front of the gym. I pictured the chubby overall clad musicians somewhere in the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia who picked and strummed these seventh grade physical education hits. The toothless record producer would spit out a drooling black puddle of tobacco and say to his assembled band, "That's some darn good pickin’ and a strummin’. Them middle schoolers is just gonna love that one!"
We were thankfully not permitted to choose our own dance partners. That would have required an insurmountable obstacle for those of us like Ian and myself who were undeniably socially challenged. We were assigned a girl on a rotation that forced us to dance with everyone in the class. This humanitarian policy was obviously designed to avoid the humiliation seventh graders could experience in this type of situation.
The cute or popular girls looked upon me with obvious disdain, and
I spent most of the time staring at my Timex calculator watch to avoid
eye contact. We spun around each other as Mr. Wilson called out the
next dance step. The unattractive or overweight girls received the
same treatment from the athletic boys. When I was paired with my female
social equal it was a situation of mutual disdain as we struggled to
prove to the rest of the class that we were far worthier of respect
than our dance partners.
"I need to get laid, bad," said Larry as he took off his Metallica shirt and brushed his long oily blond hair with a light blue pocket comb. Larry lived in a trailer park a few blocks from the school and only talked about two things: smoking pot and getting laid. At the time I took his comments at face value, but today I look upon them with some skepticism.
"I got some great pussy last week, it fuckin’ ruled," replied John, Larry's buddy from the Near Eastside trailer park community. I had my locker a few doors down from both John and Larry. They spent most of their time in the locker room trying to convince the rest of us of their relentless sexual conquests. John’s and Larry's wardrobes were composed exclusively of concert T-shirt from bands like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Poison. I had seen the videos of these heavy metal bands. I pictured the trailer park that John and Larry lived in to be filled with scenes that I had only experienced through these videos. A writhing platinum blond girl danced in a cage inside John's doublewide; she would throw a fishnet-covered leg around him as he pulled open the flimsy door. His remedial hard covered schoolbooks were scattered across the kitchen table as he rolled a joint and got to his favorite after school activity.
John and Larry were the instigators of the sex talk, but it spread like a brushfire amongst the cotton brief clad eleven-year-old womanizers. Each of us was quick to jump into the discussion to prove ourselves as respected members of the boy’s gym class. My own sexual experiences were non-existent. These discussions made me uncomfortable, sure that I would be exposed at any moment for my obvious virginity in a room full of such experienced eleven- and twelve-year-olds.
"Hey Mike, when was the last time you got some?" yelled John across the locker room.
"I don't know, last month," I said trying to leave the impression that I had to sort through the numerous conquests, which had become a blur in my memory because of their frequency.
"Whatever," replied Larry.
In my ninth grade year, I took a health class as decreed by the Indiana school board. Health was a required social engineering part of the Indiana State Curriculum. It involved nutrition, sex education, anti-drug and anti-smoking chapters. The gym teachers and coaches were also required to teach the health class. After a relaxing summer of computer camp, I was well rested and up to the challenge of the Indiana State Health Education curriculum. We started off with Just Say No, the Nancy Reagon-era anti-drug class. Our textbook had a diagramed grid containing each of the major drug categories, effects, and street names. The diagram covered half a century of drug abuse, as did the list of colorful street names. Bennies, poppers, reds, and yellow jackets were some of my favorites. I now know how to ask for any type of street drug by its correct name from the 40's era Harlem Renaissance to the 60's counter culture.
The classroom activities were augmented with films about the evils of drug abuse. Most of the films were produced in the late seventies. Afroed high school boys were identified as either pushers or dealers. The high school chemistry class was used as a lab for creating PCP. After the first puff on the "marijuana cigarette," it usually only took three or four weeks before the unfortunate student was screaming that they could fly from the top of the school gymnasium as a concerned football couch tried to talk them down.
The teacher issued a workbook full of homework assignments and after school projects designed to continue the learning process. The State of Indiana had a penchant for combining arts and crafts with the Just Say No campaign. Among the projects were skits about drugs, cigarettes, or alcohol abuse. My favorite projects were always the collages. I cut apart magazines and periodicals were individual letters and pictures were glued across large pieces of poster board to create insights such as "Drugs are bad for your health," "Smoking Sucks," or "Alcohol makes you Drive Drunk." Larry and John, wearing their new “Motley Crew Shout at the Devil” concert T-Shirts, made wonderful collages that they presented to the class. I wondered if the heavy metal video bimbos helped them cut out the pictures.
Our sex education class began at the end of the year, a controversial subject in any conservative Midwestern State. The Lawrence Township School Board chose Mr. Wilson to present this delicate subject to impressionable Midwestern boys.
This class unfortunately did not contain a single reference to the heavy metal video sluts, pornography, or blow jobs. What it did have was hour after hour of fallopian tubes, diagrams of testicles, and oversize plastic models of ovaries. We learned that the most protected of sexual practices invariably resulted in a wide range of STDs. We also watched several narrated films about teen pregnancy. These films were overtly designed to scare the hell out of the students. They made sex the theatrical equivalent of nuclear war with the same motto of mutually assured destruction.
The sex education classes ended after ninth grade, but I still needed the tenth grade health class to fulfill all PE requirements. This class featured information about nutrition and a bizarre offshoot of science called Kinesiology. Kinesiology is the scientific name for the study of exercise. I figured the term was coined so that gym teachers could say they were teaching something more impressive than kickball.
Mr. Wilson taught the health class. I made it through the class without incident and easily passed the simple tests. The biggest challenge was paying attention during Mr. Wilson’s extensive lectures about such enthralling topics as the fruit and vegetable food group. My attention deficit disorder personality alienated many teachers throughout middle school. Combine this with my lack of athletic ability, and I was a natural target for Mr. Wilson.
Mr. Wilson constantly chastised me for not paying attention. I tried, but I had little interest in learning about nutrition or the five basic food groups. The subject matter was simply too dull for my sensibilities and I could not help staring out the window. Before the last test, I turned around to borrow a pencil from the student behind me. I felt my desk jump two inches from the floor. Mr. Wilson recoiled and leaned over me.
"This is exactly what I am talking about. What are you going to do in life? Let me tell you something, Long. You better get it together for this class," Mr. Wilson turned my desk so that I faced the entire health class.
“I want you all to look at Long here. This is exactly the type of B.S. I’m talking about. Take a good look because if Long here doesn’t get it together pretty darn quick, the only job he is going to be able to get is as a…, as a ….” Mr. Wilson seemed lost. He could not think of any suitable insult.
“Gym Teacher,” I replied.