As we stand around the circumference of the trampoline, Mr. Gere, the Phy Ed teacher, tells us we must be vigilant spotters. We must stop anyone from popping off the canvas onto the gym floor. We must prevent a bad bounce from becoming a broken neck. I contemplate this need to be responsible for keeping each other safe. I'm growing colder. I can barely move. And the line is inching ever closer to the three-step, moveable stairway which leads up to the bouncy platform of peril. Soon I will be forced onto the trampoline to demonstrate my inability to accomplish even the simplest of skills, the seat drop.
There's barely enough bend in my knees to walk to the middle of the canvas. As I timidly attempt to create some air between my feet and the surface of the trampoline one of the boys notices my feet. "Look at her toes.They point up," he says. Another boy calls them Turkish toes and the laughter ripples around me. And they're right... my toes do point upwards. If my cotton socks were not white but golden I would fit right into the world of Aladdin or any other fairy tale about lands in the exotic East. I don't look but I can feel the boys grinning. My face flushes with embarrassment. However....
Oh what sad, male faces I witness on those days when we walk into the gym to discover a folding table set up against the back wall of the gym. It's on the back wall so the table can reach an electrical socket. And the table must be near an electrical socket so that Mr. Gere can plug in a record player. Oh, yes, on those days the boys face their own brand of torture in the gymnasium and it'scalled the Virginia Reel. They neither laugh nor swagger when we tackle the basics of square dancing. Our teacher plops a 78 record on the turntableand the boys, forced to touch (and maybe even hold hands with) girls, are miserable indeed.
Sometimes the boys are lucky. It's not the Virginia Reel on the phonograph. Instead it's a day for the the Chicken Fat Song. "Push ups, every morning. Ten times. Not just, now and then…" President Kennedy is worried that American children are getting pudgy and weak. We have extra science classes on the weekend to keep up with our Soviet enemies and we must train our bodies to be strong, too. Chicken Fat is sung by Robert Preston who played the Music Man on Broadway. I've seen him on the Ed Sullivan Show. Mr. Preston rallies us to "Go, Chicken Fat, Go" as Mr. Gere shouts at us to do push-ups and run around thegym. My sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Martell is a short, squat, matronly woman with thick ankles. While we burn off fat she stands in a corner by the door and watches.
lt's Mr. Gere who also takes us on the bus to the high school for swimming lessons. Having escaped a broken neck on the trampoline, I will now drown. I know this because I'm already familiar with the high school swimming pool. The previous summer I had signed up for swimming lessons and for several weeks had walked up to the high school with my towel and swimsuit. The instructor was a high school swimming coach.Unfortunately, I wasn't a teenage boy he could shout on to victory. I was ten and frightened. When he shouted at me to keep my face under water for the Jellyfish Float, I panicked. I hate the chlorinated water. I won't put my head into it or under that water again. Forget swimming. I don't care if I ever see a pool again. But now, here I am, forced to ride a school bus to Kelley High School with Mr. Gere and my gym class. I'm nauseated. Not just from the bus ride. That, too, but no I can already smell and taste the chlorine.
I'm amazingly lucky. When Mr. Gere realizes I'm afraid of the water he doesn't shout. He coaxes me into the water. Patiently, he convinces me I can learn to swim. I don't know how it happens. Soon I'm jumping into the pool and almost enjoying it. With his help I pass my beginner's test. By the time we finish our pool sessions I'm bold enough to swim in the deep end and able to pass the test for advanced beginners. Maybe one day I can become an intermediate swimmer. Maybe... But then I learn you have to actually dive, not merely jump, from the diving board for the intermediate test. Just thinking about it, I lose my nerve. That badge, I fear, is never to be mine. The physical education classes may have kept off the fat, but I remain a chicken.