I was traumatized by gym class

September 13, 2013 14 Comments »
I was traumatized by gym class

A while ago my colleagues and I were discussing how physical education – PE – classes are disappearing from the curriculum but many parents don’t seem to care. Given that we all know how important physical activity is for kids we didn’t know why that would be. Then it hit me. Maybe a lot of people’s experience in gym class was as terrible as mine.

I barely remember my PE classes from when I was in elementary school. If I squeeze my eyes shut and focus really hard I can summon the image of hurling and dodging balls. I vaguely remember games of Red Rover and the uncomfortable feeling of waiting to be chosen as captains picked teams.

Gym class was not a priority at the private parochial school I attended from kindergarten to Grade 6 and the words “movement skill development” would have caused brows to furrow and shoulders to shrug.

For Grades 7 and 8 I moved into the public school system. It was the early ‘80s and as I’ve written about before the sports bra had not yet been invented. For girls like me, that was a major obstacle to getting involved in anything physically active.

We had to wear green gym shorts and white t-shirts with the school crest on them. We had to climb ropes. We had to go for long runs in the ravine beside the school and excuses were not tolerated.

Maybe worst of all we were expected to shower with our classmates. I can’t be alone in thinking that for a 13-year-old girl this was the most horrifying of all possible scenarios?

My mom, also somewhat of a “non-sporty mom”, wrote me notes to get me out of this nightmare once a month. And when she didn’t, I sometimes forged my own.

One day I arrived for gym class with my note explaining why I could not participate. It was signed by my “mother”. There were at least two classes of Grade 8 girls sitting on the side of the hill when I boldly presented my note. The PE teacher, who had a very Sue Sylvester-esque vibe, asked me why my mother’s signature looked so messy.

What I said next might be the finest example of just how stupid I was when I was 13: “It’s messy because she signed it while she was driving.”

My classmates giggled nervously. I thought maybe I had pushed things too far but wasn’t at all prepared for what happened next. The teacher grabbed my ear and dragged me all the way up the trillions of stairs, through the miles of hallways, and into the principal’s office. I am not making this up.

That’s where my memories from junior high gym class end.

The next year I went to the first day of Grade 9 gym with a positive outlook, high hopes, and good intentions. But all I ended up developing was the habit of hiding in the girls’ bathroom for the duration of the class.

When my guidance counsellor called a meeting between me and the gym teacher later that year, I remember the teacher looking at me and saying, “I wouldn’t know this girl was in my class if I hit her with my car.”

In the end, the school let me substitute art class for PE, but guess what? Being able to draw and paint (and I’m no Picasso) really don’t come in handy when you are being asked to play baseball with friends or colleagues. You can’t say, well I don’t know how to throw or catch but you should see my stipple technique!

By the way, they also let me substitute drama for French and the same thing applies here (although I can act French, it’s never helped me give a cab driver directions when I’ve visited Paris).

I was traumatized by gym class. I was traumatized by the curriculum. I was traumatized by the teachers. And I know I was an extreme case, but I can’t be the only one who felt this way.

And maybe  that’s why it can be difficult to get really fired up when we hear that in our children’s schools the gym teachers are disappearing. We know, intellectually, that kids need proper PE and lots of time for physical activity in their day but maybe  a little voice in our head is saying, “Good, I don’t want my kid to go through the horror/shame/pain that I went through.”

Fellow survivors of the ‘80s physical education system, I am here to tell you that gym class really has changed. There is a new breed of teachers who are compassionate, passionate, and dedicated to our children. They are teaching our kids fundamental movement skills through fun games and activities.

Join me in putting our past behind us and embracing today’s approach to physical education that actually serves all kids and not just the ones that can shimmy up a rope, run cross country, or sink a basket.

If your child’s school isn’t taking this approach maybe it’s time to get fired up and fight for it.

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  1. Rainbow May 8, 2017 at 1:21 pm - Reply

    I was pretty traumatized by PE class too, I remember eventually I refused to take part because I’d be physically ill with anxiety before the class and often had to leave the room. This only improved when I stopped going to the class. Our teacher literally ignored any students who weren’t good at sports, and was probably glad to get me out of her class so noone tried to make me go back. I think that PE classes really need to change or they risk putting young people off exercise for life.

  2. Rainbow May 8, 2017 at 12:57 pm - Reply

    I hated PE class despite being very active and not at all lazy as a kid. The teachers made it as miserable as possible, and all it succeeded in doing was making me hate all sports and believe I was hopeless at all physical activity for years. I’d had enough by the age of about 14 or 15 when I refused to take part again.

  3. Christine February 8, 2017 at 11:55 am - Reply

    I went to high school between 2008-2012 trust me its still horrible. I dont know how horrible it is back in 80s, maybe its better than then, but it was still traumatizing enough for me.

    I am not as fast, strong or athletic as normal people. If you ever wondered who is in that 99th percentile in the athletics chart, that would be me. People are generally nice and supportive when it comes to mental retardation, but people have a lack of understanding for people with (what i call)physical retardation. When a girl with no visible disability can only run one lap around the park while other girls run three, teachers dont understand that. They think ur being lazy and not trying ‘hard enough’. They dont and wont try to understand why I have to stop so often and breathe and walk instead of run (why? Cus i would fall dead if I kept running!) They dont understand why my chest in so much pain after running up and down the stairs and my face is red and im about to die when other girls are perfectly fine. Because as long as you dont have visible disability, you are bound to have the SAME physical ability as everyone else and u wont be understood for falling outside of “normal physical abilities” zone! My middle school teacher actually sent me to doctor to get a physical examination because I couldnt run fast or for long enough (I dont have a single problem with my health!) I guess It never occurred to her that some ppl are just naturally born with below ‘normal’ cardio-vascular strength.

    When it comes to intellectual/cognitive abilities, teachers very well understand that some kids are not as good as others and some will fall behind. How come when it comes to physical abilities, teachers wont understand some kids cant be as good as others and that they are just born that way!

    Enough with teachers lets talk about fellow students and classmates. How come its not ok to laugh at a cognitively dumb kid but ITS OK to laugh at a physically dumb kid!!?! They would get angry if I laughed at them in a math class, what makes them think its ok to laugh at me in a PE class? Why do I have to be ridiculed and laughed at for something that is not even my fault? Its not my fault I was born this way. How come its rude to laugh at stupid, fat, ugly, poor people but its acceptable to laugh at a physically retarded person?? If you laugh at a mentally retarded ppl, you are mean, but if you laugh at a physically retarded person, oh thats just a friendly laugh!

    [Editor’s note: this comment was edited to remove language that does not meet our standards.]

  4. Ettina November 29, 2016 at 2:55 pm - Reply

    I think abolishing gym class would actually improve the fitness of many kids. Kids like being active until they’re taught to associate it with humiliation. My brother used to love soccer and was decently good at it, until his gym teacher started picking on him for not running fast enough. Within a short while he’d quit soccer, quit karate (which we’d just barely convinced him to start) and was spending his time at home playing video games. And now he’s overweight and can barely walk a couple blocks without needing to stop several times. If he hadn’t had gym class, I’m convinced he’d still be in soccer and/or karate.
    So good riddance. If the schools can’t figure out how to teach it right, they shouldn’t teach it at all.

    • Blaine Kyllo
      Blaine Kyllo November 30, 2016 at 5:41 am - Reply

      I don’t think getting rid of gym class is going to solve problems like this, Ettina. I do think we need to have PE specialists teaching that class, though. We don’t have math specialists teaching French language arts, why do we have them teaching gym?

  5. john September 21, 2016 at 11:33 am - Reply

    I was in middle school and junior high in the early 1980s and the I remember the first time we were forced to shower naked. It was 6th grade camp. This was the first time I had seen a communal shower and I was mortified at the thought of showering naked with classmates so I went in with my underwear on. Our male teachers stood by the entrance to the communal shower hall with a water hose and I got squirted by my teacher with the hose for not being naked and he made me take off my underwear to shower nude. It was very uncomfortable. Then from 7th grade onwards we had to shower after gym class and our gym teacher would sit outside of the communal showers and make notes on who showered and who did not. You dropped a letter grade if you missed 3 showers. I was still very uncomfortable showering in 7th grade but eventually got used to it and now don’t think much of it. Its such delicate age when ones body is changing and it can be intimidating to be in a forced situation like I was. I am glad this practice has been discontinued in our schools.

    • Sara Smeaton
      Sara Smeaton September 22, 2016 at 6:49 am - Reply

      Squirted with a hose!? Talk about traumatizing. Sorry that happened to you, John.

  6. Heather September 11, 2016 at 10:31 pm - Reply

    Thank you Sara. I too am sorry for what you had to go through.

    On the showering topic… Do you think that you could have asked your mother to have spoken with the teacher about the showers in general? I saw that your mother would write you notes for your time of the month. Do you think that your mother could have told the school that you did not want to shower in gym class at all?

    I know that one of my friends back in junior high had her father go to the school to get her out of showering. After that another one of our friends tried to get her mother to get her out of showering, but her mom told her that there was nothing wrong with her showering in gym since it was only in front of other girls, and that she wouldn’t speak to the school about it.

    I wonder if schools still require showering in gym class? My junior high and high school were in the same building. We didn’t go to any of the same classes as the high school kids did. But they always had one of the high school girls assist our gym teacher, and those high school girls were used as shower monitors who would report anyone who tried to skip out on showering.

    In high school we were still required to shower, but no one really enforced it. Most of us still did shower simply because we were used to it from junior high.

  7. Heather September 11, 2016 at 4:17 pm - Reply

    I was traumatized by gym class but the showers had nothing to do with it. The locker room time was by far the least traumatizing part of gym class. Having to wear a tight gym uniform in front of boys was way more embarrassing than showering in front of other girls. Also I was possibly the least athletic girl in the gym classes, and most of the other kids would laugh at me when I would mess up.

    • Sara Smeaton
      Sara Smeaton September 11, 2016 at 4:38 pm - Reply

      I’m so sorry that happened to you, Heather. Thanks for sharing your story.

  8. Bruce September 7, 2016 at 12:25 pm - Reply

    I always hated PE in Elementary School, but in middle school I learned to love PE!
    I also learned to love sports.
    It was due to having a really great teachers in 6th and 8th grade.
    In high school, I had the same PE teacher as in elementary school; he was horrible then too!
    The reason I hated PE, and other kids hated it was not the curriculum, it was a meat headed teacher that preferred to scream, belittle, mock, and refuse try to understand children.
    He was just a bully that was unable to grasp the concept of any person not fully emersed in the Worship of sports, and would become a screaming sociopath if he actually had to “teach” a child any facet of the “game”.
    He was also known to walk into bathroom stalls, if he thought a kid didn’t ‘need’ to go.

    • Sara Smeaton
      Sara Smeaton September 7, 2016 at 12:54 pm - Reply

      That sounds horrible, Bruce. I’m glad that you ended up with great teachers and learned to love sports! A wonderful teacher can make all the difference.

  9. Sarah H December 8, 2015 at 10:23 pm - Reply

    In the school system that I was in as a kid, we were required to shower in those open communal showers starting in the sixth grade, and all of the way through the twelfth grade. I started the sixth grade in 1979.
    Fortunately for me, I wasn’t shy about showering with my classmates. I don’t really recall giving it a second thought really. I guess it didn’t matter to me because we were all girls. I already knew a couple of years in advance that I was going to be showering in gym class starting in the sixth grade, because my sister was two years older than me, and she was showering in sixth grade at the time.

    I can’t say that I recall anyone in my gym classes being embarrassed by showering in front of each other. But then again, maybe some of them just hid their embarrassment well? I do think that I just thought that it was kind of funny in a haha kind of way that we were all seeing each other in the nude, and that the teacher would stand there and watch us shower.
    That was just in the sixth grade though. By the next year the novelty had just worn off, and I never gave it another thought.

    I know that my three daughters all showered in the locker room after their different teams practices and games in junior high and high school. I always assumed that they showered in gym class as well, but I’m not sure of that. I don’t think that it was an issue for them either?

    You do have my sympathy, however, if it was embarrassing to you to shower with your classmates!

  10. Stacey January 19, 2014 at 8:24 pm - Reply

    I was in junior high in the early 1990’s, and we had to do the mandatory nude group showers thing too. I hated it! But I was amazed by how many of my classmates loved to run around naked in the girls locker room, or blow-dry their hair standing there naked.

    But I actually enjoyed gym class outside of the showers.

What do you think?