While I know that a healthy body is an important part of a healthy mindset, try as I might I’ve never quite been able to square how the units we endured during gym class,–units such as gymnastics, square dancing and death-by-stick field hockey, had anything to do with getting healthy. While there were plenty of girls who actually liked gym class, I wasn’t one of them and just about the only things I ever got out of P.E. was an extremely unhealthy spirit of competition and a lifelong loathing of wearing one hundred percent polyester gym suits.
My least favorite memory of gym class involves the twice-yearly 600 Yard Dash. To cover 600 yards we had to run entirely around the outdoor track one and a half times. At the end we were met by our teacher holding a stop watch and all the classmates who ran as effortlessly as gazelles and weren’t even out of breath when they danced over the finish line.
For many years I plotted for a way to get out of running the dreaded dash with the finesse of a spy trying to find his way out of Germany during World War II. Some years I “sprained” my ankle. Once I pretended I was having a fainting spell. Until finally, in the eighth grade, the last year of the mandatory dash, I did something completely revolutionary: I flat out refused to run.
“I’m not going to do it,” I told the gym teacher. It was a hot, sticky day in June and the very last thing I wanted to do was run 600 yards anywhere.
She looked at me and blinked. “What?” she asked.
“I’m not going to run the 600 Yard Dash.” I crossed my skinny arms defiantly over my chest.
“What do you mean you aren’t going to run?” Clearly she wasn’t used to revolt from her students.
“Just what I said. It’s hot out today and I’m not going to run.”
The gym teacher looked as if I’d just started up my own communist party chapter in her class. “You have to run,” she finally said.
“Why?” I asked back, astounded by the sass that was coming out of my mouth, a mouth that had never before challenged an authority figure in any way, shape or form. But something deep in my soul snapped that day hot, muggy day and I knew that I’d rather be sent to the principal’s office or—worse—have someone call my mother up and tattle than run around that damn track in an ill-fitting polyester gym suit that would have made an iceberg sweat.
She blinked once more. “Because I said so and because if you don’t I’ll make sure you don’t graduate from the eighth grade and then you’ll have to run the dash again next year.”
It was my turn to blink. And to think. My thirteen year old brain wasn’t wise enough yet to know that even a gym teacher couldn’t stop me from graduating unless I did something truly heinous–like murder–and my bold stance against authority wasn’t strong enough to hold on much longer. Instead I did the only thing I could think of doing: I walked the 600 Yard Dash. Very, very slowly.
It ended up taking me almost fifteen minutes to walk those endless 600 yards, fifteen minutes during which I thought about not only how much I hated physical education classes but also the realization that just because I had to do something didn’t mean I had to do it the way everyone else did.
“Fourteen minutes and thirty-seven seconds,” the gym teacher said when I finally strolled across the finish line. “That’s the worst time I’ve ever seen.”
“The slowest,” I thought. “Definitely not the worst.” If anything, those fourteen minutes and thirty-seven seconds turned out to be time well spent because while walking the track I figured out something that would serve me well for the rest of my life: the time I’d been given on this planet belonged only to me and I didn’t want to squander a single second of it.