And then almost overnight, I started liking gym. I didn’t just stop hating it — I actually enjoyed it. I looked forward to it. I had fun with it. And I was good at it. I vividly remember my nerdy math-teacher father jokingly scolding me about my report card one quarter, scowling and asking with mock disapproval how a daughter of his could have gotten an A in gym.
I didn’t change overnight. I didn’t suddenly become a jock; I didn’t suddenly get good at playing with others or remembering the rules of the games. So what happened?
I was able to pick my own gym classes.
At the school I went to, once we got into high school we were able to pick our own P.E. classes. There were some restrictions: out of the six sections in the school year, you had to take one individual sport, one team sport, and one swimming sport. But within those guidelines, you could sign up for any classes you wanted.
I took as many dance classes as I could. In one glorious year I wound up with half my gym classes being dance: modern, jazz, and disco. And for my swimming sport I took synchronized swimming, which back in the day we called water ballet. Water dance!
I couldn’t always take dance. So I also took fencing, which was super fun: it takes more thought and agility than strength (at least on the “high school gym class” level), and there’s nothing easier than fencing with a macho teenage boy who thinks he’s Errol Flynn. I took “conditioning,” basically just working out in a group, with a good-natured teacher who made it surprisingly low-stress and fun. I took billiards: I don’t know what demented genius decided to let high school kids off campus and into the university rec hall so they could shoot pool for gym class, but I am grateful to this day. It wasn’t all dreamy: the one section a year I had to waste on team sports was always kind of hellish. But for most of the year, I either liked P.E. or loved it.
And I got a lot out of it. It made me feel strong and capable. It helped me establish a connection with my body, which is good for lots of people but especially important for teenage girls. The very act of choosing made me feel that physical activity wasn’t a penance being inflicted on me, but a world of options I could navigate. And it taught me that physical activity could be pleasurable and fun — a lesson I carry with me to this day.
I realize I’m a sample size of one, and I realize I’m not any kind of expert in child development. And I’m sure that letting kids pick their own gym classes creates logistical issues, especially for younger kids. But I know I’m not the only person who grew up hating gym. It’s a really common experience, and it has consequences. Being forced to do sports that you hate and suck at doesn’t establish a lifetime habit of activity. It cuts us off from our bodies. It makes physical activity feel like an ordeal. It turns moving our bodies into an “us and them” thing, a world where anyone who’s not a jock feels like an outsider. That’s a crappy lifetime habit to establish.
So here’s a memo to educators, parents, city planners, anyone else with some power in this arena. If you want kids and teenagers to be more physically active, and to carry that into adulthood? Let them choose their freaking activities. As much as possible. Not just in high school, but as early as possible.
Phys ed isn’t like math or English, where you’re learning specific skills you’re likely to need later in life. There are important exceptions, like learning to swim. But nobody is going to suffer as an adult because as a child they played jump-rope instead of baseball. And I can’t be the only person who learned to love being physical once they were able to chart their own way. I don’t think this is a magic pill that will transform everyone into physical dynamos, regardless of their temperament or abilities. I just think it could help us love our bodies a little more, and feel more comfortable using them.