I was born early – a month early to be precise. I was meant to be brought into the world at the end of July, 1961. Instead, I made my entrance on June 24th at St. Blank’s Hospital in a large city in Ontario. I weighed 5 lbs. 2 oz. and went down to 4 lbs. 9. I spent my first month in an incubator.
I was a puny kid—scrawny, gangly, knock-kneed and in need of corrective shoes. I also learned at an early age that I needed glasses (in those days poor eyesight was discovered when in Grade 4 you were found to be squinting at the blackboard and not because you were regularly tested by a nurse).
Just picture it! Here’s little me, four-foot nothing in size 4 shoes with boney knees and elbows and what does the school board expect? They think I should participate in the rough-housing activities that they call “Physical Education” and get this … it’s for the good of my health! So put a teeny tot like me in a line-up of bruiser-boys with plastic hockey sticks and let the fun begin! Or, give me a baseball glove and let me catch those stingers that could snap my hand off at the wrist! Throw me out on a field in the middle of a game of “Red Rover” and just pray I make it out alive! It’s all for the “good of my health”. Yeah. Right.
I remember vividly the days when gym class would roll around. I had a calendar at home with the dates circled in red. My stomach started twisting in knots from the time I took off my royal blue bloomers and packed up my blue Keds at the end of each class.
It seems there was not a single sport for which I was suited.
Baseball: I couldn’t connect that bat with the ball if my life depended on it. This was probably due to the fact that I was so short, my eyesight was so bad and I bruised very easily, so my protective instincts would make step back from the comet headed towards me. Thankfully, no one ever put me on a base, I was always outfield which suited me just fine. In fact, the further out field, the better (less likely to be hit and less opportunity to make a fool of myself). Occasionally, a ball would head my way and I would make an effort to catch it, but the sun would blind me and the ball would either hit the ground and roll maddeningly out of reach, or else it would conk me on the head. Laughter ensued (and of course groans and yells from my team).
Gymnastics: Don’t get me wrong, I think gymnasts are amazing to watch and I marvel at their abilities, but putting an awkward kid on a balance beam and trying to get them to walk across with grace and balance is a lose-lose situation. I inched my way across like I was suspended over a pool of gaping gators and inevitably would lose said “balance” to land on said beam resulting in numbness of the privates I can only liken to being wacked with a mallet in the Brazil zone.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, there was my real nemesis to be faced: the box horse. I’ve seen enough war movies to know that the box horse was used in military training camps, so tell me, what sadistic genius came up with the idea that KIDS should be doing the same thing? What health guru with the Ministry of Education decided that little girls should be stomping on a springboard and flying over a wooden box with a sheath of leather, covering its hidden cement interior?
Not once in all the trials I made against that looming mountain of wood, did I ever sail over to land on the dark blue mat on the other side. I stalled in front of the thing like a donkey who doesn’t want to cross the stream. I slammed into it like the giant iron ball used to destroy a building. I got stuck on top of it like I was paddling out to catch the big kahuna, but never did I get over. I even had nightmares of giant box horses lined up hurdle-style and a coach with a whistle, shrieking my name.
It was never a good day either, when I walked into a phys ed class to find “stations” for various activities. Teams were alternately selected by the Olympic-caliber athletes who dwindled down the group to an unlucky bunch of misfits: the chubby kid, the nose-picker, and me, the uncoordinated pipsqueak. Good times.
Of course on days such as this, there was always the torture wall with the wooden rungs and the Marine Corps-style ropes upon which we were meant to hoist ourselves up without any a) assistance from below and b) grips to hold onto other than the dang rope that ripped shreds out of your hands. I believe my big triumph in this event was to actually reach the point where my feet couldn’t touch the floor.
If indoor activities were intimidating, they were nothing compared to the dreaded Track and Field events that came around every Spring. Apart from mere humiliation with the Long Jump and Standing Broad Jump, the most terrifying thing for me was the High Jump. I don’t know whether I was afraid of looking bad or getting hurt. Wait. Yes I do, I was definitely afraid of getting hurt. The ironic thing was that I was really, really good at the game “Jumpsies”. Remember that? You would interconnect a bunch of elastic bands to create a length about 5 feet long, then two people would each hold an end and they would put it at different heights: ankle, knee, thigh, hip, waist, underarm, shoulder, ear and top of the head. The idea was, you would take turns jumping over, but the difference between “jumpsies” and High Jump was that you could touch the line and push it down in order to jump it. With the High Jump, if you couldn’t get enough elevation, you were going down hard along with the bamboo pole that rested between the two ends.
I remember one time I was so fearful of doing the High Jump that I hid under my desk in the classroom as everyone filed out for Track and Field day. I had no intention of going out to do it. I was petrified. The sad thing is, no one even noticed I was missing— not my classmates and not the teachers. No wonder I quit gym class as soon as I was able after Grade Ten.
I did nearly have one shining moment of glory — it wasn’t all busted fingers from flying volleyballs, or nicked shins from random field hockey sticks. We were having a running competition around the big gym in my junior high class. Teams of three were making circuits of the gym from corner to corner all the way around. I was doing really well. I was actually ahead of the two other people on my team and they were no slackers. I was pretty pleased with myself when I rounded a corner and I tripped over my own feet. Splat! I hit the cold, hard gym floor and my bare knees skidded me to a halt. Limping off to the sidelines, I realized once and for all that I would never be any kind of athlete.
It’s funny how some things never leave your memory. I carried the hurt and frustration and fear of being inadequate at sports for years. Even as an adult I would never join any teams for softball or play any sort of sport, ever.
A few years ago, while working for a big insurance company in town, I buried my fears and took one last shot at performing something athletic.
We were having a carnival on the front lawn and there was a dunking booth set up. I didn’t sit in the booth and let people take shots at me, I actually lined up to try my hand at putting somebody in the tank. I was in a fairly long line-up waiting my turn to hit the target and dunk one of the senior vice-presidents of the company. Frankly, I didn’t think I had a hope in H.E. double hockey-sticks, but I waited my turn (albeit a little apprehensively).
When it came, I took the ball in my right hand, stepped up to the mark, said a quick prayer and hurled it at the black circle on the flat disc. Whomp! It hit dead centre and clunk-splash, down went the Veep and I was the only one to sink him! I had finally done it! At last, I was vindicated after all those years, and it felt good.