I was in Sr Mary Joseph’s fifth grade class when I first encountered the activity of which I had denied any previous ponder. It was a blustery October morning when the lanky blond gentleman first introduced himself: “Hello, boys. I am your new Phys Ed instructor, Mr Loflin. Steve Loflin.”
The nine of us looked at each other, some excited about the prospect of team sports, others (such as myself) terrified of the unknown. In my world, sports had always meant kickball, dodgeball, or bike racing. Of course, I knew better than to hinge my hopes on the familiar. It was indeed the very day that I was to begin my miserable failure in football, basketball, and baseball.
Conceptually, I had always attempted to understand this triumvirate of television sports. Baseball made sense; I just couldn’t hit the ball. Basketball had too many rules for me to process. And football completely escaped my ten year old “need for reason” when it came to scoring, penalties, and strategies. I had always been a competitive, driven lad and, as Coach Loflin distributed our new grey jersey gym clothes, I suddenly realized that the nuances would be far-reaching.
For the next two years, the nine of us changed into our uniforms, printed with a proud and somewhat daunting “St Pius X”. We twice weekly completed a regimen of calisthenics which was followed with whatever team sports that nine of us could realistically play. Because there were so few boys in my class, we had to all constantly play, never treated to a break on a sideline. We’d sweat, get filthy, and occasionally bleed. I also had always detested getting dirty so that “gym” actually pushed my limits into new territory.
When I completed sixth grade, I was relieved to be soon attending a “less stern” and oh-so-very public junior high school, although that optimism was short-lived. I was still markedly lacking in the fundamentals of school athletics, except for the universal celebration of a clean, pristine, and fresh uniform. Class size was somewhere near 35 and comprised of strangers, most of whom were far less sheltered and behaved as we Catholic school refugees. We had to shower en masse, and I learned to swear, albeit only among my peers, and usually after some wicked “towel” prank.
Seventh grade unfolded as you might have expected, my friends, especially if you witnessed firsthand my frequent agony. For five days a week, it was always the same. And for each nine week grading period, I received a B. It became the bane of my meager twelve year old existence and the taint of my otherwise unblemished report card.
That summer passed quickly. I turned thirteen, and got braces. On the first day of classes, I could barely control my glee, except for Phys Ed. As we gathered, my heart sank as I realized I’d be interacting with yet an entirely new group of boys. I was already visualizing the taunts, the names, and the disapproving looks, when the door opened. In walked Coach Loflin. He introduced himself, distributed our blue and white uniforms, and lectured us on his expectations. I knew I was doomed for another year, just shy of straight A’s.
The year went quickly, even eighth period with Coach Loflin. Although I hated Phys Ed, I wasn’t the worst in the class and, every once in a muddy track field, we’d engage in something fun: such as track, soccer, or that bizarre derivative “crab soccer”. Coach always referred to me as Mr Sieber, referring to my classmates with only their surnames. And when report cards were distributed, I finally received straight A’s, including my personal “Holy Grail” of eighth period. I was shocked but rushed home nonetheless. I found out the next day that my cronies had all gotten B’s and C’s, and that Mr Loflin was considered a tough grader.
My luck continued throughout that year and into the next, as he was my ninth grade gym instructor as well. I never enjoyed physical education but I learned to overcome the dread, at least of gym. The following year, I’d be enrolled in an even larger school, with an entirely new set of issues and fears.
Years passed, I finished my studies and went out into the real world, forging friendships with like-minded Bohemian types. When I was in my mid-twenties, my boyfriend and I were to join my “crazy”and exuberant friend Jackie and her husband whom I had never met. We had planned to go out for dinner, unsure of whether we’d make it to a dance club since the other couple was about fifteen years older. I answered my doorbell and laughed at the irony and unexpected sight. Yes, Jackie was married to Coach Loflin, although he now preferred “Steve”.
We had a great time, enjoyed a few cocktails, and “laughed ourselves silly!” By the time we asked for our check, we were all spent and well-poised for a drive home. As we stood in the parking lot, rallying for a final moment’s banter, I found myself finally asking him about the grades when I was in junior high school. He stumbled at first but admitted that I was one of the few boys who always acknowledged the feats of others … or reassured them when they fell short. (That, and my uniform was always laundered!)
I’ve since lost touch with Steve, Jackie, and even that nameless boyfriend. Sometimes when I smile, I am visualizing the world as I viewed it back then, the erosion of pubescent fears, and how Coach Loflin brought a few pleasurable moments and laughs to Phys Ed.
Don’t get me wrong. I would’ve much rather been in my Latin class with Mrs Foster, embracing the art of rapid declension. Years later, when Latin crept into my conversation or writings, it seemed yet another layer of that pubescent insulation. It was the whole “Gym thing” that had actually set me free.
(Image: “After School” by Catrin Welz-Stein.)