Leicester High School (1979-1983)
Leicester, MA 01524
Dear Ms. Morin,
My friend Rosemary, writing about her relationship to exercise over her lifetime, looks back on high school gym classes, where “being active meant being an athlete.” It made me think of high school gym class, and that made me think of you.
Ms. Morin, I was never a hardcore athlete and I liked gym class, and I liked it because you were a great gym teacher. I don’t know if I was aware of your greatness when I was in high school, or if this is only a realization I’ve had since becoming a writing teacher five years ago, but I always had fun in class and enjoyed talking to you. Teachers bring energy to their students, whether positive or negative, and yours was buoyant, humorous, and tough. I can still see your off-kilter smile; I remember your laugh, a whooping cackle.
Gym was one of those classes, as it is today, that was a requirement. We couldn’t get out of high school until we had taken so many P.E. hours. That means that, unlike on sports teams, where everyone has volunteered to participate, all the students in gym were there to some degree against their own choosing. Many, if given the choice, might have taken an extra period of art, wood shop, or study hall. Hey, it’s possible that I would have used a free period to hang out some more in the library or band room. So, required courses can be good, and administrators and policy makers are right to force them on us.
Four years of required physical education. Imagine what college students would do if they were made to take four years of composition, instead of the one or two semesters we require of them now. Oh, what they would learn. Yet they would complain loudly, and it’s likely that we complained, too, about high school gym class.
But, Ms. Morin, you were awesome! You heard our complaints, but you didn’t let us sink down into them. By the power of your energy and organization — and that whistle, too — you got us girls to change quickly into our gym gear, get out into the gym, and shut our flap traps. While you were sympathetic to our womanly complaints (and, as the girls’ gym teacher, you heard a lot of them), no one got a free pass out of gym for menstrual cramps. In fact, you whispered to us that running around would make us feel better.
And you made running around fun, because there was so much variety in what we did in that class. Sure, in the good weather, we had to get outside and play softball and field hockey, which were your two sports, but there was also indoor volleyball, table tennis, weights, jump rope, and square dancing.
Square dancing? I loved that, and I suspect that a lot of the other kids did, too, even though we moaned and groaned as you and Mr. Nelson, the boys’ gym teacher, set up the record player and showed us the figures. We smirked ironically at each other as we bowed to our partners, but no one refused to dosey. I liked table tennis, volleyball, and even the occasional game of whiffle ball. No, I didn’t like softball, but in my adult life I have often participated on the office softball team and enjoyed it thoroughly. It’s funny how, later in life, we return to things we didn’t like much in school and then we like them.
Liking. You liked us all. That was obvious in how you treated everyone in that class the same, whether we were real athletes, like Brenda or Kelly and Kim the twins, or just eager students like me. You talked to all of us; you coached and encouraged all of us; and you gave us all equal time on the field or court or dance floor. Plus, just as we could playfully exasperate you, we could also make you laugh, for real.
More than liking simply us, you liked your work and took it seriously. You weren’t a gym babysitter; you were a physical education teacher. There was a curriculum and a plan. Our bodies in motion, and our attitudes toward our bodies in motion, developed in your class. I knew you for four years, more than any other high school or even college teacher.
Education stays with you, and I return to memories of my high school years more and more since I’ve started teaching. I reflect on what I learned from you about motivating and teaching all of one’s students, and not just the ones who show obvious talent. And, sometimes, when I’m really tired and I just want to go into class and say to my students, “I’m tired,” I think about how a teacher brings energy into a room. I want mine to convey enthusiasm, and not fatigue, which is what you conveyed to us.
Rosemary’s post gives me a chance, too, to think about myself as an adult exerciser, an adult athlete. Yesterday I was jogging around the track at the gym, and impulsively I decided to sprint a lap. I pretended to chase my daughter Lydia, who was with me and way ahead of me. I felt 16 years old again. Still strong. I smiled.
Gym is fun, Ms. Morin, when you make it fun.
I hope you’re well.
p.s. You were the first woman I ever addressed as “Ms.,” until I got to college. Thank you for introducing us to that, too.