Saturday, October 1, 2011
Perhaps there are women who grew up in the 1950s and '60s who have fond memories of gym class. They may tell wonderful anecdotes of bonding with other women while running track, climbing ropes, jumping over the pommel horse, and playing basketball. But when I think of those days, I start to hyperventilate and require a quick dose of reality. So I call my oldest girlfriend, and she reminds me that I no longer have to wear my blue bloomers.
Physical education was a school requirement in the 1960s. Five days a week, we had to dress out for PE. That meant we had to wear our blue bloomers, white sneakers, and white socks.
The "bloomers" were the gym suit our school required. It was a cornflower-blue cotton thing with an elastic waist and snap closures. I never understood the color choice, since the school colors were orange and black. I could have dealt with black much better.
The gym suits were carried at a local store. Every September, the store had an increase in sales because groups of moaning teenage girls would flock into the store to purchase the uniform.
The boys didn't have to wear uniforms for PE. They wore black gym shorts and a school T-shirt. The year after I graduated, the school approved black shorts and a school T-shirt for senior girls. But that was too late for me. I wore my blue bloomers until the week before I graduated.
Once the suit was purchased, we had to sew our names over the right chest pocket, using white thread. My gym teachers would not let us abbreviate our names, which wasn't a problem for me, but Anastasia Karchanaski and Katherine Philipowizc were not happy.
On my first attempt at the sewing project, I carefully spelled my name over the pocket with my ballpoint pen and began to sew. Midway through the project, my girlfriend came to visit. Seeing what I was doing, she mentioned that her mother had given her uniform to her father's tailor to sew on her name.
She looked down at my attempt and said, "Uh-oh!" Apparently, I had written my name over the wrong pocket. For the entire year, my name was sewn over one pocket and written in dark ink over the other. I wasn't the only one who made that mistake, though; many other girls also had their names sewn over one pocket and written over the other.
Sneakers were another issue. The teachers wanted us to make sure they stayed white, so we had to polish them with white shoe polish. If our white sneakers were soiled from use, we were supposed to polish both the cloth and rubber portions of the shoes to make sure they looked new. I actually polished my sneakers several times, but only because I wanted them to appear as if they had been dirty – even though they never were.
We were supposed to launder our uniforms weekly. I never did. I made it my goal never to sweat in class because we were given only five minutes to change and shower. There was no way I could change and shower in such a short amount of time.
Once a year we square-danced in PE class. The movable wall that separated the boys' gym from the girls' gym was pulled back. We were paired off. Then we would honor our partners, do-si-do, and allemande right and left in our never-been-laundered blue gym suits while we tried to avoid stepping on our partners' toes with the whiter-than-white sneakers.
My girlfriends and I tried every way we could think of to break the PE class rules. For instance, we tried to keep our stockings on under our uniforms and socks because it was such a difficult task to put them back on – especially when they were stretched out. That worked until the teacher tapped me on the shoulder one day and said, "Miss Klein, you have a run in your leg."
We also cheated at anything that required counting. President Kennedy's Council on Physical Fitness publicized its national goals, but the numbers coming from my gym class were flawed. When we did sit-ups, for example, one girl held another girl's ankles and counted. It wasn't unusual for the counting to sound like this: "1, 2, 8, 11, 13, 14, 15, 19, 20, 25, 31..."
I really disliked gym. Had it not been for the written tests, I'm not sure I would have passed.
We had the same rotation of activities each year. Once winter began, I knew I would have to contend with gymnastics. I watched girls gracefully approach the balance beam, placing one foot in front of the other, pointing their toes. I had a hard time not falling off. I watched girls on the uneven bars. I excelled at hanging by my legs, upside down, saying, "But Miss Lee, I'm dizzy and I'm going to throw up."
It was not as if I wasn't athletic. I swam well enough to become a lifeguard. I could ride a bike. I could skate. I just wasn't good at gym. Maybe it was the cornflower-blue bloomers
©2005 Felice Prager. All Rights Reserved.
Versions of this article appeared at CSMonitor.com and Loti.com.