I’ve never considered myself a couch potato. Though a quick think about how I’ve successfully avoided any form of physical exercise for over thirty years confirms that I am one.
During infant years at primary school, when gym class really just equated to running around barefoot pretending to be the wind or whatever, I felt confused and anxious – about how to join in, first of all, and then about whether there was such a thing as too much joining in and then about how to tell how much joining in was too much joining in. I mean, I thought pretending to be the wind was fun. I liked to flail my arms around and sway like a tree on a blustery day. I liked to roll on the floor and pretend to be litter being blown about. But in a group with twenty nine other kids who already thought I was a fucking weirdo, it was, apparently, impossible for me to do those things with gusto and survive playtime without being tripped up in the girls toilets or punched on the arms outside tuck shop.
One half of the class liked to pretend to be a very gusty, gale-force, violent wind by running really fast and pushing people over. The other half sidled and scuffed around the gym hall like their limbs had weights in the ends, only just stopping short of refusing to take part at all. School survival instincts told me to put my excitement and the drama of spinning about like a tornado or falling down like a phone mast in a storm to one side and to pick a group. I joined the lazy, weighted limbs group because I didn’t think it was very nice to push people over. Part of me regrets this choice.
When I got older, I left my gym classmates in a quandary. Yeah, they all wanted me on their side when it came to spell-offs and homework. They knew I was good at music and that I could do some mean colouring in when I had to, but picking teams for stupid assault course games? Well I think, for once, we were all in agreement that it’d be much better for everyone if I just sat it out. I began every game with an apology (‘I’m really sorry I’m on your team. I’m so rubbish at this stuff’) quickly followed up with a deal (“I tell you what, just make sure no one passes the ball to me, ok? I’ll just jog around a bit and look busy. Pretend I’m not here!”).
Most of the other kids were excited when the teacher promised we’d get to use the proper gym equipment in Primary 7. It sounded more like a threat to me and I wondered how one might go about changing schools. I couldn’t sleep I was so nervous about the climbing frame and the gym horse. My classmates turned hyperactive and bounced around in their chairs, barely able to contain themselves. I turned sick and tired. I ‘forgot’ my kit, I feigned illness, I pretended to have a very important music rehearsal… Please don’t make me leap over high things or scrape up ropes with my knees. Please…
Of course, my excuses would only see me through for so long (which turned out not to be very long at all) and inevitably, I’d have to join in. The smell of rubber, damp mould, grubby toes and cleaning fluid hung about in the gym hall, mixed up with the smell of the world’s worst mashed potatoes puffing out from behind the shutter of the school kitchen in steamy mashed potato clouds.
It was my group’s turn to do the stupid routine: do a big, tall, tip-toe stretch on the spongey mat, run up to the horse, leap-frog on to it, perform some kind of gymnastic improvisation (?!) and then jump off the other end on to an even spongier mat then curl into a forward roll before jumping up and joining the back of the queue again. I stood in that queue – and I stood and I stood, sneaking to the back every time I came close to the front. Knowing how scared I was, my classmates did all they could to smuggle me down the line undetected. Of course, my teacher was no idiot. Well, I say that… This particular teacher was a bit of an idiot as it happens, but he wasn’t daft enough not to notice I’d been hanging about at the back of the gymnastics queue for nearly twenty minutes whispering to Audrey about my favourite scenes in Top Gun.
He plucked me out of the group by the elbow. “Carrie. You haven’t showed us your improvisation yet, have you?” I considered telling the lie, but lying was bad (everyone knows that) and lying to the teacher was really, really bad. Do the right thing. “Um, no. Not yet, sir…” (Part of me regrets this choice too). I took baby steps toward the mat and prayed the playtime bell would ring before I reached it. “Well, come on then! Up you come. Don’t hide back there, girl!” I took a couple more baby steps, even tinier than before. Christ – take the hint, sir. Take the damn hint! I stood on the mat.
The teacher looked a right pillock as he bounced up and down in his light grey leather lace-up soft shoes. He didn’t actually demo the routine, you understand. He just stood beside me on the edge of the mat, bending his knees enthusiastically with his arms held straight above his head. I don’t know why. “I can’t do it, sir. I can’t… Really. I can’t.” This was as close as I’d ever come to ‘back chat’. I was a good girl. This was the closest I’d come to being ‘insolent’ or ‘disobedient’ or to being any of those other words teachers used to describe the naughty children who, they said, would end up in front of the children’s panel or on the dole. These words had never, ever applied to me before. ‘Diligent’ and ‘conscientious’ – those were my words.
Hard thuds inside my chest. Dry mouth. Shaky leg. Group by group, the class stopped what they were doing mid-exercise. “There is no such thing as CAN’T, Carrie. What you’re saying to me is that you WON’T do it. Is that correct? Is that correct, young lady?” The gym hall was quiet (except for the clatter of someone’s skull hitting off the end of a wooden bench – a forward roll gone awry and a child heaped on the floor, quite literally arse over tiny tit). “Yes, sir. That is correct. Sir.”
My friends looked at their shoes, boys tried not to laugh, bullies raised their eyebrows and scoffed into their own shoulders like cartoon villains. I looked down at the swirly blue gym hall lino and hoped I might die. “Go put your uniform back on, right now. If you don’t want to take part with the rest of the class, then you’ll sit alone in the changing room.” I didn’t die. Instead, I put my uniform back on and sat alone in the changing room. As far as punishments went, this was ideal. They never tell you about the benefits of being insolent.
I struggled my way through 12 years of Physical Education at school by way of smart peer negotiations, elaborate story telling (lying) and by taking the piss out of myself way before anyone else had the chance. Despite some fleeting Fresher’s Week intention to go swimming in the campus pool or some drunken babble about totally buying a gym membership, I avoided all sporting activity at university. I did have to go INTO the gym building once – to attend a hypnotherapy consultation (with a hypnotherapist whose jib I did not like the cut of and so never saw again) but that was it. It smelled quite nice. Much nicer than the gym hall at primary school.
By the time I was working, I felt it exercise enough to put my shoes on in the morning, though talk of joining an exercise class or going to yoga sessions did come and go (without me having ever attending an exercise class or going to a yoga session). And aside from some mandatory physiotherapy commitments I had to honour in order to be able to stand up, sit down and walk about, keep-fit is limited to something I encourage my cat to do with the aid of some feathers on a stick. And that brings us to now. Things are starting to change. To be continued.