When I close my eyes and try to remember P.E. at school, it requires a lot of effort to dig up the long-repressed memories of those days. Along with the obvious unpleasantness which every schoolchild is subject to; such as the stench of the locker rooms and the ubiquitous sadistic P.E. teacher, other more personal, horrific ordeals begin to resurface.
One particularly unpleasant activity was swimming. There was no swimming pool at our school, so we had to use the one at our ‘brother’ school instead. I went to an all girls’ school; they were an all boys’ school. There were no changing rooms and the walls of the swimming room were clouded glass. We had to get changed behind a waist-height wall with the boys all peering through, while the swimming instructor pretended not to notice – not that there was nothing he could do anyway. Despite changing into our swimwear and shuffling self-consciously to the side of the pool, diving in for cover wasn’t a particularly appealing option because before we had arrived, the boys would have filled the pool with dead spiders, rocks, sand, used plasters and, bizarrely, tampons. Sufficed to say that most girls had a note from their ‘mother’ (best mate) saying that they couldn’t swim that day because of ‘women’s troubles’. Despite occurring more often than the monthly norm, the beauty of the plan was that the male swimming instructor was too embarrassed by the subject to question it and avoided the matter, so everyone was happy (except the spiders).
Further therapy-inducing memories include getting stuck seven feet up the rope during gymnastics, fainting during a hockey match when my friend split her eyebrow open – releasing a torrent of blood, and nearly revoking my ability to have children during a high jump accident. The strange thing about all of these awful memories is the fact that they happened at grammar school. P.E. at primary school involved rounders and volleyball, sports days with actual medals and slices of fresh orange when we played in the sun. I’m not sure what it is about secondary school which dictates that P.E. must go from leisurely fun to potentially mortifying incidents with the power to create nicknames that would last the whole way through school (Gummy Bear Claire, if you’re wondering – because at one hockey match my gum shield got stuck and I started to have a panic attack).
The strange thing is that a couple of my best school memories are also thanks to P.E – or more appropriately due to skiving P.E. The only lesson I ever skipped at school was cross country running. The initial part of the run took us past the toilet block, so a friend and I simply jogged into the toilets, chatted for an hour, and when we heard the others coming back we jogged back out and joined the group – the perfect crime. Another time, when we REALLY didn’t want to do gymnastics, six of us hid in a small space beneath the stairs amongst shin guards and footballs in the sports hall. Listening to our P.E. teacher stomping around looking for us, talking to herself, was too hilarious to cope with and eventually our giggling lead to our discovery and subsequent P.E. detention. It was totally worth it though, to witness her increasing frustration.
I’m not sure I know anyone with indifferent feelings towards P.E. school. Either you were a natural sports champion and your chosen sport was your life, or you loathed it and did all you could to avoid it. Either way, the important thing to remember is that, hopefully, the lasting legacy of the Olympics will mean that children get involved in sport from an early age, enjoy it, and that exercise subsequently becomes a normal and regular part of their lives. Which will hopefully mean that they won’t need to start dragging their ever-expanding backsides to the gym in their 20s, with the only motivation being a smile from that gym instructor in the tight shorts. Ahem. Let’s get physical!