For the Record, I Don’t Like Peanut Butter and Banana Sandwiches

When I was in middle school, I was–well, “pudgy” would be the kindest word for it. I weighed about what I weigh now, but was half a foot shorter. I resembled Jerry O’Connell in Stand By Me. When I went to Space Camp, staffers took a picture of me in the Moon gravity chair. I look like a young Old Elvis, all pasty white and bloated in my blue jumpsuit.

Unsurprisingly, I was not great at sports. The bane of my existence was Physical Education. The PE instructors didn’t help. One coach made us play a version of dodge ball where all of us students ran around the gym’s perimeter while he hurled balls at us. The last person standing won. Given that the coach once knocked a student unconscious, I guess what you won was freedom from a concussion. Later on he was fired for making advances on 12-year-old girls, so he was an all-around good guy.

One day we ran relays. Our whole class was divided into teams. I don’t remember if the coaches running the class did the dividing or if they picked relay leaders who in turn picked their teams, but either way, my team wasn’t happy to have me on it. I was fat. I was slow. I was not going to help our team win.

We were all sixth graders, with the social skills that implied, so my teammates were happy to tell me that I’d better run fast, that I’d better not lose the race for them. Eventually something snapped inside me. I smiled at all of them and, when I was handed the baton, sauntered down the length of the gym and back like a debutante strolling into a ball.

One of the coaches pulled me into his office. “PE may not be a perfect example of how life works, but it’s the best one we’ve got,” he told me. While I was still puzzling out what he meant, he spanked me with his fiberglass paddle.

I’ve thought about this episode a lot while watching Eli play soccer. In games, especially those played in the morning, he loses focus. He’ll run vaguely in the direction of the ball, or stop and hope the ball comes somewhere near him.

On the one hand, I want to tell him to keep his mind on what he’s doing and play as hard as he can. One thing soccer can teach him is the need to follow through on what you say you’re going to do — in this case, playing ball as part of a team. On the other hand, as my checkered athletic career taught me, there’s a big difference between intrinsic and extrinsic pressure. While I’d work as hard as possible if the sport interested me, if it didn’t, I wasn’t going to waste my time. I expect Eli to do the same. On the third hand, he’s four. As long as he’s having fun running around, he’s good. I’m stockpiling worries for the future, I suppose.

But if he ever gets punished for walking in a relay race, I’m going to smile and tell him a story.

5 thoughts on “For the Record, I Don’t Like Peanut Butter and Banana Sandwiches

  1. Re: the relay race: I did the exact same thing. Well, except I skipped. And when we played volleyball, if the ball came near me, I’d very deliberately get out of its way. No way I was going to help those rotten kids win a game. (I wasn’t fat. Just uncoordinated and bookish, which was sin enough to my age-mates.)

    I really hope Z shows no interest in team ports. Because I still have Issues.

  2. I despised gym class. I didn’t actually start developing any self esteem at all until I was no longer required to take it.

  3. Oh, my… Stephen and Joyous… bringing back such memories of being the last kid picked. I wasn’t fat either (then) but I wasn’t fast, had little hand-eye coordination and was well known for reading a book while walking home. I didn’t even realize kids were making fun of me for that until my sister clued me in late in elementary school! Wish I’d had the chutzpah of you two. I enjoyed playing the games, even if I wasn’t good. I struggled to fit in for a while, but eventually decided that if I wasn’t wanted on teams, I wasn’t going to push it. I was decent at gymnastics, but that was kind of solitary.

    Being a pariah on the sports field, I thanked heaven for swimming when the parents sent us off to summer day camp… may not have been the fastest, but I was a very strong swimmer and had “great form” according to my instructors. Finally, something in sports I could feel good about and didn’t try to avoid at all costs!

    Glad you’re focusing on Eli’s fun! Hope he finds something he enjoys as much as I did swimming. It took until he was 14, but my plump and similarly uncoordinated nephew discovered wrestling, lost beaucoup d’pounds and finally found himself a valued member of a “team.” Didn’t hurt that the girls (who went to wrestling for obvious reasons) noticed his new physique either!!

  4. To be fair, most of my gym classes weren’t as bad as the ones in middle school. And having now watched the first part of Mr. Woodcock, thankfully none of the coaches were that sadistic. Mainly they were men who had a very narrow view of the world and how kids fit into that world.

    Funny thing: eventually my classmates accepted me. All I had to do was get in a fight, win it, and be suspended for fighting. There’s your life lesson!

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