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1984.

9th grade.

Hated gym.

Pretty predictable story, really. Scrawny, awkward, shy kid hates getting picked last for every team. Suffers indignities. Cowers in locker room. Makes up fake illnesses. Throws like a girl. Actually, aspires to throw as good as a girl. Let me be clear, however. I wasn’t picked last in gym because I was gay. I was picked last because I sucked.

But this scrawny shy kid decided to do something about it.

If my life had been like Glee, (or, more era-appropriate – Fame,) I would’ve stood in the middle of gym class, covered in dodgeball welts, and made some brave impassioned speech in defense of “the little guys.”

But, obviously, bravery and scrawn-ery rarely go hand in hand. So instead, I did something cowardly.

On a scale of cowardice, however, this was some pretty brave gutlessness:

I skipped gym.

Not just a class or two.

All of Spring Quarter.

From the moment we returned to school after Spring Break, till the last Field Day before summer vacation, my way-too-short 1980’s OJHS gym shorts and tee sat mouldering in my gym locker, left there from Winter Quarter.

I just never reported for duty. Went completely AWOL. I hid away in the band room, choir hall, library, art supply closet. Nowadays, in this time of gay-straight alliances, LGBT proms and anti-bullying programs, I suspect these are the first places a school administrator  searches for missing gym students. But back then, these were the safehouses for the fey set. An underground railroad delivering the physically unfit from competitive indentured servitude.

After a week or so, I remember worrying more about the lack of search parties being sent out for me. In fact, I was soon flaunting my freedom. I began volunteering my services for Study Hall tutoring during that time. Cleaned up the art classroom after big projects. I even formed a breakaway group from the main Jazz Band. (Our bassoon, electric keyboard, trombone & oboe jazz quartet never really took off. Like every group, we had ego issues. Cathy, I’m looking at you.)

jazzband

Eventually the horrors of gym class became such a distant memory that, well, I forgot about it. Completely.

Until about a week into summer vacation when I realized that my report card was due to arrive in the mail at any moment. And one of the line items on it would still be “PhysEd.” And there would be a letter between “A” and “F” next to it. I could most certainly rule out “A” through “D.”  “E” for “effort” was, under the circumstances,  a real long shot as well. Which left “F.” Which I’d never personally seen on a report card before. And which, I had a vague notion, meant that one couldn’t proceed with their current academic trajectory. The prospect of having to repeat ninth grade wasn’t something I’d considered while improvising syncopated bassoon harmonies during my illicit breakaway Jazz Band  jam sessions. (Otherwise, I’d have been practicing the blues.)

When the document finally arrived, I was the first to intercept it. It had my usual random smattering of “A’s” and “B’s.” In fact it had only “A’s” and “B’s.” I had to search for my quarterly gym evaluation. It was hidden amongst all the rest of the year-end averages.

I’d gotten a “B+” in PhysEd for the quarter.

A “B+.”

Now that I’m middle-aged and realize the fallibility of teachers and middle-aged adults in general, I can speculate that my poor gym teacher for that quarter (whom, for obvious reasons, I don’t remember) just sorta winged it when assigning that grade. Faced with a name she/he didn’t recognize in the slightest, she/he probably figured that a “B+” was high enough to elicit no complaints, but low enough to not draw scrutiny.

So “B+” it was.

For never even showing up. This is not the sort of lesson you want to pass on to your children. So let me turn it around for you.

Now that I’m 43, my gym class attendance is much improved.

Here in Sharon Springs, every Sunday night is Community Volleyball night.

The gym is unlocked from 6-8pm in our small rural K-12 school (about 300 kids total,) and any adults from the surrounding communities can come play volleyball.

Anywhere from 10 to 20 people show up each week. All ages, sizes, shapes and resting heart rates. We set up and take down the nets ourselves. We have the school’s retired gym teacher to help guide us. We all do the best we can. Some played volleyball as students. Some skipped gym class as students entirely. Ahem.

Me getting ready for Sharon Springs Sunday night PhysEd:

joshforgym

Everyone who comes to play volleyball tacitly acknowledges who among us is better at what skills. And given that everyone playing is pretty much done with any growth spurts (at least vertically,) those who are tall enough to be good spikers are set to, and those who are low enough to be good bumpers are given clear paths. And those who aren’t astounding at either (again, ahem,) are just plain encouraged.

The best part? We line up and count off to pick teams. No one is ever picked last.

Part of the reason I love Sharon Springs so much is that it’s giving me a second chance at a lot of things. Growing my own food. Learning patience. Working with neighbors. And now Sharon Springs is helping me make up karma for an undeserved Junior High School grade.

I’ll wager that the majority of people in America, on Sunday nights, are probably sitting around their televisions – either not talking to each other or bitching about going to work the next day. Or perhaps buying something online from their La-Z-Boy that they hope will make their lives even La-Z-Er. Or surfing gossip sites to catch up on the latest scandals of celebrities whom they’ll never meet, who don’t care about them, and who certainly would never yell out “great try!” when they missed the easiest volleyball return ever by a country mile.

In Sharon Springs, we do celebrate every neighbor’s individual “B+’s” in their respective lives and careers.

But as a community – as displayed at Sunday Night Volleyball – we know that the most important grade to earn will always be an “E.”

For effort.

by Josh Kilmer-Purcell

Reader Comments

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Karen

Wow! You write so damn well:) . .

As a girl, I always wondered why one of my own kind would take such relish in hunting those of of us who HATED this game, down and inflict a lot of pain (we girls with glasses were a particular favorite – try and knock our glasses off, if not our entire heads). It wasn’t just dodge ball – it was dodge the incoming missiles! Well this was the 60s, I guess back then bullying was all part of ‘being a kid’ . . .oh brother . . .

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Karen

This post brought back memories that I can laugh at now. And fortunately, I think I was laughing back in school too. I skipped gym class so many times to study for tests or finish homework (at least that’s what I thought then) that I was in danger of not graduating from high school senior year. Fortunately, the class was only pass/fail and you could make up missed classes by going twice to a before school running and what passed for aerobics back then class. I loved it. There were no balls to hit, kick or catch. And no hoping a friend would take pity on me and pick me for their team even though I’d make them lose. Now I know that I focus better after exercise and I still like getting up early to go to the gym. And I use the elliptical while watching Morning Joe and then lift weights.

And I know where those kids who liked PE are. My gym has a class for them and I watch them competing with each other and just feel so glad to be grown.

Thank you for your writing. I hope you are working on a new book. I’ve had a pretty conventional life and I loved your book, “I am not myself these days.” I hate being bored and I think you are much better than I at making sure that you are not. The Amazing Race is my favorite show and I’m glad you won because you get to be on the farm but also because I looked you up to find out more about “Beekman” and found your funny writing and wonderful reality show.

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Angie Falzarano

Josh, I somewhat liked pe. I was pretty much near last all the time for teams in HS, due to being very unpopular. And if you weren’t popular forget it. MS wasn’t so bad. They had gymnastic which I loved. Every pe year in HS I dreaded the most: basketball and tennis. Tennis because I hated tennis and basketball because even despite being a little better than okay at gymnastics, I am very clumsy. I can’t walk across a flat floor without tripping on my own feet. If I could have done activities where I didn’t move around much, I was probably okay. Those boys in your gym classes that picked you last, where are they now? Definitely not a winner of the most challenging reality show! One that required a lot of physical activty with little sleep. I would say that your Bplus has been earned thrice over and proved that even underdogs can come out on top!!!!!

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bill

I did the same thing & no one ever knew! But instead of hiding @ school, I would run home (which was conveniently down the street) and watch All My Children – obviously my parents worked, thank God! Providence is what I consider it!!!

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Entropic Waffle LLC

I also flunked out of gym class in 9th grade! I had a skiing injury in the winter, and had a note from my doctor, but didn’t realize that I was supposed to be attending “remedial PE” after my cast came off. I had all the same issues with being picked last, scrawny kid, hated PE, etc., etc. For years I had recurrent dreams that my high school diploma (and later on, my college degree) would be revoked because of my F in gym!

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Nancy

Maybe that’s why one of my favorite memories of you in high school includes the art teacher and you. Of course we were in downtown Boston at the time but still, clearly you had forged a fabulous relationship from all the time you spent in the art room.

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Marge Takash

Josh: I love your writing. You are so eloquent at expressing your feelings. Thanks!

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Terry Kerekgyarto

What a great story. While I didn’t skim PE in school, I certainly hated every moment of it, so I understand how you felt. It’s nice to hear that the adults of Sharon Springs can get together and just have a good time like that. Although, after my one visit last year, I wouldn’t have expected anything else.

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ConnieW

The IRONIC PART??? The guy so sucky at gym ENDS UP WINNING $1,000,000.00 IN THE AMAZING RACE!!!!! And since you are using a large part of it to help others…..karma repaid!! Kiss any guilt goodbye!

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Annieman

Very nice story. I was not fond of gym either. As always, I enjoy your writing. (Side note: I ordered some tomato sauce yesterday.)

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Sue

Great story! I only skipped gym class once and I got caught…LOL. It’s a great human story. Gotta say, also, that you were an adorable kid!!

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Sue Wimble

Oh Josh, I love your honesty and I really can relate! I got an F in gym in 8th grade (only one marking period) basically because I ‘pretended’ to have clarinet lessons and I *illegally* wore pantyhose under my hideous one piece bloomer-like gym suit and had points deducted!

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Pam Landy

This is a wonderful story, Josh. Thank you so much for sharing it. While I was fairly talented at athletics, I was terrified to try when it came to teams because for some reason, I thought I needed to be perfect from the get go. So I also hated gym and any organized team sports. Now……I am still self conscious, but I try to bite the bullet and join up anyway. I truly hope the Sunday night games will still be going on by the time I can make my move to Sharon Springs……..every time I have visited, EVERYONE has made me feel so welcome….no matter who, how awkward or different I was/am. It’s truly a special little community. Thank you again Josh and Thank you Sharon Springs!

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Jan

I hated high school gym, too. We wore these horrible blue bloomered one piece blue gym suits and white sneakers that had to be polished each week for inspection. My one achievement was to make three baskets in a row and get to sit on the bleachers for the rest of that day’s classes! Highlight of four years….

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Al Davis

Oh dear. I remember PE. Sometimes I wish I could have hidden away too. Why didn’t I think of that. I was a big guy for 8th and 9th grade and thanks to Mother Nature I had body hair a bit too early (I thought). I was so embarrassed about changing my clothes in front of other guys in the locker room. They would stare at me. Sometimes I hid in the bathroom stalls to change into my PE shorts and t-shirt. If I had only known back then what I know now I would have accepted the “Bear” in me and have been proud of my fur, but in 8th and 9th grade I had no idea what a Bear was. I now “Seize the Bear” in me and know it’s a good thing.

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Megan Stringer (@StringerMegan5)

I don’t really remember much about PE in middle school, but in High School you had to “make up” any missed classes, which was really a pain in the ass. I think I missed one swim class because it was that time of the month and I didn’t feel like swimming. I thought the hassle of making it up wasn’t worth five points. I had more important things to do, like homework for real classes that were going to matter later on. The best part was square dancing right before Christmas break. We didn’t have to change into our gym clothes for that, but we did have to find a partner…

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Italia Patterson

Thanks sooo much for sharing Josh. I had similar experiences in school and am greatful that in the end it all turned out ok.

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Beth

I hated PE too, but never would have had the guts to skip it. Maybe if I had I would have gotten a better grade!

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Heather

I was always awful in PE. I’ve assured my kids that this runs in our family so they don’t feel too bad about their lack of athletic prowess. When I was in my 20’s my work had a softball team that would play regularly against other company teams. I don’t know what came over me, but I signed up. I played left field. I still sucked. It was okay, though. There was a couple of times when my teammates groaned at my ability, but it was okay, because I was groaning along with them. Then later over beers we all had fun as a ‘family.’ E for effort.

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Ed

I enjoyed gym class not for the reasons of being picked last. That was just a given being a fat kid. I liked the part when iot came to the shower time and being able to see the other boys naked and my friend. That is about when we were all equal. Oh those fond memories. The class I hated the most was math. Never understood it and did not know how to get help. Gee that was almost 40 years ago. Guess what I still don’t know what A B & C are.

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Leslie

Thank you for sharing your story. Thank you for showing us things do get better.

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momcat1

I think anyone who has won a million dollars on “Amazing Race” has earned his lifetime achievement award for gym cred.

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Robin

What a perfect tale! Have I mentioned how glad I am you’re at the farm full-time? I confess that my feelings are purely in self-interest because now I get to read more of your writing. Hugs to you both XO!

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MelissaKlein Johnson

What a wonderful story,good thing you skipped gym.Who knew how successful you would be if you had too endure that ugliness everyday for years.I think your a great happy well adjusted young man and very smart keep up the good work.

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Barbara

Lucky you Josh! I got the F for not participating. I was picked last alomg with moans and groans from my team! Volleyball was a nightmare – balls hitting me in the head, me cowering to hide from the ball. Yes, very scary and scarring. I have a motto that being grown up means never having to play volleyball again! Maybe sometime I will stop by your gym as a therapy!

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Lynn Schneider

Love this….another reason I love to visit Sharon Springs, everyone is so friendly and happy and positive….

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Kim

My best friend wouldn’t even pick me!! Volleyball scared me and scarred me. I admire you Josh for facing fears with courage, dignity and grace.
Kim

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Cheryl Koflan

Josh once again you & your unique ability to draw us in with your words is amazing and heartfelt! Mezmerizing those of us who willingly admire your wit and love your charm, perhaps it is because you make it so easy for each of us to accept our misgivings and to do it with grace and a warm smile… So very glad that you and Brent went public with your show- allowing each and everyone of us to submerse ourselves in all things Beekman! Sharon Springs is indeed lucky to have both of you… All good wishes.

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sue tolbert

Being a teacher for 31 years I can say I’ve had many JKP’s cross my path. Knowing how I struggled throughout my 12 years of school made me understand my students better. Each of us have something we excell at and many things we just can’t wrap our heads around. As long as my kids showed kindness and respect toward others, I was more than willing to make adjustments in areas that brought unnecessary stress. I’m a perfect example of someone who found success because I knew I could do things my way. It took me longer than many, but in the end a double masters and a specialist degree aren’t to shabby. Josh, you’re just making up for those lost days in 8th grade and actually I bet you still don’t give a rip about the game but about the joy of being with great individuals. sue t.

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