The Good Gym Teacher

I always have bad early memories of gym class.  We had to wear these horrible zip up one piece uniforms. They were blue and white and were to be taken home on Fridays for washing and brought back on Mondays. The uniforms were 100% polyester.  It was like sweating in a sandwich bag.

The worst part was the gym teacher.  Her idea of gym was teaching  the basic rules for a game and letting us all go at it.  Basketball, I had no clue how to dribble or shoot, I simply followed the examples of the other girls.  Half of them also had no clue what they were doing either. The few girls that did simply bullied the rest of us and made sure they were all on the same team.

Those skinny arms weren't getting many volleyballs over the net

Those skinny arms weren’t getting many volleyballs over the net

The athletic girls were always in red pennies.  A penny is a little smock like vest that ties so that the two teams do not look alike.  Teams weren’t picked, it was just the girls with any skills grabbed the red pennies and handed them out to their athletic friends.  I never understood how the gym teacher could just watch one side being slaughtered. No  matter what sport was, basketball, volleyball, flag football or soft ball, the teacher would just sit and chuckle every now and again.  If the class were playing an outside game such as soccer, she would sit and watch and smoke a cigarette.  Teachers often smoked if they were outside even when they were teaching.  The 1970’s were very different than today.

The worst day of gym class was when Katie had her nose broken during  a game of volleyball.  She was spiked right in the face.  Katie was the daughter of the school principal, and we could tell evil gym teacher suddenly realized she might have gone too far encouraging the spirit of unfair play.  Katie’s screams were only matched by the sound of the ambulance sent to take her to the hospital.

LIFE magazine photograph of a smoking gym teacher, at least this is the the teachers lounge.

LIFE magazine photograph of a smoking gym teacher, at least this is the the teachers lounge.

Rumors abounded if Katie had died or not.  Also while we were sad Katie was at a hospital, we rather thought if she did die we might get a new nicer gym teacher.  We couldn’t believe that you should have students, especially the principal’s daughter, die while you were educating them.

When we showed up for gym class a few days later, and there was a new teacher, we all assumed our friend had died and broke out in tears.  Even the mean girls joined in, though the one who had spiked the ball into her face though didn’t cry at all.  She was from a serious Catholic family and later assured us all she had to beg her mother to take her to a special confession. “I remember being afraid if I died before I had confessed I would go to hell, I couldn’t stop crying until I’d confessed.”  The Episcopalian raised me replied with “Well, you felt better, but Katie probably didn’t.  You should have at least bought her some flowers or something.”

As much as the new gym teacher, Mrs.Scott, was shocked by a classfull of crying 11 an 12 year olds, we were equally shocked by her.  She was black.  The Middle School had never had a black teacher before.  Those of us with limited athletic abilities cried even more loudly as everyone knew all black people could play sports well, so we were doomed to be hated and despised by the new teacher.  Mrs.Scott proved up to the challenges a black teacher in a very much all white school faced in the early 1970’s, though I wonder if any black teacher ever had to face a class full of crying white children asking when the funeral was to be held.

First off, she calmed the class by assuring us Katie was not dead, but would be allowed to miss gym for the rest of the year.  This was because of the many surgeries she would be needing.  Mrs. Scott then had us all get ready to play volleyball.  As usual, the taller, stronger, athletic and just plain old meaner girls grabbed the red pennies.  The rest of us lined up on the other side of the net.  Need I say there was a faint hope that perhaps our noses could also be broken, which seemed a small price to pay to get out of gym class for the rest of the year.

Mrs.Scott looked up at the very uneven teams.  Even just from a height standpoint, the short “I haven’t developed yet” girls were on one side and the “I sprouted early” tall girls were on the other.  Mrs.Scott then did the unthinkable, she mixed up the teams.  Protests galore came from both sides, let’s face it we were afraid of the mean girls, but she did it anyway.  Next she sat back to watch us attempt to play.  Both sides were now even, but also both sides now played horribly.  Mrs. Scott took notes.  We all had our names printed on the back of our polyester one piece gym uniforms, and we could see she was writing down names.

The bell rang, freeing us all from the hell that was mixed teams, and Mrs.Scott called out names.  My name was the first she called out.  We were all to stay after school, meeting in the gym in our gym clothes.  Lunch time that day was a flurry of rumors.  Why did she want to see all the lousy gym students?

The thing we all agreed on was that  we liked Mrs.Scott. She didn’t yell, she was very young, and she even wore lipstick.  We were also smart enough to understand she was an experiment.  We were a liberal, if mainly white, community.  My friends and I worried during lunch that if we weren’t better athletes perhaps she would quit, and go to a black school where the students were all good athletes.  Then we worried perhaps the school hired her to see if she could successfully transform us into good athletes, and if she failed there would be no more black teachers hired.  Maybe she would  be fired if we didn’t shape up.  Our liberal parents would be so disappointed if we had caused a set back in the Civil Rights struggle by being terrible athletes.  While we were almost all from liberal families, let’s just say we still had a lot to learn about black stereotyping.

We all showed up after school at the gym.  Mrs.Scott mentioned that she noticed none of us could serve the volleyball over the net.  We all nodded our heads in shame.  Mrs.Scott then took a volleyball and slowly went over the steps of serving a volleyball.  She then took each of us, one by one, and  went over how to serve.  We had never been taught how to serve a ball, and it was considered a miracle by most of us if the ball made it over the net.

Instead we learned that anyone could serve a ball over the net, it was simply knowing how and a little practice.  It took less than an hour, but soon we were all happily ,and almost always successfully, serving balls.  Mrs.Scott had us come back after school a few more days to simply learn the basics of how to play as a team.  The rest of the volleyball season was wonderful.  While the more athletic girls still stood out, they were part of a team where we all learned to work together.  Playing the game became fun.

We can do it!

We can do it!

This went on for the rest of the years I was at the school.  I learned how to dribble a basketball, how to do kick a soccer ball,  and how to jump over a hurdle and pass a baton during relay races.  I wasn’t good enough for any school team, but I became good enough to enjoy the gym class.  Even the worst of us no longer feared gym class.

The best moment for me was when I had to climb the rope.  Each year, for some unknown reason, we had to climb the rope to the top of the gym.  If you did not try you got a fail for your grade.  This meant we all held the rope for a few moments and looked like idiots while our feet dangled.  That way we got a C.

Mrs.Scott did actually laugh out loud when she saw the attempts at climbing most of us made.   Mrs.Scott called me over, and said I was going to show the class anyone can climb to the top of the gym using the rope.  I thought she was crazy.  Still, I liked her too much to refuse, so I went over to be her guinea pig.

She had me hold the rope, and then showed me how to wrap the rope around my one leg.  “Use your foot as a brake” she said, showing me how if I put my foot on the rope wrapped around my leg I could rest and not lose the progress I had made.  It was as simple as hands reaching up, pull up legs, and put on the brake.  I kept going and going, and in no time was touching the beam at the top of the gym.  I had been warned NOT to slide back down or I would have rope burns.   Instead ,slow but steady, I made it down.  I set no speed records, but I had climbed to the top of the gym.

That year every student got an A for the rope climb.

Today I can still serve a volleyball, in fact it came in handy for the rest of my life.  Anyone want to play?  I may not be a great player, but I can get the ball over the net and enjoy the game.

I bet I can still climb a rope.

I learned that gym wasn’t a class for just the gifted.  It was, like any other class, a place to learn.  You could learn how to serve a volleyball, you could learn how to play basketball, and anyone could enjoy the incredible pride that comes with climbing the rope to the top of the gym.  You just needed a gym teacher that got the teaching part of her job.

No longer did the non athletic long for broken noses.  Mrs. Scott taught us to enjoy gym class.

Out with the old, in with the new...anyone can produce art.

Out with the old, in with the new…anyone can produce art.

Later in life when I started teaching art, I followed the example of Mrs.Scott.  I was not there just to offer encouragement to those students that were naturally gifted at art.  Those that spent hours drawing on their own time and had a sense of color and design were given their fair share of my attention.  But, I saw my job as encouraging those less talented by teaching them how to draw, how to sculpt, how to look at the world and see balance and design.


There are tools and tricks any good artist knows, but they are rarely taught to young children.  Holding out your thumb?  That has a real purpose and isn’t just a movie cliche.  The joy that a student finds in drawing a realistic self portrait using the grid system is well worth the little bit of time it takes to teach this technique.  My job was to teach, not to sift out the talented from the non talented.  My goal was for every student to be happy to be going to art class, and to learn things they would take with them the rest of their lives.  If it was only an appreciation for art they viewed, I wanted them to know art had something for everyone.

Mrs.Scott stayed at the school I had attended until her retirement.  She still has my gratitude for not only teaching me how to serve a volleyball, but also how as a teacher I owe an education to every student in my class.


Categories: General Stuff!

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7 replies

  1. Great story well told! What happened to the mean teacher?

  2. Kitty,
    I have reflagged this piece this morning. I hope you don’t mind. If you do I will gladly take it down.
    Again. Good job.

    • That is re-blogged!! Damn spell checker!

      • no please thank you. Also WE NEVER KNEW WHAT HAPPENED TO THE BAD GYM TEACHER! No one every mentioned Miss Rogers. We never ever found out. No one really worried too much about her, and it should be noted Katie came back with a wonderful new nose, but a small scar on her forehead, not sure why. She wears bangs to this day. (it’s not that bad, maybe the surgeons slipped or something). Her nose still looks great.

  3. I read it to the end in one go, even though I’m supposed to be at work after lunch.

  4. Unfortunately bad teaching is widespread beyond the bounds of Gym class these days. In the light of competition and high marks only those gifted in any area are encouraged to proceed further. Teaching anyone that doesn’t “get it” directly is too much trouble.


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