Writing is like being able to put life into a snow globe. It takes the things that are too big and scary and reduces them into a form that I can put away when I want and look at from a distance. It also takes all that’s good in life and captures it into something I can take out when I want and look at close up and keep forever. It makes the bad things into something I can hold…and the good things into something I can hold onto. Both help so much that I need that little souvenir of life.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A Peggy Hill Moment

I got stuck.

I got stuck because I’m trying to recall how far I’ve come from the anger, but in order to do that, I have to recall the anger itself. And I don’t want to do that.

So I won’t for now.

For now, I’ll stick to the day I had last week. I subbed in middle school P.E., which I almost never do. The P.E. part, that is. I’m not sure why I took the job in the first place other than the fact that it was in a school near a store where I’ve been wanting to shop. Plus it meant I got to wear my beloved Reeboks to work. Ahhh.

I like gym because you get to just sit back and observe the kids…sort of like an anthropologist of adolescence. I often think, as I’m sitting there playing gym teacher and supposedly monitoring the game, that gym class is such a microcosm of our competitive selves.

I was horrible at gym in middle school. Horrible. I still think of my middle school gym years as a nightmarishly literal sweat-and-blood struggle mixed with ill-fitting polyester and pubescent agony.

Ironic, then, that I’ve grown up to play gym teacher sometimes. I do it because I feel like it slightly smudges the helplessness I used to feel. That, and all I have to do is stand with my arms on my hips and yell a lot. I yell, “LISTEN UP!” and “LET’S GO!” like I know what I’m doing. Here is a confession: I sometimes don’t even know the rules of the game.

The horror is that I wasn’t one of the pale gawky girls who look like they should be bad at gym. In my experience, they are usually just annoyed with sports, but they’re really not that bad at playing them. I was truly bad at gym. The kid who came closest to who I was at that age was a mostly unattractive girl with pretty hair. She continuously shrieked and cried, “Don’t hurt me!” while darting delicately away from the ball every time. When it would land near her, she’d slap that icky ball limply away. I was in much greater denial of my sports-helplessness and therefore much less demonstrative of it, but I had about that much interest, grace, and talent.

Turned out the kids were playing Dodge Ball. With today’s no-risk mindset, that sort of surprised me, although the balls were partially deflated so that they made a horribly explosive noise when they struck the right way but didn’t really hurt. I know they didn’t hurt because I accidentally got hit once. The kids all giggled and watched me to see what I'd do (I laughed and told them I was now going to cheer for the other team.) I asked if the deflating of the balls was intentional, and the other P.E. teacher said it was just a byproduct of being too lazy to blow them up.

At one point a male gym teacher told me I had to go in the girls’ locker room to “…make sure they don’t fight or anything.” I had to laugh at that. Middle school girls don’t tend to have fist fights; when they get mad, they make each others’ lives miserable in every possible way. It’s far more prolonged than a straight-forward fist fight and causes far deeper and more permanent scars.

Something happens to boys in middle school gym—they wrestle and tumble and fight. But girls just sit there and talk. Even the truly athletic girls don’t play aggressively, and they’re all considerably more athletic than they used to be. Even the best of them lob the ball—not with that anger that the boys seem to have—but with a calm competitiveness. One little pony-tailed girl moved like a dancer and hit the ball so hard it whistled, all with a benign smile on her face. The other gym teacher confided that the boys were afraid of her, and it was clear he was right.

It struck me that I was observing a civil war of sorts, the way each side just faced each other and picked off the other side like that. Interesting who was left standing, too. In each class, there seemed to be a little girl who fared well simply by virtue of being too thin to hit easily. In each case, the girl stood with her hands stick-straight at her sides or twiddled her hair or picked at her cuticles while the balls screeched past her head. Occasionally she stepped out of the way, looking slightly bored.

In one class, the kid who was left standing every time was a boy I had in In-House Suspension last week. I think he was left because he’s the kind of kid people just don’t notice, and he stood in one corner looking out of place in gym shorts. In eighth grade, this angry looking red-headed child looks like he should be wearing camouflage. Somehow even his normal clothes look like camouflage.

Last week in in-house suspension he spent half of a class period playing with his eraser, and at the end of the day he picked lint off the carpet and put it in his pocket to take home. He told me that dead people always talked to him, and—I know it’s horrible of me—I asked him if they told him to get back to work.

He’s one of those kids you can’t help but worry about, both for his own sake and for others’. When he’d end up left standing in Dodge Ball and all the other kids suddenly noticed him and started throwing balls at him, you could tell he was taking it personally. He’d suddenly come alive and start throwing back with such anger that it made my throat ache. I noticed he hit the same girl several times after she was out, too.

I really did want to ask him what the dead people said to him, by the way, but I would have been encouraging him to be “off task.” Talking dead people are against the rules in middle school.

“Everyone gets hurt. Meaning’s got nothing to do with it.” Aryn Kyle, God of Animals

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