So, what's my problem with the PE-fascists? Well, I was quite good at sport. Not brilliant, not rubbish, but a bit better than average. My hand-eye co-ordination is pretty good. I'm relatively agile, relatively fast and relatively strong. But being quite good is not enough to put you into the teacher's pet bracket. Nor is it enough to get you into the school team. It's good enough to get you onto the reserve's bench of the school team. And there you languish. If you have the temerity to question why you are turning up to matches to spend the entire time sat on a bench and not participating you're told that you lack match experience. Well, whose fault is that? Who is it that focuses all their time, energy, enthusiasm and interest only on the top 5% of the class? Who becomes friends with the star pupils in all the school teams and treats the rest with contempt?
You think I'm exaggerating?
Let me take you through my experience of school sports...
NetballI was quite good and a reserve on the team. I never played a match. Not one. Never. Yet, every year we had an inter-house netball-shooting competition, where you have twenty attempts to score a goal. Each attempt is taken from a different spot - five different spots on each of four different radii, from almost underneath the net out to the perimeter of the goal-scoring circle. One year I scored 19 goals and came first in the whole school. The next year I scored 20 goals. First in the school again. I was still never picked for the team. Do you know who was? All the same people who'd been on the team in the Third Form*, before I joined the school.
RoundersI was quite good. Competent with the bat, fast at running, and with a strong throwing arm that made me ideal for a deep fielder. I spent most of my school career on the reserves bench. Unlike netball, I did play the odd match, but only when someone else was sick or unavailable. Do you know who did play every week? All the same people who'd been on the team in the Third Form, before I joined the school. Then sixth form came, and the PE fascists decided they couldn't be bothered to actually muster a team. Most of their favourites had left to go to co-ed schools for their A-levels, and clearly there was nobody left worth bothering with. So I organised a team, captained it, agreed the fixtures and we had a blast. We even won occasionally.
GymnasticsOK, so my school were national champions in various disciplines, so I was never going to make the team, and it didn't bother me. What's more, it didn't matter and nor did I feel a lesser citizen because of it. And that was because this was Miss Gregory's field, and her lessons were great - inclusive and enjoyable, no matter my skill level. See? By not being a PE-fascist and not devoting all your time and effort only to the elite favourites, it's possible to make sport enjoyable for all. Why none of her colleagues grasped this is an enduring mystery.
AthleticsI played the piano. Bear with me, it is relevant, and not because we had piano-tossing contests. I didn't go to school in Bulgaria. Piano lessons were scheduled for before school, during lunch hour or after school. Or, in my case, in the athletics lessons. Probably the sport I had most skill in, and I never even got to go to the lessons. We used to undertake Amateur Athletics Association awards, where you accrue points based on your performance across a range of field and track disciplines, and the points add up to an award level. One week my piano lesson was cancelled, and in one athletics lesson I accrued enough points for a level three AAA award. And it occurred to literally nobody that perhaps I had some ability at athletics that was worth encouraging, and that perhaps scheduling my piano lesson to preclude me from athletics for three years in a row was, just maybe, not in my best interests.
TennisI was pretty average at tennis. Fair point.
SwimmingAnd so we come full circle. The swimming lessons were divided into groups. The top group were the swimming team, the second were the really quite good swimmers, the third group were passable swimmers and the fourth group were struggling not to drown. I hovered somewhere between the second and third groups, moving up and down from year to year. I'm not a fan of water up the nose or in the eyes, so didn't really have the committment to be good enough to stay in the second group, but was reasonable at backstroke and front crawl, had mastered tumble-turns and was getting the hang of butterfly. And then... oh dear... one of the PE-fascists noticed my breaststroke was plagued by a screw-kick. A screw-kick caused entirely by being born with congenital hip dislocation. I can, with a super-human effort, force my right leg into the correct motion. And then I limp, in pain, for the next two days. Did this explanation hold any water with the PE-fascists? No, it did not. With a flaw identified I was relegated to a special "remedial" group, along with the near-drowners, in which I was condemned to practice only breaststroke until I did it right. I never did. For the remaining years of school swimming lessons I was only ever allowed to practice breaststroke. Unsurprisingly this did nothing to improve my skill at, or enjoyment of, swimming. Equally unsurprisingly it's left me questioning that "confident in the water" tick-box.
All other lessons excluding PEThere must be something about PE that attracts a certain kind of teacher, because in no other lesson do I remember encountering the same attitude. In fact, in some lessons, it was quite the reverse - if you were really good at maths (as I was) the trend was to be left to get on with it while the teacher devoted her time to the students who were struggling. In French, being lousy at pronunciation didn't relegate you to sitting in a corner practicing rolling your rrrrrr's; in English, failing to grasp the subtext of An Inspector Calls didn't condemn you to reading Janet and John books instead; even in Needlework***, being unable to tell one end of a needle from the other didn't excuse you from attempting to make a skirt.
Since I left school in 1993, it's just possible I should stop bearing a grudge against the PE-fascists. Maybe in another twenty-two years.
* For the uninitiated, this is an arcane year-numbering system used by British public** schools to make sure anyone who's not in their club feels left out. In my school's system it was IIIrd form, Lower IV, Upper IV, Lower V, Vth form, Upper V, Lower VI, Upper VI. Perfectly sensible. I joined in Lower IV, which I think equates to Year 7 in decimal currency, but I'm never entirely certain.
** A public school isn't actually public, it's private, but we call it public to confuse Americans. It seems to work.
*** Yes, the kind of all-girls school that has a Lower IV also has Needlework lessons. And Needlework was compulsory and not to be missed, not even for piano lessons, in a way that Athletics was not. Let's get our priorities straight here people - sewing is more important for growing girls than physical exercise.