Thursday, 24 September 2015

Probably about time I let some of this go

I take LittleBear swimming once a week, with a brilliant swimming teacher, and it's all jolly good fun, and LittleBear (now) loves it. He's forgotten that the first week (3 years ago!) he sobbed and cried and didn't even want to get in the pool. The lessons require me to fill in a form, including my own swimming ability, for which I tick the box "confident in the water". And every term, when I tick that box, I ask myself if it's really true. And every term, that question is absurd. I may not be the strongest or fastest swimmer in the world, but I'm happy to swim in any pool. I've surfed, I've sea kayaked, I've snorkelled, I've dived, all without qualms, and all without (much) hesitation. OK, so I was pretty rubbish at surfing, and the sea kayaking was a long time ago, but the swimming part was never an issue. But it turns out that my own school swimming lessons have left me with the lingering conviction that somehow I don't "deserve" to tick that box. And that gets me thinking about school PE lessons in general, and what I still think of as the PE-fascists who taught me. (Not all of them, mind you. I still remember Miss Gregory fondly, she was great.)

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...


I 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.


I 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.


OK, 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.


I 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.


I was pretty average at tennis. Fair point.


And 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 PE

There 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.


  1. I've just read your post whilst in my room in a Premier Inn which is located just opposite what used to be the Girls' Grammar School in my home town. I can see the playing fields where I learnt to play lacrosse, rounders and most mind numbingly cricket.
    I left school 23 years before you did and what you describe is very familiar. I was also a travelling reserve at rounders and an occasional third post. I did get into the lacrosse team but as goalie, not a much fought over position. I wore cricket pads and and a padded apron, when we travelled I discovered that at many school's goalie's had protective helmets.
    I gave it up school sports in favour of a Saturday job in Boots and didn't particularly miss it.
    My experience with language teachers was not as positive as yours. My first French teacher, an Italian woman with a far from perfect English accent told me in the 3rd form, Nicola, tu parle Francais comme une vache espagnole, which led to me remaining silent whenever possible in French classes for the next 5 years and left me with a lifelong conviction that I couldn't speak another language.

  2. Your lacrosse experience sounds... erm... perilous! And I'm not entirely sure I blame you for trading sport for a Saturday job. For the most part I think my school did an OK job (for me) at not convincing me I was rubbish in other lessons. It doesn't take much when you're young and impressionable to be put off something for life though, and it's very easy when you're an adult to forget that. You'd have thought teachers would know better. The ones I know now certainly do, so I shall fervently hope that things have changed, before my LittleBear is exposed to it all!

  3. Pas même une vache belge? Quelle horreur! (A favorite insult in the East of France, where I spent a year as a student, was 'Ah, tu fais un peu belge aujourd'hui?') Though seriously, I thought teachers were supposed to encourage their students to learn- let's work on your accent! I took French in a public (govt run) school in Virginia and I can still remember a classmate drawling "Bawwwndjeeer y'all" in the most stereotypical possible fashion. (The teacher corrected him briefly and moved on. No cows were mentioned.)

    Sports are not mandatory here but my boys love soccer so soccer it is. It's strange for me as I am the opposite of athletic, though the spouse played HS football (American that is) in a football worshipping state- and soccer, and track, and so on. But I think organized running around is great? And Bug has actually picked up some soccer skills! Having children of my own gives me funhouse-mirror déjà vu.

  4. Uh... hip displasia? Here too! No I am not DELIBERATELY ignoring your instructions to SWIM PROPERLY. And no, I don't think I'm funny. It HURTS.

    My Dad who is a natural athlete and mostly dispaired impatiently of my incompetence did at least help out there, and taught me side-stroke (the speed-stroke people swam before the Australian Crawl came in) which doesn't involve the attempt to coordinate arms and legs and breathing which is impossible for me (I am naturally Very Uncoordinated) or the symmetry which I conspicuously failed to achieve at breaststroke, and meant I was finally able to confidently build up some good swimming distances, even if they were never, ever competitive...

    But the whole PE team hated me anyway, so...