Hands up all the people who hated the gym when they were at high school.
Right. Me too. And my friends.
It wasn’t as if we were unathletic. We were tennis players and rugby players and cricket players and (above all) soccer players.
And agreed – kicking and chasing a ball, or trying to hit it with a chunk of wood before it gets past you and knocks over three little sticks stuck in the ground (cricket, in case you don’t recognise it), or whacking it backwards and forwards over a net, or throwing it to one another while you dodge being ground into the mud, are pretty mindless activities, but that’s the nature of sport, and at least they’re fun, unlike having to throw yourself at a vaulting horse with the attendant dangers of self-mutilation, or having to swing from one horizontal bar to the other, wondering whether hands or teeth are going to make contact with the lower one first.
But above all it was the atmosphere of backslapping jockism we despised.
That and the hearty exhortations and testosteronic exhibitionism of the gym teacher.
All of which gave me the beginning of Walker’s Runners (J. Lorimer & Co. 2002), which I’ve used so many times at readings I can almost do it from memory.
Toby hated the gym.
He hated it for its noise – its triumphant shouts and derisive hoots. He hated it for its smell of mouldering sneakers and frantic sweat. He hated it for what it represented: a shallow comradeship and noisy jockism …
And he hated it for the humiliation he feared he feared every time he entered it, the humiliation that awaited him in just a few seconds, unless he could fend it off with a few good wisecracks.
His grade six class was standing in six groups at the end of the gym, five students in each group. Ms. Watkins, the phys. ed. teacher, had pointed to six students and told them they were team leaders, and then each team leader had taken turns choosing whom they wanted on their team. That was humiliation number one. Toby knew he was overweight, and he knew he was slow, and he knew he’d be the last to be chosen.
Every time I read this, I pause at and he knew he’d be …
And every time the audience (young or old) choruses last to be chosen.