Remembering Mrs. Hermann, Remembering Me

Gym class, circa 1969-1972, Halifax Elementary School.  There I stood, from first grade through third, tall, skinny, knobby-kneed, in Keds girl sneakers and little tan corduroy pants with a matching purple and tan long sleeved cotton shirt, or maybe a cotton shorts and smocked blouse ensemble from Carter’s, waiting for Mrs. Hermann to start us jogging laps around the gym.  For the first three years with Mrs. Hermann, I held onto the hope that gym class would turn into something fun, where we might play games like catch, with a big, bouncy rubber ball.  Remember those gym balls?  They were about the size of a basketball, but so rubbery and bouncy that the slightest touch would send them bobbing across the room, bouncing off the cement wall and plop-plopping right back to you.  Or maybe she would put on a record and we’d play freeze dance, or just any kind of dance, and we could wiggle and giggle around until we were a little bit sweaty and tired.  Even going outside and swinging on the swing set would have been great, but that was apparently not in the curriculum.  Instead, we jogged laps around the gym, starting with ten the first week  in September, and adding a lap each week until by May we were spending half the class time running in circles.  Then we did sit-ups and push-ups.  We learned the finer points, often by trial and error for me because I had never played any of them before,  of dodge ball, basketball, volleyball, and gymnastics.  I dreaded gym each week, afraid I wouldn’t be able to run the laps and would be unable to perform even half of the sit-ups and none of the push-ups.  I was afraid I would get hit by a ball, and I knew I would never be chosen for a team, but would be the last one standing after the captains had made their best choices.  Each week I tried to stand next to the other girl who didn’t seem to be good at gym, either.  Her name was Brenda, and she was nice to me, and whispered not to feel bad when the kids started choosing teams.  She was a chubby girl, so chubby that her mom made her special stretchy pants with big bell bottoms because none of the kids’ clothes in the stores fit her body.    We were always the last, and Mrs. Hermann would make the captains choose us, because we had to participate.  It was the rule.

By the time fourth grade rolled around, I had become a chubby girl too, with a round face, serious thighs,  and little breasts pushing against my cotton undershirts.   Hair had started growing under my arms and between my legs.  My sweat glands began working overtime, even when I was at rest.  I got my period.  I’m pretty sure I was the only ten-year-old in my elementary school who started menstruation in fourth grade.  Mrs. Hermann still began our weekly class by having us  jog laps around the gym, and I had become disillusioned— with jogging, team sports, and anything else to do with fitness.  Mrs. Hermann had two favorite students and I remember their names still:  Barbara   and Lonnie.  They could run circles around me, literally, and could climb the ropes to the top.  Every year they each won the Presidential Physical Fitness Award.  They dashed the 100 yard dash in record time, hung forever in the spiral arm hang, and did hundreds of sit-ups and push-ups.  I remember hearing Mrs. Hermann tell another teacher in the hall once that Barbara and Lonnie were real college material. They were true athletes.   Apparently her standards were only related to physical fitness, as neither of them were particularly good students.

Jogging the laps was the hardest, not including dealing with the embarrassment of being picked last for every team sport we played.  Mrs. Hermann consistently chose Barbara or Lonnie to lead the class, and at the completion of each lap, they would yell out the lap number so Mrs. Hermann didn’t have to keep track herself.  She played records while we jogged.  She was quite fond of “Jingle Bell Rock”, which she played year-round.  I started off strong each week, but by the fifth or sixth lap, I would feel a stitch in my side, or feel sick enough to have to run to the big trash barrel in the corner to throw up.  If the stitch started, I’d try to ignore it.  I’d slow down until I was the last jogger.  Soon, Barbara and Lonnie would pass me, grinning and making faces, and I’d feel the tears start to prick behind my eyes.  I’d slow down to a veritable crawl, holding my left side, and Mrs. Hermann would trot over to me and ask me to walk in circles around the center of the gym until the stitch subsided.  Once in a while, a girl named Shelly would get a stitch too, and the two of us, not friends at all, would take small, easy steps together around and around while the rest of the class finished their laps.  Shelly never looked at me or talked to me, but I could sense her embarrassment too, for having a stitch, and for having to share the center of the gym with me.

By fifth grade, we were still jogging out the first part of class,  climbing ropes that went up to the impossibly high ceiling, (or at least some of us were), playing dodge ball, (those big bouncy rubber balls hurt when they hit your head or chest, especially when flung across the room by a boy), and learning basic gymnastic skills like the parallel bars and the horse.  Once in a while I came close to  feeling happy, like when Mrs. Hermann taught us square dancing.  She pulled out her old record player and put on a vintage call record, and the boys and girls in class giggled and stumbled as they tried to follow the calls.  Because my grandparents square danced, I was familiar with the calls, and loved trying to make it work with my classmates.

Mrs. Hermann was old, and smoked Pall Malls.  She would sometimes go outside and light up and watch us jog in circles around the gym through the big plate-glass windows that looked out onto the teachers’ parking lot.  I could see her taking long drags off of her cigarette as I plodded along in the line.  She was always tan, from being outside all the time playing tennis and softball, and from taking two weeks off in February to go to Florida.   Her eyes were bright blue, her hair short, curly peroxide-blond.  She dressed in old-fashioned navy blue ladies’ gym dresses with little white panties underneath, and tennis shoes.  She was as wrinkled as a raisin from all her time sunbathing, and I wondered how her chicken-y neck was able to get as brown as her leathery face.

Mrs. Hermann was Jewish, which was a novelty for all of us kids in our small town.  None of us knew anyone else who was a Jew, and some of the kids got annoyed when they heard she would be absent for the Jewish holidays.  I was secretly thrilled, and prayed to Jesus every week that Mrs. Hermann would be celebrating one of her special holidays because I knew I would never be singled out by the substitute gym teacher.  The sub was usually the principal, Mr. Malone, and he liked me because I was well behaved, and because I was smart and did well on standardized tests.  He said I helped make it look like he was doing a really good job.  I knew Mrs. Hermann did not think I made her look like she was doing a really good job.

Once, after several weeks of working on gymnastics, she  invited our parents in for a special event to see how well our skills had developed.  I’m sure she was trying to keep me from feeling bad about myself, or maybe it was for her own benefit, to a degree, but each time it was my turn to demonstrate an activity, she quickly skipped over me and went on to the next kid.  Finally, when it came time for the horse, everyone had a chance but me.  I stood up, shaking with nerves, and told her I was ready to take my turn.  She acted surprised that she had missed me, but as I walked, trembling to the edge of the mat, she encouraged me to do my best.  I ran the length of the blue mat leading up to the horse, but chickened out and barely made it onto the smooth leather at the top of the equipment.  Dismount?  I gingerly slid off, and all the parents clapped as if I had just done something marvelous and Olympics-worthy.  She told my mother that I tried hard, but just didn’t have the body or the drive to do gymnastics.  I really wasn’t an athletic child.

Mrs. Hermann was not mean to me.  She consistently gave me an S2 on my report cards, which indicates satisfactory performance with average effort.  By the time I was in sixth grade, I was honestly not earning a 2 in the effort department, but by that time she probably just felt bad for me.  Things were different then, teachers didn’t look to individual children’s needs they way they do now.  She was probably as sick of me as I was of her.  When we played softball, I took the outfield, and if a ball came my way, I happily moved aside while the shortstop took over for me and caught the fly ball.  When we played dodge ball, I stepped into the ball right away so I could sit on the edge of the gym floor and daydream while everyone else played.  For volleyball, I served the best I could, then got out of the way so the good players could try to win.  I was not interested in playing, never mind winning.

I left elementary school, and went on to junior high and high school, where I held onto the same feelings about gym class.  I was no longer chubby, but I knew I was not an athlete.  I put forth some effort, but not much, and eked out what little I had in me to pass gym.  By high school  we had some choices in what we could do to earn our credits,  and I spent my time in the weight room, chewing gum and chatting with the other lazy non-athletic girls, carefully listening for Ms. Maynard coming up the stairs.  When we heard her coming, we’d grab some free weights or flop onto a mat and start some leg lifts or donkey kicks to look busy.  I spent all that young life embarrassed and afraid of moving my body.  There are days still when I can hear Mrs. Hermann’s raspy Pall Mall voice calling me to the center of the gym floor to walk off that stitch, or waving me off to the nurse’s office because I threw up in her trash barrel.

Cape Ann, this morning.   I ran 7 1/2 miles.  I ran fast.  I did not get a stitch in my side or throw up in any trash barrels.  I felt my legs, powerful and strong, my heartbeat, steady and rhythmic, and my breath, even and deep.  I ran downhill, uphill, by the sea, by shops, and by other runners and walkers.  I came home and took a deliciously hot shower.  Just then I thought of Mrs. Hermann, and a small part of me wanted her to see me now, just to show her the  athlete I have become.  The bigger part of me stood tall, muscular, and slim in front of the bathroom mirror.  I looked at my reflection, and recognized that nervous, awkward little girl still there inside of me.  I touched her gently on her shoulder  and  gave her a smile of encouragement.  I told her she did fine after all.

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3 Comments on “Remembering Mrs. Hermann, Remembering Me”

  1. Robin Says:

    I found this so moving, Elizabeth. Gym was a shame-fest for me as well, and I don’t think I’ve moved past it quite so completely. Your journey is encouraging, and poignant. Thanks for sharing it.

    Great writing as well —
    “big, bouncy rubber ball. Remember those gym balls? They were about the size of a basketball, but so rubbery and bouncy that the slightest touch would send them bobbing across the room, bouncing off the cement wall and plop-plopping right back to you”
    I could smell those rubbery gym balls, and see that particular shade of red they were!

  2. Pat Says:

    Another good piece…You spoke for all of us girls who were never good at “gym” but became athletes in spite of gym class..Thankx

  3. […] first is that I have a lot of energy!  The second is that, although I sometimes still feel like the little girl I was in gym class with Mrs. Hermann, I was able to see that I am equally as fit if not more so than my peers.  I did my “barefoot […]

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