Those High School Years
I was reminded of my high school days today when a friend passed away. I never did well in school, and it wasn’t the grades that pulled me down, it was the much-needed participation that I found hard to deliver. My grades were good, mostly As and Bs, and then total Fs.
The hardest part of my life was gym class – I hated, not only due to the clubfoot that made me a bit clumsy, the whole idea of putting 30+ girls in a room together to change clothes. I was chubby, and already picked on, and I tried a few times changing clothes in the group, and then in the bathroom so no one could see me. After about the second week in 7th grade I gave up and would no longer participate. I usually sat on the bleachers, or stands, or wherever the class was taking place, in my regular clothes and reading a book. And I did that from 7th grade to 11th and then I discovered I couldn’t graduate high school unless I had changed clothes in front of a hoard of folks and participated in the silliest things.
I took an F – a failure all those years with no regret. I would see the cute girls in their tiny bras walking about with small hips, no jiggle, and tiny stringed panties, and then I would look at myself in the mirror. Why would anyone expect me to change clothes in the same room? I was smarter than most of them, although I never studied, yet still achieved good grades.
In my last year of high school I discovered I couldn’t graduate, if I didn’t participate. Luckily, my mom gave me her credit card to go shopping and I spent most of it on bras and panties that complimented my form. And finally, I dressed out, standing in the stinking locker room with the others. I was still heavy, but had thinned out a bit, and I changed clothes and participated.
My gym teacher, who left the middle school, followed her class to high school, and who I had failed every class under, was still my teacher. I didn’t bring in doctor notes to explain the clumsiness, and we did well. She praised my athletic ability, and wondered why I hadn’t worked so hard in all those years in gym class. I don’t think at the time I could tell her my challenges – I didn’t talk much back then.
Then came the time in April or May, under Georgia heat, we had to run. It was a big part of our grade. With a clubbed foot, and uneven hips, running is not something I do. Evidently, running that quarter mile on the track was part of my grade, and I had to have the grade to graduate. I tried three times and couldn’t do it. Stupid foot, and uneven hips, and with no doctor’s notes or reprieve - my father had quit writing notes for my birth defect in the 4th grade, as he said I must be able to be like the others - I was doomed.
Miss Ward, Maggie Ward, decided we’d do it together. As the other girls sat on the stands, easily done with their part of the grade and agenda, she set a pace that I could do, and ran beside me. We did that quarter mile around the track, her encouraging me the whole way, and I finally received an A in gym class. I had participated for once, but even more, she had seen my unspoken struggles and helped me. I think of her often.
Nowadays, I’m still not very athletic, but I do tend to animals, gardens, swim deeply in the lake, and sometimes play a game of badminton with my husband in the grass. I’m not as athletic as I want to be, but I still hear Ms. Ward encouraging me every time I think I can’t do a thing I know I can do. Sometimes, we don’t actually know our blessings until they are gone.
Our friend Buddy, odd, strange, sweet, and picked on a bit in his youth is gone today. Carol Holland, a teacher who encouraged more than I would have believed is possible, is also gone. And for Ms. Ward, I hope she is still kicking about and will appreciate how much I love and loved her.
I suppose the truth always comes with some pain.
Truth is painful, it’s challenging, and be it a decision or action made for a child, sibling, student, classmate, stranger, spouse, co-worker, or partner, I believe we should be just and fair, thoughtful and understanding when dealing with people we don’t understand. I know it’s hard at times, we all have our own filters, but I believe breaking the lens to see deeper is important.
Ms. Ward didn’t have to be so nice to me, especially while knowing that I needed her help to get my diploma, she also knew I had failed her classes, deliberately, for years. She could have been offended, but she wasn’t. She helped me, and she may have bent a rule or two to get me around that track.
I suppose truth like that is heartbreaking - like watching a sunrise. It’s undergoing pain to experience a birth. It’s falling in the dirt to be reborn. It’s surrendering to the knowledge that we don’t have all the answers.
Today, I lost a friend, and I am reminded of those painful teenage years, where the levels of acceptance were clarified in the locker room dressing out for gym, and then I remember the teachers who saw the least of us and lifted us up. I truly hope my friend experienced the same kindness. I didn’t know him very well as an adult, but I remember him, and us, as kids. And we rocked! Weird, odd, strange, genuine, and mostly unsullied, but a bit scarred, by what was happening around us.