I hear that many people look back on their elementary school gym classes with fondness. Me. Not so much. My emotional experience of gym class ranged between mildly awkward to extremely humiliating. Three times each week, I loathed how my school day, that is the part where I was sitting at my desk, doing things I was good at, being interrupted by the required scheduled physical education classes.
I would go to the cloak room and from my designated hook, grab the wilted cloth bag that contained my gym strip. The t-shirt and shorts were brought to school in September only to be returned home to be laundered for Christmas break and then again at the end of the school year in June.
After reaching the girls change room, along with me would come the first feeling of awkward. The very fact of taking my clothes off in front of people felt weird and wrong. I would try to melt into myself hoping nobody would notice me as I quickly removed my pants and changed into my gym shorts and then the t-shirt. I felt naked and exposed as I changed. Changing in a bathroom stall was not an option and would only make matters worse. Only the very most dorky girls and chubby girls changed in a bathroom stall. Because I was always on the cusp of being almost acceptable, but never actually safe from being labeled a total dork, I could not afford to bring attention to my sense of feeling awkward.
All the other girls, it seemed, were talking and laughing as they changed from our regular clothes to gym strip, not even paying attention, really, to the fact that their skin was bare.
Then there was the start of class. When gym started, we would first do some drills. While other children seemed to have the hand-eye coordination pretty much figured out, I was a disaster even at the most basic level. I would miss the ball as I was bouncing it, my hand bouncing against dead air as the ball bounced in another direction from where my hand was dutifully trying to connect to the ball. Someone would throw the ball directly to me, and it would whistle right by my face or hands, me missing it. When I threw a ball to someone, it seemed to take on a life of its own and rather than go anywhere near my intended target; the ball would shoot off in a wild direction, thus missing who I was throwing it to, being even too far for them to reach out and grab it. I would feel the heat on my face burn as my classmate would glare at me with a confused expression that said, “what the heck are doing?”
Finally, when things could not get any more distressing, it would be time for us to play a game of sorts. Depending on the weather, we would play indoor or outdoor soccer or another team-based sport like softball. It wasn’t too bad if the teachers had us chosen for our respective teams by having us count off “1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2 . . . “ I was always somewhat relieved when the teacher divided us into teams this way. It was when the teacher would pick a captain for each team, such chosen students always being the class’s top athletes, that I pretty much wanted to have the ground swallow me.
For the most part, kids in my class pretty much liked me, but they did not like me well enough to choose to be on the losing side of a game by having me on their team. I was not only unhelpful to any team but a complete and total liability.
As the captains would pick out their teammates, going from the talented players first, to the ones somewhat less skilled, and then, the dregs, I would always be standing there either the very last, or second to last pick. It was the worst. Really.
It was during a basketball game in grade seven that Devona wished for two things. First of all, she wished, she had not convinced me to join her for our grade seven year at her school (us always having gone to separate schools until then). Secondly, that she wished she had not told everyone I was her very best friend.
We were in the gymnasium, playing basketball against a team from another school. For the first time in my life, I felt involved in playing the game. Unlike what was usually the case, I was not standing on the sidelines as a spectator, hoping the ball would not come near me, or be passed to me, or that I would in any way be noticed. In this particular game, for some reason, I was deeply consumed in the play. And it was exciting. And I loved it.
My heart raced as then, I, for the very first time in the history of Valorie Hemminger’s life, gained control over the basketball itself during a game. Despite such a feat being unheard for me, I was going with it. Finally, I understood why other kids enjoyed sports so much. It was about being in the action itself. Not only was I in deep play but I had the ball. Not wasting a moment, I headed down the court towards the net. I could not believe it. Nobody seemed to be catching up with me. Was I fast for once?
Unlike every other time when an opposing player quickly snatched the ball from me because of my inexpert dribbling, there were no other players around me. My heart pounded in my chest as I looked up and could see the net. It did not even seem to be guarded by any players. The golden opportunity before me revealed itself, and I was not going to waste it. Continuing with dribbling the ball, and a few stumbles here and there, I knew my target. I was going for that net.
The excitement in me boiled over in my heart and chest. I, Valorie Frances Hemminger, sports failure, was playing basketball, and for the first time ever, I was experiencing the extreme excitement of a breakaway move.
I got close to the net. I squared up as I had been taught to do in gym class. And still, with not yet another player in sight (because I was such an athletic genius I told myself), I shot that ball toward the net. And bang, it hit the rim of the net and bounced off, missing the basket. But to my sheer joy, the basketball did not shoot off in some weird direction, but instead bounced off the rim and towards me thus allowing me to grab it again, and try again, this time shooting and scoring. I had hit the pinnacle of my intra-mural success. I had sunk a ball. My hands shot up in the air, as I wooted with pleasure. I looked around the gym with a feeling of success that I had never experienced before.
I expected to see the perhaps somewhat surprised, but jubilant and proud faces of my teammates. I saw surprise alright. As I looked for my team, I could see that they, along with the opposing team, were at the other end of the court, all looking back towards me with confusion on their faces. Was that irritation I saw too? It was not what I was expecting.
Then the dawning on me happened. It reminded me of the same feeling I had when I did my worst party fail ever. I was in my forties at this time. I went to join my dear friend and some friends at a party. We had been at a beach party that day, and after the sun had gone down and we had gotten cold, we wanted to continue to have fun. Jolanda found someone who was having a party that evening and texted me the address. Our plan was that we would meet there. It was a party where although I was arguably invited, the host of the party was not someone I knew directly. It is not unusual for our extended social circle of friends to have parties and invite whoever they come across to the party; it is open for a guest to bring another guest with them so long as they check it out and okay it with the host first. Despite this, at any of our parties, I could usually expect to see at least some of our crowd at every single party I go to, whether invited directly or not. Whether Jolanda was going or not.
So, I went to the party, and although I did not yet know anyone who was in attendance, I was not at all bothered. I told myself that it is good for me to explore social environments that are not exactly with the same people all the time. Plus, I knew that Jolanda would be there shortly, and no doubt some of our other friends would soon arrive. So, I waited. I waited despite feeling strangely out of place. I was not only somewhat older than the other party guests there, but much older, like by two decades at least. I was certainly old enough to be everyone else’s parent.
Also, the overall social culture of this party was totally different than the parties I usually attended. Unlike the parties I generally experience, where people are generous with sharing their drinks and other party libations, these party people, were carrying their six packs of beer under their arms as they traveled from room to room.
Not only was the party culture different, but also the house itself seemed to be kind of rough. Our greater social circle of friends are at least into their thirties, and forties, and well established regarding their careers, and homes. For the most part, our friends are at the stage where we have matching towels and furniture. Some of us even have somewhat of a design theme in our homes. This house was not only in need of an exterior paint job but had mismatched living room furniture. Its kitchen was not tiled with trendy tile or granite but had old cracked arbourite on its countertops.
The whole atmosphere blasted me back to the days of being in undergrad. Students on tight budgets, we often cobbled together our living arrangements in shared accommodation, and although trying to party and have a great time, we had to make sure we were looking after our personal party supplies at all times.
A couple of hours in, Jolanda still had not arrived. I went from being a bit uncomfortable to totally pissed off. Although Jolanda has never been the best at being punctual, this was beyond what was acceptable regarding being fashionably late. I broke down and sent Jolanda a furious text.
“Where in the hell ARE you?” my text said.
Jolanda, responded right away, “On the deck,” she said.
“Oh, ok, my bad,” I thought, “I will just go join her on the deck.”
I headed out to the deck. It was a summer evening and packed with people. Still no Jolanda though. And still nobody else I knew either
Then a horrible thought came to me.
I dug out my cell phone again and looked at the text with the house address Jolanda had given to me what was now several hours earlier. I then crept around to the outside and front of the house. Reading the house number, I then realized I was at least a couple of blocks from the party I should have been at. The destination of the party I had actually been invited to was down the road. The party where Jolanda had been having a great time for hours by now.
So, I am standing in the gymnasium and looking around at the astonished faces of not only my teammates but the opposing team and spectators. With horror, I realized that the only reason why I had the breakaway, and that nobody had come near as I shot, missed, then caught the rebound, and then reshot only to score, was that I was at my team’s net. I had scored on my team.
Okay, sure. People make mistakes. And it is probably true that in the entire history of the sport of basketball that even some passable players have made such an error.
Trying to make myself feel better, I did some research on the common mistakes that kids make during basketball games. As it turns out, scoring on your own team is not a very common mistake at all.
Am I being too hard on myself?
I don’t think so.
This story does get worse. As if scoring against my team was not enough, I did it again, the very same thing, in the very same game.