Chapter 3 in a series, beginning here.
If C.E. Budd School was a castle, the gym was the dungeon. Sunk below ground level, it was cold and dark and filled with various torture devices like the heavy knotted ropes which hung from the ceiling, metal balance beams, and suspicious lengths of volleyball netting. A kid could scream as loud as he could in that room, and no one on the outside would hear.
Three times a week, we were forced to endure unspeakable punishments in that gym, things like basketball and tumbling and various forms of running and stretching and jumping rope. It was hideous, and the worst part was, the parents knew all about it and didn’t do a thing, using excuses like, “I had to do it when I was a kid,” as if that made it any better.
Even my teacher was in on it. When it was time for gym, Mrs. Henry made us line up at the door in reverse alphabetical order. She thought this was creative and educational, but all it did was make sure Jessica White was first and I was last and everybody else just memorized who they had to stand next to and never thought about it again.
Mrs. Henry held up her finger like we were still in kindergarten, and we all quieted down and copied her. You can’t talk if you have your finger in the air. It’s like a law or something.
Once we were all lined up and quiet, Mrs. Henry led us snake-like through the halls lined with students’ papers and colorful bulletin boards. We walked single-file down the steps into the belly of the school where the lights grew dim and the painted walls changed to colorless, glossy subway tiles that reflected our eyes back to us.
The lunch room was on one side of the dark hallway. Here, the smells of Salisbury steak and overcooked peas mingled with the smell of Pine-sol from the janitor’s closet. We were so quiet with our fingers up in the air, we could hear the lunch ladies chattering about the latest development on The Young and the Restless, which was a show about people kissing each other and then running around and kissing other people and getting all mad about it.
We filed past the band room where Miss Watkins was trying to teach five boys how to play brass instruments. Their cheeks were puffed and red, and she had the look of woman who was trying to have more patience than she really had, like the way my mom looked when we were acting up in church and she couldn’t do anything about because God was watching.
The next door opened to the dun-gym. On the other side, Mr. Peterson would be waiting, and next to him, Ms. Miller. Mr. Peterson liked it when we called him Coach. He wore his Loudonville Redbirds hat every day, even inside, which was against the law, but Coach didn’t seem to know about it. He carried gum in his pocket, and sometimes, right in the middle of gym class, he’d shout “Free throw!” and everybody had to rush for a basketball and make one shot. If you got your shot, Coach gave you a piece of cinnamon gum, but you had to spit it out in the locker room before you went back to class because Mrs. Henry didn’t understand about free throw gum and she’d make you sit in the hall if she caught you with it.
Ms. Miller didn’t understand about free throw gum either, even though she was the assistant gym teacher. She was the only teacher I had ever known who wasn’t a Miss or a Missus. I didn’t even know there was a third option, but I kind of thought Ms. Miller made it up for herself because she was getting too old to be a Miss but hadn’t quite made it to Missus yet. Ms. Miller was some kind of angry in-between.
Coach called us kiddos and pinched our arms when we came in the door. Ms. Miller blew her whistle and herded us into the locker rooms where it was her responsibility to make sure we girls changed into appropriate gym clothing and wore shoes that didn’t scuff and left our bangle bracelets in a locker. Ms. Miller thought bangle bracelets were an affliction, and she felt it deeply.
Our gym shirt was stamped with a picture of our school mascot, the Redbird, which isn’t even a real bird. Blue birds are real birds. Redbirds are not. By fifth grade, you know that. We had to run around the gym under a cartoonish painting of a giant red bird and act like we were proud of having a mascot that wasn’t smart enough to be called a Cardinal.
In the winter, when it was too snowy outside to do much of anything, that red bird watched us learn to square dance. Ms. Miller told us to do-si-do and promenade, even though you could tell she didn’t think dancing was real gym. It wasn’t even half-way agonizing like real gym should be, except that you had to hold hands with a boy, and Ms. Miller didn’t remember what it was like to be agonized over something like that.
But in the spring, when the weather turned warm and the dandelions started to bloom, Ms. Miller got all the real gym she wanted because that was the time of year when we all had to take the President’s Physical Fitness Test. Nothing made Ms. Miller happier than a test on physical fitness. It was the only time she smiled all year.
“It is our goal that each one of you passes,” she stated, “and earns one of these special badges.” Ms. Miller held up a large, official-looking patch. I wouldn’t care anything about it if it wasn’t for the fact that it was an official-looking patch, which is exactly the kind of thing a real spy needs to get into top-secret buildings and things like that. It was a badge of honor for anyone who had survived the torture chamber of the dun-gym.
“Just do your best,” Coach added, “and you’ll do fine.” He was picking at his fingernails and thinking about what he was going to grill for dinner.
Ms. Miller glared at him over her glasses. “I have printed copies of the requirements and I expect each of you to practice at home so you can do your best,” she said, whipping her thin ponytail over her shoulder and passing around a stack of photocopies. “You have two weeks to get ready!”
When I got off the school bus, I dug the crumpled sheet out of my backpack and handed it over to David, who scanned it quickly and declared himself my personal trainer. We met in the fort for our first consultation.
“Sprints, easy. Sit ups, piece of cake. Flexed arm hang, are you kidding me? All you have to do is hang there? Girls have it so easy.” He looked annoyed.
“What about the mile run?” I asked. The thought of it made me queasy.
He looked at the chart. “You have 11 minutes and 22 seconds to run a mile. Stop whining. You could walk it that fast. Herbie could walk it that fast. ”
Herbert was the fattest kid in my class, even though Mrs. Henry said we should never call another person fat. “Pudgie” made him sound like a puppy, and “rotund” made me think of the something I saw at the state capital when we were on a field trip. So I just didn’t talk about it.
“You’re totally overreacting,” he concluded. “You owe me fifteen Skittles.”
I counted them out, thinking about how I could have paid Michael half as many Skittles to get the same amount of help. But you can’t very well ask your younger brother for advice about anything. It’s a matter of principle.
Coach decided to spread the test over three days, which only prolonged the agony. On the third day, we were scheduled to do the flexed arm hang and the mile run. I had muddled my way through the sit ups and the flexibility test and even survived the sprints. But it was hard to be happy about it when I knew a mile run was in my future.
I barely slept the night before the test, and when I did, I dreamed about being chased around the school by a giant bumble bee that looked like Ms. Miller. I woke up with knots in my stomach. I poured myself a big bowl of Lucky Charms and picked a few extra charms out of the box for good measure. I wished I had lucky socks.
“You’ll do fine,” my mom said when I said I might throw up. It was her standard mom-reply to every childhood crisis, no matter how large or small.
“Mom, I’m about to swim through shark-infested waters!”
“You’ll do fine.”
“Mom, I’m about to run with scissors!”
“You’ll do fine.”
“Mom, I’m about to fight a fire-breathing dragon and then perform open heart surgery on the hamster!”
“You’ll do fine.”
Once, just once, it would have been nice to hear her scream, “Oh my goodness! You’re probably going to die or at least embarrass yourself so much that you can never go back to school ever again!” But she never did.
The gym was colder than normal, and my skin looked purple and splotchy under the giant fluorescent lights which hung like eyeballs from the ceiling. Coach took the boys to one side of the gym and sent the girls over to the other side where Ms. Miller was waiting. She stood under a horizontal bar with a clipboard in her hand.
“Today, you’ll do one of the easiest parts of the President’s Physical Fitness test. All you have to do is grab on to the bar and hang for at least eight seconds. Jessica, why don’t you come up and demonstrate.”
Jessica always got called on to demonstrate things for Ms. Miller because Jessica was going to be in the Olympics.
Jessica smiled and hopped up on the chair under the bar. Her skin didn’t look splotchy at all. She was still tan from swimming in the ocean during spring break. She grabbed onto the bar and as soon as Ms. Miller counted down “3, 2, 1, go!” Jessica dangled from the bar like she was part bat. She looked over at Ms. Miller and smiled. “How am I doing?”
“Great, Jessica! Just great! It’s 20 seconds so far!”
It looked so easy; I started feeling better. Over a minute passed before Jessica dropped to the floor, still smiling. “I could have gone longer, but I got bored,” she shrugged.
Ms. Miller patted Jessica on the back and made the rest of us line up. One by one, the girls took a turn, and we clapped and said encouraging things like, “Good effort!” and “Way to hang!”
Soon it was my turn. I stood up on the chair and Ms. Miller counted “3, 2, 1, go!” She looked up. I was standing next to her. “Kristie, you’re supposed to be up on the chair so you’re ready to go when I say go.”
She had been so busy looking at her stopwatch that she hadn’t seen my attempt at the flexed arm hang, in which I lifted my feet off the chair and fell to the ground so quickly, I barely had time to contemplate my complete and utter lack of upper body strength.
“Did you fall off? Hop back up there and wait for me to say go,” Ms. Miller instructed. She repeated her countdown, and I repeated my noteworthy performance, only this time, I knocked my chin against the bar on the way down. The girls giggled, even Jessica, who was supposed to be my best friend.
Ms. Miller looked at her stop watch. “Did you do it? “
“Yes. I mean, no, not really,” I said feebly, rubbing my chin.
“Well, I can’t count that! The watch didn’t even start! Try it again. I don’t think you’re doing it right.” She placed my hands on the bar and pulled the chair out from under me without even bothering with the stop watch. My arms gave out immediately and I landed on the gym floor with a thud.
“I don’t know what to do with you!” Ms. Miller threw up her hands and ran off to consult with Coach. He came over and took a look at my chin.
“Had a tough time with that one, huh kiddo?”
I nodded and tried not to cry. “Well, just put her down for eight seconds, Miller. I’m sure she could have done it if that bar hadn’t clocked her one.”
Ms. Miller gave an audible gasp. “I will do no such thing! I am not going to defraud the government!”
“Ms. Miller, it’s a gym test, not your state taxes. Just write it down.”
Ms. Miller pushed her lips together and wrote down the number eight so hard, her pencil broke. I thought that my muscles must be made of Silly Putty, and if that was the case, maybe I could just melt right into the wall while the rest of the girls took their turns.
But before I could, Coach’s whistle blew and he waved us outside. The air was warm and smelled like spring and a cool breeze blew across the school yard. It was a terrible day for a run.
“Alright, everyone, a mile is almost exactly three times around the school,” Ms. Miller was saying. “You can walk if you absolutely have to, but you should run as much as you can or you won’t make your time.”
“Just pace yourself and do your best,” Coach added. Ms. Miller glared at him again. She looked like she was having the worst President’s Physical Fitness Test day ever.
Three times around the school didn’t seem that bad. I remembered what David said and hoped for the best. We lined up and Coach blew his whistle.
The boys tore off at break-neck speed while the girls trotted off at a more sensible pace. I stayed with the pack at first and congratulated myself on the fact that my legs were not as wimpy as my arms. We made it around the school one time before the faster girls began to pull ahead, with Jessica in the lead. My lungs began to burn.
In the distance, I could hear Ms. Miller calling out the times of some of the fastest boys, who were already finishing. My throat was sandpaper and I was pretty sure someone was stabbing me in the side, but when I looked back all I saw was Coach running next to Herbie, urging him on. All the girls who had started with me began to pass me, one by one. They were a lap ahead, and not one of them looked tired.
Somewhere during the second lap, I determined that the President’s Physical Fitness badge was not as cool as I had once thought. It looked cool at first, but I had been blinded out of all sensibility by the savage looking eagle and gold trim. No one was going to believe it was a real spy badge anyway. I slowed down and started walking, holding my side. I didn’t even want one, even if it came from the President himself.
I was right in the middle of this thought when I heard someone behind me.
“How’s it going, kiddo?” Coach asked, trotting along next to me.
“It’s okay,” I puffed, and tried to run next to him, matching his pace.
“Whose idea was this, anyway?” he asked.
“The President’s,” I moaned.
“What a stupid idea. No wonder I didn’t vote for him.” Even Mr. Peterson was breathing hard, but he kept talking. “Back when I was in the Army, I had this Drill Sergeant who used to make us run until we threw up. I seem to remember it taking longer than a mile.”
I did not want to talk about throwing up. I was regretting every single Lucky Charm and was significantly concerned that I might be seeing them again very, very soon.
“You know, the thing about being a gym teacher is that you don’t actually get a lot of exercise during school hours,” Coach was saying. “A mile seems a lot farther now than when I was your age!”
We spotted Ms. Miller up ahead.
“You got this in the bag, kiddo!”
“Don’t tell me you were having so much fun running, you lost track of the laps! You’re in the home stretch! Just run it in.”
I crossed the finish line in disbelief.
“10:25, Kristie. Good job,” Ms. Miller said as I collapsed into the grass.
10:25? 10:25?! “You mean I passed?”
“Yep, with almost a minute to spare,” Ms. Miller smiled. She was actually kind of pretty when she smiled. I decided to try extra hard not to throw up on her grass.
Three months later, a package arrived in the mail from Washington D.C., addressed to me. I tucked it under my shirt and walked into the house as nonchalantly as possible, just in case my Soviet-spy neighbor was watching. It was my badge and a letter from the President congratulating me on my achievement. I had survived.
“Wow, that’s awesome!” Michael breathed.
“I thought it would be bigger,” David said, but he was twelve and wasn’t allowed to think anything was cool. But then he added, “You’d better get Mom to sew that on quick. I saw a black car in the neighbor’s driveway and I think we need to check it out.” Everyone knew bad guys drove black cars.
I looked at my new spy badge and smiled. The very sight of it would strike fear into the hearts of evil-doers everywhere. I shoved it in my pocket and grabbed my binoculars. Duty called.