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The Leopard Changes Its Spots

October 13, 2014





 Phys. Ed. was my least favorite class at Wilcox High School. I’d managed to lose most of my excess weight, but I had yet to develop muscle tone. Mr. Jenkins, the P.E. teacher/football coach, was making my life miserable. He wanted my All-Star brother David for the football team, but David didn’t have time and constantly turned him down. Coach Jenkins took it out on me. Several times each month he’d march us out to the athletic field where the chin-up bar stood like a lynching tree. He’d make us do chin-ups. I didn’t have the strength for even one. I’d hang from the bar while Jenkins barked insults at me, his crew cut bristling above his angry red face. I wanted Jenkins dead in a big way, but that didn’t seem to be an option. So I did the next best thing; I set out to become Chin-Up King.


As part of Wilcox’s fitness program, our ability to do chin-ups was tested each spring. I spent all winter practicing. There was a tree in our backyard with a suitable branch, and one day after school I began training. Ricky looked over from his side of the fence and spotted me, later admitting he thought I’d hung myself.     


My soft palms were soon covered with blisters. The temperature dropped. Several times, Helen came out and peered over the fence to see if I was okay, which I assured her I was. One by one, the leaves fell from the tree. Rain made the branch slippery and I’d collapse on the muddy grass, discouraged. But just before Christmas, I was rewarded when I managed to pull my chin up to that branch. It was the best Christmas gift I ever received.


That first chin-up was only a start. Several days later, I managed two, and then three. I kept practicing until I’d worn that branch smooth. Sometimes Dad would watch me, smiling without saying anything, and I once saw my mother nodding from a window.


Spring came, along with the day we lined up in gym class to be tested at the chin-up bar. I remained in my usual place at the end of the line. When my turn came, Jenkins rolled his eyes and started with the insults, but his eyebrows shot up when I easily pulled my chin up to the bar. My arms began moving like pistons in an engine. Jenkins’ surprise didn’t prevent him from calling out the numbers.


“...Ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen...”


I was starting to tire, but I was going for the record. Chris Ferris had done twenty-four.


“...Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty...”


My arms were on fire. I wanted desperately to release my grip on that bar and fall to the ground, but I wanted to break Chris Ferris’ record more.


“...Twenty-one, twenty-two...”


I was getting dizzy. My glasses were sweaty and I couldn’t focus anymore. Jenkins and the rest of the class were a blur.




The class went silent. One more was all I needed. This was it, my moment of triumph. I imagined a repeat of the time I caught that baseball in right field and was rewarded with a two-transistor radio, when my teammates tried to pick me up and carry me around the field. Well, they couldn’t do it back then, but they could do it now because I wasn’t fat anymore. I was wondering who’d play me in the movie version of this drama when my strength gave out and my slippery fingers lost their grip on the bar. As I collapsed on the ground, my sweaty glasses fell off my face onto the gravel. I looked at a blurry Jenkins for the official count, hoping I’d heard incorrectly. Nope, it was twenty-three—one chin-up shy of tying Chris Ferris’ record.


They didn’t try to carry me on their shoulders. Had Jenkins cared at all, he might have noticed my weight loss and been concerned that I’d developed cancer or something. But Jenkins just ordered everyone to the basketball court. As they walked away, I could hear Chris Ferris snickering that I’d failed to beat him. I saw a dirty grey feather lying in the gravel a few inches away, probably the tail feather of a seagull that had traveled inland from San Francisco Bay. Lying there with my flushed face pressed against the gravel, I reached out for it as though it were a life preserver.


Coach Jenkins never acknowledged my accomplishment, nor did he stop taunting me when my performance was less than stellar in other areas of his curriculum of horrors. He turned a blind eye whenever Chris Ferris bullied or tormented me, and it goes without saying that he never asked me to try out for the football team. I might have continued to hate Coach Jenkins if circumstances hadn’t permitted me to even the score.


Conclusion on Wednesday...


I had the 5th grade record of 15. 23 is a lot! My son and DIL are both phys ed teachers. Their goal is to make exercise fun and teach life skills. They teach to the student. I think you would have liked my son's class, and he would have made a big deal out of your accomplishment. Unfortunately, many gym teachers and football coaches are butt heads!
By: Cranky on October 13, 2014
Phys. Ed. can be unforgiving. Fortunately, there are many gym teachers that know how to motivate and get students rallying for one another. Anyhow... your storyline is intriguing. I wonder where you will take us.
By: Daniel LaFrance on October 13, 2014
Oh, how i hated phys. ed., too! Even if i didn't have coaches as nasty as Jenkins sounds.
By: mimi on October 13, 2014
awww that guy should NOT have been teaching at all- what a bully. Cannot wait to read Wednesdays sequel!
By: Kathe W. on October 13, 2014
I look forward to the conclusion of this story. The best gym class I ever had was my sophomore year in high school. The overcrowded class had 60-some girls in it. By the time the teacher finished taking attendance, we usually had about ten minutes for whatever the day's activity was. I reveled in the shortness of that ten minutes. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on October 13, 2014
Gym class was hard enough for me; I'm glad we didn't have a bully for a teacher. Sadly, it never occurred to me that I could do something to make myself stronger!
By: Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma on October 13, 2014
Ah, yes, another good cliff hanger!!
By: Tabor on October 13, 2014
dum, dum, DUH.... the plot thickens...
By: TexWisGirl on October 13, 2014
I look forward to reading the score-evener. Coach Jenkins was not unlike many coaches/gym teachers I had to suffer through.
By: Mitchell is Moving on October 13, 2014
I lost my first comment, so hope this one goes through. I can't think of a single thing about P.E. that I liked, which is strange because I loved to play softball, volleyball, swimming..just didn't like gym class or the dumb gym suits we had to wear.
By: Coloring Outside the Lines on October 13, 2014
I loved this, although I'm pretty peeved at Mr Jenkins. Waiting for part 2...
By: Mari on October 13, 2014
I know all about being fat and ungainly in gym class. Fortuneately, being a girl, they went 'easy' on me. I think your Mr. Jenkins had some tough guy thing going for boys.
By: Madeleine McLaughlin on October 13, 2014
Okay, am I supposed to make a prediction? Am not sure what's going to go on.
By: red on October 13, 2014
OK, I heard the music from "Rocky" in my head when you described practicing your chin-ups!
By: Pixel Peeper on October 13, 2014
I loathed gym class, as well. My least favorite part was the gymnastics curriculum. Even though it's been forty years, I can still vividly remember freezing in terror at the top of the rope. Then, when I finally convinced myself that it was time to come down, I did so. No one ever told me that sliding quickly down a rope could give you a serious case of inner thigh burn.
By: Al Penwasser on October 13, 2014
I also lost a great deal of weight in the summer between 7th and 8th grade. My "rotundness" didn't help with gym class. But, even though I became a soccer player, I STILL detested PE.
By: Al Penwasser on October 13, 2014
One time I had a dream about doing a couple of chin-ups. That's as close as I ever got.
By: Val on October 13, 2014
That feather has to be key.
By: Catalyst on October 13, 2014
The theme from Rocky I started playing in my head as I read your account here. At least you have that. I hope it helped.
By: Jerry E. Beuterbaugh on October 14, 2014
The Gym and Sport were not my "thing" at school either. Great story and I wait with great anticipation for the conclusion.
By: John on October 14, 2014
They say that living well is the best revenge. I'd say you were vindicated in this episode, but I want to see how you really even the score. What a jerk he was.
By: Robyn Engel on October 14, 2014
When I was in junior high and high school, there was this 'jock' that just loved to make my Life Hell... Fast forward a Hell of a lot of years later, and I see this guy at a class reunion... he is on crutches... can barely walk... and he greets me like a long lost friend. I told him that he made my Life Hell for those years... and that I had nothing to say to him. He asked me to not be that way... I just turned around and walked away... Bastard... ~shoes~
By: Redshoes51 on October 14, 2014
You are the king of cliffhangers. Sometimes it pays to be behind in blog reading.. I can just pop on over to the next post now.
By: Hilary on October 15, 2014
I suspect a sadistic element to one's personality was always one of the essential criteria for the job of physical education teacher.
By: Bryan Jones on October 15, 2014
Somehow I missed part one but now I am glad for I don't have to wait for part two. Be there in a sec.
By: Akansas Patti on October 15, 2014

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