I believe the proper term is physical education, but in 1970s Chicago it was called gym class or simply gym. Before I explore my love/hate relationship with gym class, I would be remiss if I didn't touch on the clothes we wore. I hesitate to use the word fashion.
It started with the shorts. These were not the almost-past-your-knees shorts you see today. Back then, they were truly "short" shorts and were modeled after what pro basketball and soccer players wore. They were usually paired with knee high white tube socks with three colored rings around the top. It was such a ridiculous combination that it is now considered somewhat cool by today's ironic hipsters. In the early 70s the shoes were mostly Keds or Chuck Taylors. By the mid- to late 70s, Adidas, Puma and Nike were all the rage.
Anyway, I considered at least half the activities of gym class to be pure hell. Jumping jacks, pushups and sit ups -- ugh. I preferred those over any form of jogging or running, however. I just didn't see the point of running unless it was part of a game, or someone bigger, stronger and meaner was chasing you. I'm sure I felt this way because I was overweight, out of shape and slow.
I also detested the rope climb and any form of gymnastics. No, I can't climb a rope and touch the top. No, I can't jump up and grab rings, pull myself up and hold my legs out straight. There were also parallel bars, uneven bars, the vault and the pommel horse. Were those invented for sport, or some ancient method of torture? Besides, making me prove I couldn't do these things in front of my peers was not an effective motivator.
Playing pick-up games of baseball, basketball and football with the kids in the neighborhood did teach me basic coordination though. It could be sour grapes, but in my observation the kids who excelled at gymnastics, running and the rope climb were not necessarily the first kids chosen in a pick-up game of any kind. They were in shape, but many couldn't throw, catch, hit, tackle or shoot. Those abilities helped cancel out my lack of speed, so I was rarely the first or last kid chosen.
There were certain gym class activities that I actually enjoyed. The first was tug of war. This required no running whatsoever. Very early on a gym teacher noticed my stubbornness and affinity for inertia; so he put me as the anchor for one of the teams. We won repeatedly, and tug of war became the only activity for which I was regularly picked first.
I loved playing dodgeball, although on the South Side we called it "bombardment." This rather vicious game depended on the ability to throw hard and catch. If you could catch, you didn't have to dodge much at all. If you could throw, it was perfectly acceptable, and even encouraged, to hit a kid in the head. As much as I loved it, other less coordinated kids hated it. I have never seen a better depiction of this than in the Judd Apatow TV series Freaks and Geeks. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it.
Of course softball was a favorite. Unique to the South Side of Chicago is the use of a 16" softball, slow pitch and no gloves. The ball would come at you so slowly and with such a high arc you had time to re-position your body. If you knew how to hit, this allowed you to "place" the ball, meaning you could hit it anywhere you wanted. I could see the gaps in the defense, hit the ball where they weren't, and this fat kid could still get extra bases almost every time.
My all-time favorite gym class activity was floor hockey. No skates! Searching for images to support this piece, I was appalled to see kids wearing helmets and pads, and using a tennis ball for a puck. We had heavy plastic hockey sticks, a hard plastic puck and no pads or protective headgear. In seventh and eighth grade we were allowed to check people into the divider along one side of the gym, and there were some big hits laid down. My lack of speed and abundant girth meant I was usually the goalie. Slap shots were allowed from any distance, and catching the edge of the stick in the face could draw blood.
Now that's what I call gym class.