The Freshman Gym Class Ho-Down

Pimples, growth spurts, body odor... and square dancing. Such was gym class freshman year.

I don't know what made our school administrators look at the phys ed curriculum and think...

Administrator 1: "You know what these kids should do to get the exercise they need? More skipping! Lots more skipping! Natural for building cardio-strength, and stronger calf muscles."

Administrator 2: "Also more hand-holding. Having to hold hands with another kid so encrusted with nasal mucus you wouldn't even lend him a Number Two pencil is a sure-fire way to forge life-long friendships, peace, harmony, and intra-student extra-curricular involvement."

Administrator 3: "Hmm... Skipping... Hand-holding... Sounds like a critical need for square-dancing, to me! Miss Manzetti-- get a record player and a copy of 'Cotton-Eye Joe', immediately. These kids need to get their do-si-do on!"

When first they told us we would be square-dancing for the next three weeks, they should have realized it was going to be an uphill battle.

This was north-central New Jersey in the 80s, after all. We were city kids. We knew strip malls and rollerskating rinks and movie multiplexes. We listened to heavy metal and rap and pop and Latin rhythms.

Many of our ranks had moved to the area from Puerto Rico or South America. Still more of us from Vietnam and Korea.

As a whole, the closest we even got to country music was Bon Jovi singing, "Wanted: Dead or Alive."

The only square-dancing we'd seen? Snippets of Hee-Haw, and those cartoon hillbillies who wanted to cook Bugs Bunny.

Our gym teacher, Miss Manzetti, had barely set up the record player before we kids had scattered around the far peripheries of the gym into tight, tiny, terrified knots...

Would we get to choose our own partners? Or would it be left up to the Phys Ed Fates, the forces of chance that boded darkly for so many of us year-round?

Because as freshmen, we were only just now beginning to think of a few select members of the opposite sex as anything other than totally repulsive.

We were only just now starting to work some sort of Cootie-Free d├ętante between us-- a few hormonal ambassadors from our ranks here or there willing to step over the gender gaps to peaceful coexistence and possible salivary exchange programs.

You know, because Tommy Evans had a cute smile. Or Michelle Saunders had boobs.

But as for our fellow classmates as a whole, well, mandatory grade-dependent hand-holding was an absolutely outrageous suggestion-- where anyone even half in tune to the social dynamics of Kiddom would gape with abject horror!

Everyone knew Hernando Sierra liked to snap your bra if he got a chance. And Ken Martin called many of us "dog-face" for the last two years. And Nathan Jackson enjoyed putting Bubblicious in our hair. These were slights not easily dismissed-- wounds not readily healed by fiddles!

I thought I had it sewn up at the time, because one of my very bestest friends, Raoul, happened-- through no fault of his own-- to be a boy. The boys, I learned, had similar Cooties Transmission Fears related to many of us girls.

Raoul and I discussed this rapidly and determined that while holding hands was an embarrassing breach of Friend Etiquette-- one of monumental proportions-- we could set it aside for the duration of the square-dancing portion of phys ed.

As long as it was never spoken about in Algebra, or Language Arts or among the woodwinds in band, things would be fine. There, we would go back to mocking each other as normal.

Yes, what happened in gym class, stayed in gym class.

And that's when Miss Manzetti, tired of having to round us up from around the gym like willful cattle, had us form two lines-- girls and boys.

Raoul and I put our plan into action. He was 15 boys back in the line, I the 15th girl. It wasn't easy doing, as I had to maneuver my way past Sandra Haney, a large angry girl with a sugar addiction. But it was done.

Until our cunning plan dissolved. In a wholly unexpected move, Miss Manzetti started matching boys and girls at random.

As a severe, 60-year-old unmarried woman herself, we wondered why she was so big on forcing us together like this. But her set-jaw and thin-lipped expression betrayed no sign of her inner thoughts as she went through our ranks, pairing us two-by-two willy-nilly like some perverse Noah.

I saw Raoul, shoulders sagging, as he got spirited away by Mary Ann Modesto, a great speller but prone to fits of random crying. He gave me a trapped glance from across the room.

I'd have felt pangs of sympathy for him-- but I had bigger problems. My partner was... Arthur Hensen.

Arthur Hensen was a nice kid, and smart, but what he had in kindness and intelligence, he lacked in the hygiene department. His hair hung into his eyes in long greasy strings. He was always sick, but came to school anyway, so he projected a cloud of pestilence and sweat, cough drops and yesterday's Cheez-Doodles. He was tall and stooped, and was the only kid in the freshman class to have facial hair and hairy knuckles.

I'd have been happy to do a group project with Arthur, or invite him to a birthday party. But I didn't really want to hold his hand.

Of course, Arthur was undoubtedly having the same hesitations about me-- the weird girl with the blue nailpolish and long, orange over-permed hair-- like Medusa with a box of Clairol. In my orange gym uniform, I undoubtedly radiated a level of intense color that could burn the retinas. It was no wonder Arthur couldn't look at me. He needed to preserve his eyesight.

Resigning to our fate, we took our places as the record player crackled to life. And with only a few moments of instruction, we tripped over our Reeboks in our first Promenade.

Around and around, we whirled and twirled... turning... hand-shaking... and ducking under human arches.

We passed blurred faces, pale, drawn and wishing-- for the first time in our lives--- that we were being cracked in the back with a dodgeball. Or wheezing around the track. Or untangling our limbs from the Jane Fonda Work-out.

With every Do-si-do... with every Flutterwheel... we realized that it wasn't just each of us... it was all of us. We weren't just the Ugly Betty with the braces, or the Smelly Joe with the stained uniform. No, we were all the same-- the pretty and popular, the dumpy and depressed-- we were all red-faced, stumbling and sickened because of our Squaredance Suffering.

For us, the country violins started playing a tune of mutual empathy.

By the time the record came to a bumping stop, a quiet resignation had fallen over the class. We parted wordless, a nod to our partner here or there, knowing something we hadn't known when it all began.

Sure, most of us still didn't want to touch each other again with a ten-foot cattle prod. But we knew now, we all had what it took to make the grade... to step up... to endure the seemingly impossible... to get through these three weeks until our next giant phys ed humiliation-- which would come in the form of the pommel horse and uneven bars.

And maybe most of us wouldn't be making out with each other under the bleachers any time soon, but maybe we also weren't so different from each other, after all.

We were all in it together. Who imagined cooties weren't life-threatening?

I did get Arthur's cold.

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22 comments:

Da Old Man said...

This makes me appreciate the endless games of crab soccer that prevailed at my alma mater.

Jenn Thorson said...

Da Old Man- So as a fellow New Jersean, you don't see square-dancing going over very well either? :)

Broadway Matron said...

That was charming...

Jaffer said...

When I came to read "the only kid in the freshman class to have facial hair and hairy knuckles" - I happened to glance at my own knuckles and chuckled.

Speaking of Jane Fonda, have you seen the movie "Cat Ballou" ? She did the square dance as if she had made the same moves a hundred times. Here's a clip

Jenn Thorson said...

Broadway Matron- Thank you, and thank you for stopping by!

Jaffer- Heh, you're a font of information, my friend. No, I haven't seen that movie, but Jane did put a lot of effort into her films, to get things the way she wanted them. :)

Greg said...

I don't remember if we had to do any square dancing...I do know I skipped PE for like a year later on in high school...I might have missed that...or maybe they just knew better than to try with us.

Jenn Thorson said...

Greg- I've heard of a few other schools which did the squaredancing as well. So I don't know if it was some state requirement, or not. Our PE fortunately improved quite a bit in Junior and Senior year, when we could choose what we wanted to do. (Raoul, as I think about it, being integral to those tales, as well.) But until then-- it was always an adventure. :)

Melanie said...

We endured square dancing in some grade maybe in jr high. I don't know, but it was awful, as was PE in general!

Chaotically Calm said...

Ha-ha....and just think you didn't catch cooties but a cold is actually worse. At least cooties wear off by the end of the day!

Jenn Thorson said...

Melanie- I think a lot of folks feel that way about it.

Chaotically Calm- You know, I wasn't aware there was a end-of-day decontamination with cooties. Maybe there were different rules in different areas of the country. :)

Ekim said...

Who would have thought that square dancing could be the great unifier. Maybe we need the leaders of the world to take Miss MANzettis's class.
Had not a been for cotton eye joe, we'd a had world peace long time ago.

Jenn Thorson said...

Ekim- Mutual pain and embarrassment unifies everyone at least temporarily. :) Unfortunately, having Cotton-Eye Joe in your head is eternal. :)

thebigandyt said...

After a stint of Ceilidh style weddings I kinda wish we were forced to do something like this at school. the amount of damage i've done stripping the willow is criminal

Jenn Thorson said...

Andy- Ah, but the moment you're out of school, any phys ed momentum you might have built up goes PFFT. :)

kden said...

We had square dancing in music class, but it was just as humiliating. Especially when you had to hold the hand of someone you liked.

Anna Lefler said...

Omigosh, I loved this post! I, too, have deeply etched memories of squaredancing, but mine are a little different because I grew up in Texas. Same adolescent humiliation, but in big hats and boots and western shirts and cowgirl skirts. Bandanas all around! Good times. Oops, there's that facial tic again. Dang it!

Fabulous piece, Jenn!

Jenn Thorson said...

Kden- Yep, there's just NO good time for it. Hopefully they didn't expect you guys to SING along with dancing in music class. "Turn yer partner round 'n' round!" :)

Anna- Yeehaw! I had enough trouble with my feet just in sneakers doing that-- I can't imagine adding cowboy boots and balancing a hat. :) Better get that tic looked at.

Sebastyne said...

Sadly, I think square dancing would have been an improvement to our schedule in junior high. High school was better, we got to choose what to do from the day one, and I don't really have horror stories of that now that I think of it. Junior high on the other hand... Different story!

Loved how you wrote it. I could almost see your classmates. :D

Drowsey Monkey said...

omg, this is too freaky but we had to learn square dancing in gym class too, WTH? It was the mid 70s tho... still! I do blame Hee Haw.

Jay said...

No-one taught us square dancing at school! I feel cheated!!! Mind, I did go to an all-girls school, so dancing with partners wasn't quite such a likely thing to happen. I'm not sure if it would have been better or worse than dancing with boys, if it had been inflicted upon us.

We did have to learn Morris dancing in primary school though. Actually, I quite liked it. But I was very young.

Prefers Her Fantasy Life said...

Ah yes, I remember square dancing. I had to dance with a kid with a wart on his finger.

I much prefer the mother of square-dancing...Irish dancing. Plus the music is kicking!

Nice post. ;)

Jenn Thorson said...

Sebastyne- That's excellent in high school you were able to choose what you wanted to do right off the bat. Had to have made everyone's lives easier. And thanks!

Drowsey- Oh no, you, too? Freakin' HeeHaw-- totally ruined it for everyone, huh? :)

Jay- So you want to do a bit of a turn in the Morris dancing right now? Show us your fancy footwork? :)

Meg- Ah, yes, there was always the kid with the wart. That's about as bad as Arthur's hairy knuckles and germ infestation. I bet we would have gotten some workout with the Irish "Lord of the Dance" stuff. I don't think I can make my legs move without moving my upper torso, though. :)