I must rejoin the gym. I must. I’ve been meaning to do so for months, ever since me and my swim-only membership at a Soho pool decided to go our separate ways. It’s been a fun relationship, over the years, but the pool and I are just not working out anymore. He’s in the centre of London and I’m miles out in Stratford. He’s always free and wanting to swim and I’m always busy and looking for excuses not to see him. It’s not the basis for a strong, healthy relationship, and so we’ve decided to call it a day.
But I’m not sobbing into my warm milk of an evening, because I’ve found another gym. It’s big and a little bit flashy, modern and clean. And, most importantly, it’s not going to eat up too much of my hard-earned money. Also, crucially, it’s very close to my house so I can go and be gym-like in the morning before work. Well, that’s the plan. I have to join first, I guess.
I’ve never been a huge gym person, or sporty person at all, come to that. My dad was never into football, so my brother and I never developed an interest. I remember playing football willingly (i.e. not during a PE lesson) twice with friends (once in Year 6 and once at university, that’s how rarely it occurred), and I quite enjoyed it, although I was pretty useless. During PE lessons at school, of course, I was subjected to the whole gamut of organised sports and, because I was no David-Beckham-in-the-making, I was put on the PE teacher’s Can’t Play Football, Can’t Play Anything list, along with all of the other gay boys, overweight boys and potheads. And it was this experience that put me off sport for many, many years.
Generally, I abhorred PE lessons with the kind of intense hatred that is reserved for genocidal dictators and Jeremy Clarkson. Despite following a broad and varied curriculum, being educated in England, football was, far and away, the predominant sport we were forced to do were taught the delights of. Football lessons followed a set structure. They always involved our hugely overweight PE teacher splitting us into three groups, which, funnily enough, always seemed to comprise the boys who were in the football team; the boys who desperately wanted to be in the football team but weren’t; and the boys who would rather have been listening to Judy Garland’s Greatest Hits on their Walkmans, eating a deep-fried pie or smoking weed – the aforementioned group of gays, fatties and potboys.
Our PE teacher, clad in 4 or 5 layers of Arran sweater, body warmer, scarf and Donkey jacket, would waddle over to the football team and shout at them, between swigs of something from his Thermos flask, as the chosen ones ran around kicking the football as if it were an extension of their very beings. The wannabe footballers would organise themselves into two teams and get playing fairly quickly, ever hopeful that Mr. Whatever-His-Name-Was would see them performing an amazing trick and promote them to the National School team. My group was pretty much left to its own devices, which suited us just fine. We would meander over to the pitch that was furthest away from the others, stopping along the way to adjust our bootlaces and discuss the previous night’s episode of Oprah. When we finally arrived at our chosen spot (suitably far enough away from Sir to ensure that he would never be able to wheeze over to us in the 35 minutes that remained of the lesson), we started to play ‘football’. I say ‘football’ in inverted commas because the game we played did not particularly resemble our country’s national sport in any way, shape or form, having very little to do with either feet or balls. Our version of the game involved a lot of standing around doing very little. From time to time one would be required to pass the ball to someone else, but using any body part one wished, usually the hands. It seemed so much easier to hand the ball to someone else rather than put it on the (muddy) ground and attempt to direct it towards someone with one’s feet. We didn’t generally keep a score, mainly because the ball so rarely crossed the goal line on either side it wasn’t worth it. This was my experience of football in almost every lesson. Except for the few dreaded lessons when Sir decided that he should mix us up.
These lessons were the ones I dreaded most. For reasons known only unto himself, in a vague, token nod to differentiation and quality teaching, Mr What’s-His-Face would, every now and again, split the teams differently. Nobody liked this. The boys who could actually play hated having to keep the ball away from not only the opposition but also as far away from us non-players as possible, and we hated it because it was an opportunity for ridicule of the highest order. It always became very quickly apparent that the version of the game that we had been happily playing for weeks in the far recesses of the playing fields, was not what Sir was expecting to see. And so I and my fellow ‘weaker players’ (as he used to call us) were forced to kick the ball (on the rare occasions it came anywhere near us) and not throw it to each other. Boring.
My participation in these lessons followed a very rigid structure. I would begin by standing around as the real players tried to decide where my fellow non-players and I would do least damage: in goal, defence or on the wings. I would wangle it so that I was in defence, as in that position there was less need to be able to kick the ball accurately if you were simply trying to clear it away from your goal area, which suited my somewhat limited kicking skills perfectly. Once the match had started, I had one simple goal, and one simple goal only: stay as far away from the ball as possible. Whatever anyone else on the pitch was doing, my complete and utter aim was to avoid the ball at all costs, even if that meant running in the opposite direction when the ball was heading towards me despite there being no-one else between it and the goal behind me. And this I was very good at. For the majority of my time at school I think most of my fellow pupils thought I was either partially sighted or a little bit ‘special’ as a result of my fantastic ability to not notice when a football was coming my way.
Football was not the only sport I ‘studied’. I was also schooled in the joys of rugby (my very good gay friend and I were, without fail, the only ones who came off the rugby pitch as clean as we went onto it); hockey (I loved hockey but, at my school, if you were not a future Ronaldo you were no good at any sport, even if you were); tennis (I loved tennis. See previous statement about hockey); rounders; cricket; athletics; trampoline (beyond hideous); volleyball; badminton and other forms of torture I have since forgotten. This schooling taught me very little that was positive about myself and sport in general. It took me years and years (several decades) to realise that sport was meant to be fun and that even people like me could do it. When I moved to the States and plucked up the courage to swim in the outdoor pool at the University of Maryland for the very first time, I was actually surprised as I took my first strokes that people weren’t sniggering at my technique or shouting unpleasant things. Maybe I wasn’t so bad after all. Or, maybe, people just didn’t care.
I am not sporty and never will be, but, over the years, I have enjoyed swimming, running and playing badminton with a long-suffering friend who keeps playing with me despite me not having won once. I am very thankful that school did not manage to beat out of me all the desire to be fit and healthy, and it’s for that reason that I need to join the gym again. Because I can. And, as Jennifer Aniston always told me, because I’m worth it.
Most importantly, though, as someone who now teaches PE himself (I think we call that one of life’s little ironies) I need to keep myself in shape, because no-one’s ever heard of an out-of-shape PE teacher. Right?