In seventh grade I attended a small, private school in which we were taught via “Distance Ed”. In 1993, the term didn’t refer to completing classes online from a well appointed desk at home or cozy seat at Starbucks. This was Tele-Teaching. Every Monday through Friday I showed up for class with 3 other students in my grade to watch our teacher via television. Coming to us non-live, from a classroom in Pensacola, Florida, pre-recorded circa 1987. I can’t be absolutely certain of the date, but by the looks of her floor length floral print dress, wide doily collar, and huge plastic framed glasses, there was no way the teacher was videotaped post-1990.
After a year of Distance-Ed, a season of Girls’ Volleyball, a lifetime of Wednesday Chapel and countless recesses learning swear words from the only other girl in my class, I was placed back into public school for 8th grade.
Public school – The Dreaded LaVenture Middle School. Growing up across the fence from the campus, I’d spent many days watching buses come and go, worrying about the kids they transported. Tough bully boys with the beginnings of facial hair; smart mouth girls wearing lipstick and midriff baring shirts. There’d be no chapel at this school, no kind classroom chaperone to interpret the tele-teacher’s outdated material. Rumor had it that drugs filled the pockets of LaVenture students’ pants, and lockers had been banned the year before due to guns and paraphernalia found inside.
My shy, sheltered self felt like I was being sent away to Compton. Not even allowed to listen to popular radio music, I perceived myself an instant misfit. Though I’d only been away at private school one year, it seemed like a lifetime. The cliques had been formed, the teams had been chosen, and I wasn’t invited. Volleyball squad? Not a chance. My brain spun with self doubt and judgment, deciding before even trying that I wouldn’t be accepted. It didn’t help my chances that early on in the year I was caught by a boy picking my nose during class. Any popularity I ever wished to have ended right there as my right index finger burned in shame.
I suffered through 8th grade PE, where a large teacher with curly hair named Mr. Wild would yell “Get on yer numbers or else yer toast!” as we filed into the gym and lined up along the numbered floor. Dreading whatever ridiculous activity PE day would bring, I conjured up nightmare scenarios in my head. A thousand pairs of student eyes watching my clumsy gait, fumbling the ball, dropping the flag, air-balling every attempted basket.
In high school, I was determined not to participate. Ninth grade was easy; I simply manipulated my schedule, choosing language and theater electives over PE requirements. But sophomore year there was no choice, and I panicked. While my friends tried out for cheer leading and dance team, I sat in the high school counselor’s office struggling with what I now know as anxiety, but couldn’t quite articulate at the time. Was I afraid of getting naked in front of my classmates? I didn’t even know if there were changing rooms or shared showers…I never once went. Despite my attempts to explain at home, my dad couldn’t understand…why did I need to make things so complicated? He reasoned, “PE is good for you and it’s required. Show up and suit up.”
He was likely right – a little gentle exercise would probably have done me good. Yoga flow in the evenings or a jog around the block to settle my mind and spirit. But I wasn’t yet motivated to jog. I didn’t know anyone who did, other than the jock girls who ran track, looking somehow both tomboyish and gorgeous in their shorts and knee high socks. Yoga was forbidden; foreign, mystical, and derived from Eastern religions, it was never on the table as an option. The counselor found a solution: while everyone else showed up for flag football, weight class, or cross country, I walked to the local elementary school and worked as a Teacher’s Assistant. The 7 minute walk was all the exercise I would be forced into.
My daughter arrived in Spring of Junior year, and I home-schooled through an alternative program. “Independent PE” was an option to fulfill credits, and so each week I filled out a sheet with the amount of minutes spent walking my infant in her stroller, or exercising along with Jane Fonda or Richard Simmons on VHS. The minutes may have been exaggerated, but no one knew the difference. If they did, they never questioned my honesty.
For the next decade, we were members at the YMCA primarily for children’s resources and summer camps. My daughter took swim lessons and she’s still a much better swimmer than I’ve ever been. I’d take advantage of the time to do homework from the bleachers overlooking the pool. Occasionally I’d find my way upstairs to the cardio room, a book propped on the treadmill, fast-walking for half an hour.
In my early 20’s, partying was the main sport for the crowd I’d settled into, and I did my fair share. But I would also wistfully observe what I considered “normal” families – biking single file through the neighborhood, wearing matching Northface hoodies on a hike. Words like “Marathon” and “Century Ride” were completely alien to me; foreign concepts that transpired on TV to really good looking people with bulging muscles and flat stomachs.
A cluster of events occurred almost simultaneously, around age 22. While I attended nursing school, my daughter started Kindergarten. Her father and I divorced, and I quit smoking cigarettes (for the final time – minus a confusing couple months when my life imploded last year). Going to the gym filled the void that was left by quitting, giving me something to do with the nervous energy instead of squandering it outside inhaling nicotine. Self loathing and criticism were great motivators as well, heightened exponentially on account of the divorce. Constant comparison of myself to the “other woman” -to ALL other women- prompted me to hire a personal trainer, in hopes that if I ran faster and crunched more, I would weigh less. And if weighed less, I would look better, and if I looked better, I’d be more lovable.
Turns out it doesn’t work that way. Working out at the Y didn’t turn me into a supermodel that could keep a man in a lifelong monogamous relationship. The time, energy and money were not a complete waste, however. As my physical activity increased, my brain chemistry began to shift.
Exercise as a tool to improve well-being emerged as a tangible concept. Sweating off anger on an elliptical; fighting out fears in kickboxing; experiencing uninhibited joy through Zumba dance, or focusing all my frustration on counting out reps in the weight room.
I signed up for “Couchto5K” (a program I still highly recommend) and jogged 3.1 miles for the first time ever, on a treadmill. My best friend and I had a challenge, though we lived states apart, to hold each other accountable and complete the distance. I still vividly remember laughing over the phone, as we reported proudly “3.1 miles done!” The impossible had become reality – jogging for more than 30 minutes a row.
Although there have been some near-disastrous detours on the way, a journey towards self care was initiated, including those first slow steps toward a series of half marathons. The true purpose of exercise dawned on me as I sensed the edge of infinite physical, mental and emotional benefits.
Fear that I had nurtured since childhood wasn’t absent though. Fear of failure, humiliation, and striving for perfectionism continued to prevent me from joining teams or public events. It wasn’t until I was almost 30 that my love affair with running, biking and challenging myself surfaced (which could be argued is a love affair with the sweet swag bags they give you for entering races). In actuality, a love affair with MYSELF had started. I stopped repeating “I’m not good enough” and started practicing the phrase “I’m good enough to try”. My body began to realize it’s potential with a little adrenaline and effort. I finally felt the rush of a runner’s high, the zing of satisfaction as I exceeded limitations previously placed on myself.
Trying new things started to be FUN (though still just as sweaty and not without a modicum of fear) as I let go of feeling sorry for myself and embraced my perfect imperfections.