When I was in the second grade, I participated in my school’s field day. It was an all-day event, which included competitions in various sports. There are many areas that I do not excel in, and athletics is one of them. Never have, never will.
Many of my classmates were winning ribbons, but when it came time for me to show how far I could throw a ball, I didn’t have any ribbons. I didn’t understand the rules, so I threw the ball underhanded. (I had discovered at home that I could throw quite well underhanded.) We got two chances to throw, so the teachers corrected me, and I had to throw the second time over handed. Needless to say, I didn’t throw it very far.
But when it came time to announce the winners, I won first place. I can remember taking my ribbon and running to the sidelines, telling whoever was there (probably my mother) that I had won first place. It was a huge deal to me, considering I got only one other ribbon that day as part of a relay team that came in third place. And the fact that I remember this is another testament to the impact it made on me at such a young age.
Looking back, I can imagine what happened. The teachers who were judging the throwing competition knew that I didn’t have any other ribbons, and they saw that I threw the farthest, though underhanded, which is against the rules. They decided to break the rules a little bit, knowing that the other second graders probably were not going to stand up for their rights and that it would make one second grade little girl feel less left-out. They were right.
As I got older, the physical education classes I was required to take became the bane of my childhood existence. It was in this class more than any other that the kids who were popular and/or athletically inclined excelled and all others were held up in their folly for everyone else to see. The requirement to run a mile under fifteen minutes was the most dreaded activity of my sixth grade class as was having to climb a rope in high school (which I still can’t do).
Now that I’m an adult, I know that most teenage kids feel awkward and out of place, and for that matter, many adults do too. Growing up is hard to do no matter who you are, but I still think that physical education was the worst part of it all. The practice of having two students become team leaders who would then pick who would be on their team is cruel to the kids who were always picked last (me included). Once I graduated from high school, I was relieved more than anything that I would never again have to participate in a P.E. class, and I have found joy in my own physical efforts of walking, hiking, and jogging – all at my own pace.
Ironically, however, I had to participate in one more field day when I spent a year in Japan, teaching English as a second language at a junior high school. The Japanese are avid sports fans and some of them believe that all Americans are athletic. My students knew that I walked for miles all over the area in which I lived. Perhaps it was this that gave them the false impression that I would be perfect for the 100-yard dash.
I tried to tell them that I am not a good runner, but, unfortunately, as is Japanese etiquette, which requires extreme humility, the more I put myself down, the more they believed I must be a star runner. So I stepped up to the start line with the most athletic girls in that school, and I figured that if nothing else, I would be teaching them that Americans do not beat around the bush.
When I finished that race – yards and yards behind those Japanese girls – I could see the shock on their faces. I surprised myself by being okay with it. I had already endured twelve years of humiliation in my own country, so dealing with it one day there did not seem so bad.
I can only hope that one of those scrawny, less athletic junior high kids who stood behind everyone else, trying to get through that field day, might have found solace in watching the American girl lose so badly. Maybe it will have been like that little blue first place ribbon was for me – a tiny bit of success for the athletically challenged.
Shelli Bond Pabis is a columnist for the Barrow Journal. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.