Fifty or sixty students stood lined up outside the sports hall; girls in one line and boys in the other. A teacher stood at the front, giving stern instructions about getting changed quickly for the PE class that was to follow. It was a moment that prompted feelings of fear, an old and long-forgotten sense of apprehension was revived. I hurried to the next class, not wanting to dwell on thoughts of physical education lessons from schooldays in the 1970s.
PE was a favourite class for some people, for the muscular and the strong and the athletic and the lithe, it was a chance to spend an hour away from the confines of the classroom. For someone who was frail and asthmatic, it was a time that could not have passed too quickly.
The PE teachers were not bad people; in fact, their understanding of the capacities and constraints of the human body probably gave them a greater sense of empathy with their pupils than was possessed by some of those who taught us more academic subjects. It was just that they could not make someone into something they were not. Memories of the first year at secondary school are still haunting: football, basketball, gymnastics, athletics, cricket – it was hard to know at which I was worst. The only certainty was that my name would never appear on any of the team lists that would be posted each week on the school noticeboard.
Having the lack of an aptitude that demanded anything by way of physical strength, agility or speed meant that PE became a subject to be avoided as much as possible. When my asthma became so severe, that I was sent to school on Dartmoor, the greatest disappointment was the amount of physical activity on the timetable. Exercises outside every morning, gymnastics on Wednesday, football or cross country running on Saturday mornings. Cross country running was the worst – Heatree House, High Heathercombe, Hameldown, Jay’s Grave, Heatree Cross – it was gruelling.
Relief came in the autumn of 1976. Taking examinations a year in advance, I had gaps in my timetable. My teacher told me to adjust my timetable so as to attend the classes that were necessary. Her benign approach allowed me to attend classes that were interesting and to completely avoid particular teachers. The year had well progressed before she realised that PE was one of the subjects I had decided was unnecessary. Her instruction that I might join the rest of the class at the gym was said with a smile. Perhaps even the PE teacher had given up on me by that point – the painful memories evoked by the lines of students this morning were not repeated in those final seasons of secondary education.