Uncool Runnings

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There’s a particular cliché in film and television that rings truer than the rest, that is, the social hierarchy of the highschool male. Almost always, unsporty, flailing nerds fester at the bottom, as the popular jocks spit at them from the top, with that Venn diagram of ‘sporty kids’ and ‘bullies’ usually a perfect circle. It’s true in The Breakfast Club, and it was true for my schooldays in Sussex, albeit without America’s weirdly fascistic worship of its school sports teams. Maybe things have changed now, and social currency’s accrued with Instagram followers or retweets, or how many wins you’ve notched up in Fortnite. But for my generation, if you were fat or weedy, clumsy or shy, the kids who were giving you dead legs or taunting you over a dead parent were the kids from the school football team.

It won’t surprise you, dear reader, to learn I was not a superstar athlete. Of course, now I’m a strapping warrior poet hunk, doing kale-scented belches on a yoga mat, but I didn’t hit my growth spurt until just before my GCSEs, and was a short, fat, clumsy child, with a mop of curly hair that couldn’t be teased into the trendy curtains cut of the day, and was likened on a daily basis to Nigel off Eastenders. For the lads like me, PE lessons were Lord of the fucking Flies, with but two variations. Either the unsporty types would left to piss about in a quiet corner, as a tacit acknowledgement from teachers that it was a waste of time us being there, or be forced into a team game, where you’d get yelled at “LEAVE IT!” if the ball came anywhere near. On occasion, you might get a kick in, and actually connect with the ball and have it go in the right direction, where you’d spend the next week getting sarcastic cheers of “Weeey! Here’s fuckin’ Gazza!” every time you entered the room.

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Though one of my PE teachers was a genuinely great bloke, the rest fell into that cliché, like Brian Glover from Kes, of being unable to hide their disdain for the last-picked, who they’d probably bullied themselves, twenty years earlier. I vividly remember the first PE lesson of big school, where the head of PE informed us of his hatred of boxer shorts, which “let your dingle-dangle dangle where it shouldn’t dingle.” Consequently, boxers were banned, and would have to come off if he saw them, forcing you to go commando. If he spotted a pair during a game, you’d have to run back to the changing rooms and take them off. Looking back, you know what really makes your dingle-dangle dangle out of the leg-hole of those little football shorts? Not wearing any underwear at all. Weird.

But in of all of PE’s sadistic obsessions with jumping over things, having balls pelted at your face, and making really sure that teenagers were showering, there’s one that seems most Dickension of all through adult eyes. Oddly, its where I found my lone moment of unlikely personal triumph. I’m talking about the cross country run, or in our school’s local parlance, road running. Though we had a massive field, road running sessions involved pegging it all the way around and out of the gate, and then along a busy main road and back through residential streets, until we reached the finish line at the rear entrance of the school. Every winter (it was always fucking winter), we’d be put through this Hell, where me and my fat mates would hobble over the line some 20 minutes after everyone else, limping into the changing room still in our sweaty gear, soaked with rain, clutching at the stitches in our abdomens, while the other kids were already showered and back in their uniforms. Whatever lesson was next, we’d be late for it.

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Back then, naturally, what I really wanted was to be good at sport, which was virtually the only way to measure success among your peers, especially at the age when academic achievements were something to be hidden behind your back. I was forever chasing the notion of getting better, getting fitter; of becoming good and becoming valuable. Girls like you if you’re good at sport, and most of my heroes were athletes — footballers and WWF wrestlers. I went to a weekly ‘soccer skills’ class at the local sports hall, and every Saturday night for years, played in a five-a-side league, into which the only qualification was showing up with 50p. My team was notable for losing every single game throughout every season, and any errant touch of the ball, other than to pick it out of the net, was met with that familiar, sarcastic “weeeey!” During one summer tournament, a player from a team of older lads prodding at my red bibbed-belly with a “Don’t he look like Pavarotti?” cuing insincere cheers of faux-encouragement — “Go on Pavarotti!” — as a soundtrack for every match. I sought my physical salvation in home fitness video, Fighting Fit with ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper, making a nightly routine of its circuit of bizarre kid-cardio, though fast-forwarding through the anti-paedo self-defense section, where Roddy taught the best and loudest ways to yell “That’s not my dad!” when being snatched by a street-nonce.

Of all the pointless facets of PE, I was always particularly determined to do well during road running, talking myself up as I ran, to not give up and to keep going, dreaming of the day I’d not be stuck right at the back, finally able to earn a modicum of earnest respect from my peers, and my teacher. But no matter how hard I tried, I was always trapped in that last pack of stragglers. Then it got to year 9 or 10, and suddenly, all the cool kids discovered smoking. As we slogged it through town, with the staff waiting at the finish, those who were usually first over the line now had something better to do with all that freedom; smoke breaks. Out of the teacher’s sight, there were bushes and bus stops to stand; there was an auntie who lived along the route, where they could pop in for a cup of tea and a fag, while the rest of us pounded the pavements. Like the 1980 Summer Olympics boycott, this had a drastic effect on the field, and by the time they’d all stubbed out and rejoined the race, I’d already gone over the line. A hollow victory, sure, but my name was the highest it’d ever been on the time-sheet, by a mile. I was so buoyed by this; by the feeling of having achieved something with my terrible body; that I found myself actually looking forwards to the following week, vowing to try even harder, and to finish even quicker.

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It was the same story as the week before, where the sporty lads couldn’t be arsed, but I gave it everything I had. I finished with my personal best by some distance, and a genuinely respectable time by anyone’s standards. It turns out, the only encouragement I ever needed was simply to taste what it was to not be a failure. Having been trapped as this clumsy, perennially last-picked mess, and like all boys, always dreaming of sporting glory, I finally felt like I might not be so wretched after all. Look what happens when you apply yourself! Soon after that, the teams were being picked to represent the school for cross country, and by virtue of my most recent performances, I was eligible to be at the meeting.

Maybe I was being unreasonable, my ego inflated by flighty notions borne out of one good run amid a lifetime of last places. But if the other clichés are true, why not the underdog sporting victory? We’d all given up our lunchbreak to be there; me, wondering if this might be the start of something, and the sporty lads, who smelled of polos and smoke. The PE teacher clocked me as soon as he walked in. Maybe he sensed I was hanging loose and free in a pair of contraband boxer shorts. It was his duty to select the team, but he began with a speech, during which he never took his eyes off of me. Twenty-five years later, I’d wager this is verbatim. “Obviously some people deserve to be here, while others are treating it like a joke and just want to get out of lessons. Some ridiculous faces here today.” I didn’t run for the school, and from then until the day I left, I never put another atom of effort into PE. What’s more, I write this from the comfort of a pair of well-fitting boxer shorts, and am I egregiously exposing myself? No more questions!

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~ by Stuart on October 16, 2018.

2 Responses to “Uncool Runnings”

  1. One thing I only learned decades after I left school: You can learn to run. I got that Couch To 5k thing – in those days it was basically just a list of runs of increasing difficulty I printed out from a website – and went through it and, by golly, after three months I could run. I probably wouldn’t win any races, but that didn’t matter, I wasn’t doing it to win races.

    The point is, the PE teacher’s approach was just to tell you to do it. Go out in the rain and suffer, and I’ll insult the ones who aren’t naturally good at it.

    They could have *taught* the pupils how to do it. Start simple, and increase the complexity.

    They just couldn’t be arsed.

    No PE teacher ever could be arsed to teach the subject they were supposedly employed to teach. They just encouraged the kids who were good at it and gave the ones who weren’t a hard time.

    There is literally no point to PE teachers other than to give RE teachers someone to feel superior to.

    • Bang on. Almost everything is a skill or a craft that can be improved on, to a point, and it’s really telling, looking back, that PE Teachers have that child-like attitude of “he’s fat, so he can’t do it.” If other teachers were immediately giving up on kids who didn’t get it right away, we’d be (even more of?) a nation of absolute dunces.

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