Sunday, July 20, 2008

Physical Education

Coach Straight had a twin brother. Together they were the Straight Brothers, Larry and Lou. As circumstances would have it, I got stuck with Lou. We heard stories about Larry. He had a moustache. He didn't play favorites like his brother did. His gym classes were fun. He was different from his brother. I was stuck with Lou.

In seventh grade, all the boys had Mister Clark. He was an old guy who was not much taller than most of us, but he was a lot tougher. Not in a mean way, mind you, he had a muscular-Harry Truman thing about him. He helped ease the transition from weekly P.E. to daily. He expected us to show up in our uniforms and do our best, then take a shower. I never felt threatened by Coach Clark. He also kept us relatively safe from the eighth and ninth graders. I say "relatively" because all that fear and hate has to go somewhere, and when you are being systematically broken down by a sadomasochist like Coach Lou, some of it is bound to spill over.

It was in eighth grade that I started to dread going to P.E. I was never a particularly gifted athlete, and being in Lou Straight's class only exacerbated this flaw in my character. The guys who could catch, throw and run without thinking about it got to pick the teams, and the ones who couldn't catch, throw or run didn't end up on their side. We were the dregs, and Coach was busy with the minutiae of his job: clipboards, whistles, and flirting with the eighth and ninth grade girls.

Lou Straight's main contribution to the curriculum of Centennial Junior High was "The Fifteen Minute Run." We would change into our gym togs, meander out to the track, Coach would blow his whistle and click his stopwatch. For the next quarter hour, we were expected to run laps around the quarter-mile track. Those of us who were less physically gifted lived in fear of missing the cutoff of six laps: one and a half miles. If anyone in the class ran less than six laps, the whole bunch of us had to do it all over again the next day. You might think, if you were in a coma during your junior high years or have conveniently forgotten such behavior, that this might instill a certain amount of support and encouragement among those who were more fit. There was a pretty clear understanding that, if you were faster and stronger, it was your job to torment those who were not so fast and not so strong. All of this would eventually be made right by the creation of the TV show "Freaks and Geeks", but while I was in eighth grade, there was no justice.

I have a lingering memory of Coach Lou, clipboard in hand and whistle in mouth, dressed head to toe in puffy green down. He needed to stay cozy and warm as he watched us trot around the track in the freezing rain and prevailing thirty mile an hour winds. This contrasts mightily with the image I have of his twin brother showing up during our band practice one morning. He was friends with our band director, Mister Whitehurst, taught at two schools - just coincidentally the other one was where Coach Larry worked. I don't remember Lou dropping by the band room once in the three years I went to Centennial. Larry came by several times, partly because he was there to see his brother, but also to see his friend. And those of us who just happened to be less coordinated and just happened to be in band took solace in this. He didn't mind coming over to "the other side." On the contrary, Larry seemed to genuinely enjoy his time there, and he put us all at ease. That is, until the bell rang and it was time to go across the building to see his brother.

Time has healed most of those wounds. I can run for more than fifteen minutes, and I suppose I owe that in part to Lou Straight. In my own teaching career I learned to never play favorites, and I suppose I owe that to Lou as well. Those were what we in the business call "teaching moments", and I learned my lesson.


Anonymous said...

Too bad Mr. Straight took a good concept, the 15-minute run, and turned it into a death march. That was actually introduced at Centennial by Bob Foster. For a gruff old bear of a guy, he brought more modern thinking to the PE section of the school. It was surprisingly supportive of getting you going and running when Foster ran the show. You ran 15 minutes to see how far you could go and then ran the 1.5 miles once a week to see what time it took you to complete it (even walking) so that you could see how you were/were not building up.

Anonymous said...

Coach Larry eventually got nailed for sleeping with some of the young girls in his gym class.

So much for the "good" Straight brother...