The other day I complained to a friend that I don’t know enough kids in my college. He suggested I play intramurals once in a while. I said I thought that was a great idea.
Then I remembered that intramurals typically involve sports or games requiring at least average levels of hand-eye coordination. I’m sorry — I love my college — but in this case Jonathan Edwards wants something I just can’t give.
I am athletic. Everyday I pry open the child-proof glass doors at Payne Whitney and climb the stone steps to the Adrian C. “Ace” Israel Fitness Center. There I join a row of sweaty, mouth-breathing, winter-pale people sliding their limbs in elliptical motions and highlighting Tyco packets — or alternately, I walk over to the Cybex weight jungle and cringe at the old men in bike shorts enjoying the thigh press machines.
Gym workouts are pretty miserable. But my athletic track record leaves me no choice. I have learned that any relationship I try to develop with organized sports is destined to be abusive and brief.
My career as a gym class spaz began with volleyball in third grade PE. There was a boy in this class named Demico Nuggs. He was normally in the Behavioral Disorder class, but after all, it was the progressive late 1980s, so the school integrated his class with mine for gym.
During one volleyball match, as I readied my chubby thumbs in the bump position for a ball heading straight for me, “teammate” Demico slammed into my shoulder and sent me flying face-first into the linoleum. My front teeth cracked off on contact, shards of enamel skittering across the gym floor.
My junior high gym teachers didn’t try any harder to encourage my natural athletic gifts in a safe, friendly setting. The favorite game of Ms. Jowalski and Ms. Dudley (who both wore mullets and mowed lawns together on a John Deere riding mower every weekend) was Mat Ball. Mat Ball is the game you would come up with if you crossed kickball with the Haymarket Square riots and doused the whole mess in pubescent sexual tension.
The rules of Mat Ball replace normal bases with large floor mats and the average, benign kickball with a giant canvas sphere the size of a small meteor. The game is otherwise analogous to kickball, except that players can remain on base for as long as they like and each team has infinite outs, so you end up with hordes of cootie-fearing, chicken-legged pre-teens shrieking and scrambling on top of each other at every smack of the ball.
Every time we played, one of the boys in the traveling soccer league always felt compelled to hammer the canvas-covered death orb as hard as he could, invariably smashing a light fixture or a skinny asthmatic kid with a doctor’s note, depending on his aim. Once I was on first base during one such kick, and the ensuing screaming stampede resulted in an elbow to the mouth, knocking out my front teeth yet again.
The “tumbling unit,” too, is forever seared into my memory. In seventh grade I threw out my back while attempting a backwards shoulder roll. I spent the next two weeks on a floor mat in the corner doing vaguely sexual back exercises out of my teacher’s Bo Jackson fitness manual.
Despite these years of trauma, in high school I decided it was time to quit forging sprained ankle notes and find a sport I could actually tackle. I settled on running. What do you need to run besides a high pain tolerance? So I joined the cross country team.
My cross country career was short-lived but colorful. Highlights include the time I tripped at the starting line of our home invitational and single-handedly caused a 20-person pile-up. At our conference meet, I had the brilliant, if ill-fated, brainstorm of creatively employing duct tape to prevent my uniform briefs from riding up. When my 5-foot-one-inch menopausal, windbreaker jumpsuit-wearing coach started putting all my teammates who weighed more than 120 pounds on “no-milk” diets, I decided it was time to hang up my spikes.
Competitive running was out. All that remained was my bicycle. So each day during the summer after freshman year, I shoved a Nutri-Grain in my pocket and pedaled out into the far reaches of suburbia. For a few weeks all went well; my behind was a little sore, but there was wind in my hair, farmer’s tan on my neck, and I was finally enjoying a non-sedentary activity.
But one sunny morning in June, I reached down to pull my water bottle from the rack below my seat and take a long, athletic swig. My right front tooth banged against the bottle cap and splintered in half.
I know organized sports are a treasured part of the American childhood experience. I know it shouldn’t matter that I can’t make a basket shooting granny-style two feet from the hoop or pass the 7-second mark in the flexed arm hang test. I know that if I’d just relax, sports would be about goofing around with friends rather than emotional scars and lofty dental bills.
But barring a surprise visit from the hand-eye coordination gnome, I think I’ll stick to my gig with the balding old men at Payne Whitney.
Intramural knitting, anyone?
Molly Worthen is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. This is her last regular column of the semester.