At its finest, gym was monkey business

I RECALL a college friend who made some pocket money by working as a substitute teacher. He did it back at the prep school he and I had attended as small boys.

On Parents' Day, in the summer sunshine, his contribution to the curriculum was presented impressively on the front lawn. He had trained a small team of boys to perform - without a hint of trepidation - gymnastic wonders. They leaped like squirrels over and under things. They somersaulted - tucked themselves into sudden backward rolls, wound themselves into forward rolls, and heaven knows what else with neat, quick precision and unflustered timing. They seemed as weightless as they were elastic.

This immaculate performance was impressive in itself, but it was much more so when I thought back to our efforts years earlier in the school gym. Mine, anyway.

Vaulting over horses just wasn't my thing. I suspect I was too aware of the potential for miscalculation. We stood in line, waiting our turns (hoping it might not come), the teacher poised next to the horse as a kind of tall safety measure. But what if his attention were momentarily distracted? What if our forward momentum weren't sufficient for actual liftoff?

The vaulting horse, to a small boy, was intimidatingly big. What if we got stuck on the top like beached whales? What if we mistimed the jump? What if we were lighter than we expected and instead of neatly clearing the horse, we flew chaotically high and made no contact with the horse at all? Such things seemed too likely to happen.

Probably the first thing you need to put on hold if you want to be Olga Korbut is an overactive imagination. It wasn't that I didn't want to be good at it. It was perfectly apparent that my as-yet-undiscovered talents lay in other directions. My dislike of gyms is a much later development, mainly concentrated on those expensive establishments where people today go to subject themselves to contraptions far more sinister than the rack or the iron maiden, but in the name of fitness.

Professional gymnasts take my breath away. I admire them in the same way that one admires bird flight - from the standpoint of being a totally different species. How do they do it? It looks as natural as breathing, though of course such apparent ease is the result of ferocious practice, ruthless training, and probably some form of medieval torture.

Back at school, it would have been no punishment for me to be deprived of gym lessons. I didn't question them much then, but they were probably a bit too martial for my taste. All that standing in rows and doing everything in unison: "Out! In! Out! In! Up-down. Up-down. Up-down. Across and touch your right toes. Across and touch your left toes. Touch! Touch! Run to the wall and back. Wall and back. Wall and back."

Thinking about it now, I wonder what the differences might be between well-meant teacherly excesses and the training of Soviet youths or the morning exercises in Japanese car factories. It isn't as if we were nascent couch potatoes.

Exercise was built into the regimen. We were made to play hearty organized games every afternoon. And we were bursting with an overspill of energy the livelong day anyway. After tea, we'd be (eagerly) out on the grass playing our own "free" games. But they were free, not imposed, and I don't know why we weren't allowed such freedom all the time.

IT WAS on those unhappily rare days that were too wet or too frozen for organized outdoor games that the school gym became what - in my book - it should always have been: an indoor playground. We were supervised, but essentially all the equipment was put at our disposal, and we were let loose to entertain ourselves in whatever way we chose.

The result was not the mayhem you might expect. And there was one sport on these occasions I enjoyed with such relish that it found its way into my dreams. I loved it. I don't recall it having a name. Its rules were very simple. We each had to try to circumnavigate the gym as fast as possible, using every piece of available equipment, without once touching the floor.

Now the horses had some point to them, and the wall bars, the mats, and - above all - the line of ropes across the gym's center. I was determined to learn how to climb and hold my position on those ropes. Tarzan didn't get a look in.

Small boys are competitive by nature, of course. Each wanted to do better than the others at this game. But, without being platitudinously told to do so, we were in fact playing this game for its own sake, and competing with the course and with our own best last effort, rather than with one another. The finest thing was that this game was not something the adult world felt was good for the child world - though we probably got more exercise from it than from the regular routine of gym lessons.

Staying above floor level demanded ingenuity and daring, a canny (and not always successful) judgment of leaping distances, agility, speed, and impossible degrees of stretching and reaching across improbable spaces. Let loose to play this marvelous game, we unwittingly behaved in an utterly Darwinian manner. We were swinging about in the tree canopy. It was memorable monkey business, indeed.

But I don't think anybody suggested we might perform it on Parents' Day.

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