Fitness beyond dodgeball

Gym is required at my daughter's school. Civics isn't.

My daughter Charlotte recently informed me that gym teachers still make kids play dodgeball.

It's a game that evokes memories of maniacal man-boys hurling leather missiles at my head. I wore a glasses guard in those days though, so heaven knows, I was asking for it.

Today's version, "German" dodgeball, sounds even more sinister. It raises the question: What could be possibly worse than plain old dodgeball?

Charlotte's 14-year-old male friend, towering above us both at 6-foot-3 and 167 pounds, dismissed my daughter's complaints. "I like it."

I lay my general mistrust of physical education at the feet of J.F.K. In the early 1960s, public schools began to administer "President Kennedy's physical fitness tests," and as far as I was concerned, gym teachers never smiled again.

Twice a year, every child's individual output of sit-ups, push-ups, and the odious squat thrust was scrupulously recorded. There were coordination tests and rope climbing.

Apparently, the President's Council on Physical Fitness reasoned that boot camp training was an excellent standard by which to assess the fitness of 8-year-olds.

Bike riding, tree climbing, or dancing to the overture of "Gypsy" were not included. Lying on the gym floor in my standard issue gym-suit while a partner held my ankles, I managed maybe two straight-legged sit-ups.

Wiry and indefatigable Benny LaGuardia scurried up the ropes like Curious George, and I hung at the bottom looking like a church bell without its clapper. We were weighed and measured in front of each other. Miss Mullen pronounced me fat.

All that scrutiny by marine wannabes made me a furtive, closet exerciser. Participate in a group sport or game? Miniature golf still gives me the willies.

I developed an exercise habit only when I discovered exercise audio and videotapes. In private, I learned aerobics, yoga, circuit training and how to use free weights. When walking became "real" exercise, I forced myself to go public only because I could pretend to be late for an appointment.

Nature or nurture, who knows, but my own children have not been fond of their gym classes. My daughter, who eagerly looked forward to gymnastics, ballet, swim team, and skiing outside elementary school, consistently received the comment from gym teachers: "Needs to put more effort into this class."

My son claims he finally learned the meaning of "effort" in high school one day, when he completed his required laps and vomited at his gym teacher's feet. He received a slap on the back, and his status soared.

Out of respect for the teaching profession, I have tried to refrain from mocking physical education in front of my children. But since gym teachers are still encouraging dodgeball in 2008, I am ready to join the kids and swap stories. Who do I think I'm kidding anyway?

At my daughter's high school, where civic government and mastering a foreign language are only electives, gym is considered so fundamental that it is required for three semesters. Apparently the curriculum hasn't caught up with the news that being pummeled and shamed are not self-esteem builders.

Submitting to the sting of leather and the jeers of classmates may indeed be useful practice for the next time our kids are thrown to the lions. But is it the message we want to send them about the integrity of their bodies and how to behave in the world?

High school students are notorious for cutting gym class, and schools make extraordinary efforts to police these kids. In my community, if the postal worker hands you a certified letter, chances are your kid sneaked out to Dunkin' Donuts to avoid squat thrusts.

For my tax dollar, I'd like to see physical education professionals develop a model of "good enough fitness" meant to develop lifelong habits. Let's hire the innovators who have moved beyond dodgeball and can offer classes that kids hate to miss.

As it is, a lot of our children are wasting their time chowing down at doughnut shops, when they could be burning calories studying Spanish or civics.

Gay Buttenheim Maxwell is a licensed clinical social worker, gardener, and mother of two teenagers.

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