Oh, middle school. As an adult, nothing is quite as excruciating as it was back then. From the braces to the acne, just about everything is unbearable, uncool, exhausting, or worst of all – embarrassing. With the rush of your first crush (and the subsequent heartache) happening in step with your body changing from a child’s to a teen’s, I can’t imagine any adult looking back at their middle school days and saying, “That was great! Sign me up for round two!” In hindsight, it looks as if middle school is a melting pot designed with the specific goal in mind of enhancing tween misery.
Especially gym class.
Do you remember the humiliation of straining to do a single pullup in front of the teacher and all the other students?
How about the flexibility tests, where they grade you on how far past your toes you can stretch your fingers (I know that, for me personally, touching my toes even was a small miracle). Not to mention how mortifyingly unfashionable gym clothes were.
However, there’s nothing that can really compare to the humiliation of running in middle school gym class. While running “the mile” was bad enough, that’s not what I’m thinking of. I’m talking about the one and only Fitnessgram Pacer Test, the one so bad, there are memes about it now. And while it wasn’t so miserable that schools pulled it because of cruelty to children (despite the hefty claims otherwise), it still was no picnic.
As a tween, I know that just doing one lap around the track was rough for me. I wasn’t much of a runner, and was (and still am) a huge bookworm. So much so that, in my senior year, I managed to wriggle out of participating in gym class every day. Instead, I read a book during class time, and somehow still passed with an A – I think I must have been one smooth talker. So it’s no surprise that in middle school, when I had to participate in the Fitnessgram Pacer Test, it was melodramatic torture for me.
To start things off, I grew up in Florida. My school liked to do most things outside – we didn’t even have traditional hallways, but instead “breezeways”, or open halls that took us outside between each class. My gym teacher liked to have the Fitnessgram Pacer Test outside on the track. Walking out there, the heat would already be radiating up, and I’d have to squint under the mid-morning sun.
The field on the way to the track was always soggy – in Florida, it has always just rained – and my shoes would squelch through the mud. They were always already caked by the time we got to the track, and my socks were already feeling damp. Who knows, maybe people somewhere drier like New Mexico had a better time than I did doing this test.
The first bell would ring, and we’d begin. I watched the young hopefuls – those that magically stayed fit forever, later joining track team or crew – start off at a trot, knowing how to pace themselves, barely breaking a sweat, and confident that they’d make it by the first bell. I, along with a handful of the other nerdy stragglers, was already huffing and puffing to keep pace with them.
I could always complete the first 20-meter back-and-forth before the first bell. Most of us could. If you escaped childhood without doing the Fitnessgram Pacer Test, it worked like this: the second bell would come a little sooner than the first bell had come, and we had to cross the same amount of distance in a slightly shorter amount of time. Each round, the bell came sooner and sooner. If you couldn’t complete one 20-meter jog within the bell’s time twice, you were eliminated.
Typically, my lungs were already burning before the third bell. Somehow, I finished it on time.
Then came the fourth, faster bell. I wasn’t a skilled runner before, and by this bell, I almost never made it before the it rang. When that happened, I’d panic – I knew there was only one more chance before being eliminated, and there’s nothing more embarrassing than being the first one out.
I almost never made it.
At that, I would admit defeat and sit on the damp field, my shorts getting dirty, the backs of my thighs and calves imprinted with individual blades of grass. I’d watch the rest of the kids in resigned admiration, aware of my own inability to keep up with these fit, future prom queens and kings.
It’s interesting reflecting back on it as a fit adult. Although FitnessGram advertises their fitness test regimens as “non-competitive,” as a young person it felt like they were anything but. I would compete out of peer pressure – I had to at least come third-to-last, because the kid who was last was laughed at! I used to think that I didn’t have an athletic bone in my body until after college, when I discovered – at my own pace – that I really loved running. I found joy in 5ks, or morning runs with the man who later became my husband. I also learned that I liked things like frisbee, one-on-one basketball, and yoga. I was turned off of sports and fitness for a long time because of these tests. I wonder how many other tweens grew into adults that thought the same thing, and never had the luxury of finding out that fitness can be fun.
I love a good competition – ask my friends during board game night – but these tests really live up to their vilified, meme status. I’m just grateful I can’t go back. Maybe I’ll take a run tomorrow morning – but maybe not. After all, it’s not a competition.