For the longest time I have been searching for you through the Internet, because I wanted to tell you that I am a triathlete. I have finished one Half Ironman in the summer of 2013, and I am training to finish another one this summer. I wanted you to know about my athletic endeavors for selfish reasons, because I wanted you to know that I give you no credit whatsoever for my athletic success. I’m not usually so selfish or mean, but I’ve carried a lot of shame from the years that you were my PE teacher. I’ve also carried a bit of that seventh grade girl, whose biggest desire was that somehow you’d be proud of her. Doesn’t every seventh grader, somewhere deep down, desire the approval, even the love of his or her teachers?
Imagine me, as a seventh grader, already different from the other girls in so many ways, just wanting somehow to fit in. The one place I had always fit in was in athletic pursuits. I was a kickball master, I could cross the monkey bars singles, doubles, and triples, I could jump rope like a beast, and I swam like lightening. Was I the fastest? No. Was I the best? No. Did I ever in all the years I participated in PE ever pass the ridiculous and contrived Presidential Fitness Test? No, but I can tell you that I played sports, all kinds, all the time.
What confused me as a kid—and I even gave you grace because my parents said that you were fresh out of college and bound to make some mistakes—is that you played favorites and you said and did some really mean things. There was no doubt in my seventh grade mind that you held certain girls, particularly those who were a lot like what I think you wanted to be when you were in middle school (popular, pretty, athletic, and smart), in higher regard than those, like me, who were probably more like you actually were in middle school. I forgive you for that; none of us wants to look in a mirror and see what we don’t like about ourselves reflected back at us. I just wish you wouldn’t have taken your own insecurities out on us. I learned this from you: never let my own perceived inadequacies determine how I treat my students, love them all the same, and treat them all with dignity.
Do you remember that time when we were playing field hockey and H S high sticked me and made a bruise that covered my whole shin, making it painful to walk for several days? You have probably forgotten what you asked me when it happened: what did you do to make him high stick you? You didn’t ask if I was okay. You didn’t put him out of the game. You didn’t send me to the nurse. Instead you blamed me and asked me what I had done to deserve it. You gave me my first experience of victim-shaming, over field hockey.
Do you remember when I tried out for seventh grade volleyball? I wasn’t the best, and truth be told I was just looking for a sport to play between softball and swimming, which were my loves. I worked so hard in those tryouts, though, and I wasn’t a horrible player. But I was cut from the team, which didn’t bother me as much as your reaction to my questioning what I did wrong. You have probably forgotten that when I asked why I didn’t make the team, you didn’t tell me the skills I needed to work on to make the team the next year. Instead you told me that I was too fat and that I needed to lose weight to be on the team. Of course, you didn’t give me any sort of plan by which to do this; you simply said, lose weight and try again next year.
Do you remember in eighth grade when I showed you my first, first place swimming ribbon for the 500, because I was proud and I figured my PE teacher would be proud as well? You likely don’t even remember me showing you, because you told me that was nice and said it was probably because we swam against a school with a slow team. You then turned your back to me and started talking about the previous nights basketball game with your three favorite girls. You weren’t there coach, yet you went to every game. I don’t remember you ever coming to one, single swim meet.
I don’t bring all of this up to you, because I dislike you or because I want to somehow get back at you. I don’t bring it up because I am bitter about it. I certainly don’t bring it up because I want or need an apology. Really, I’m just processing here.
I bring all of these things up, because this is what I think about while I am putting in miles in the pool, on the bike, and on my feet: despite all the horrible things I learned in PE throughout school, I am still an athlete. I may be fat, but I keep going. I make myself proud when I receive my finisher’s medal, and those people who love me are proud too. The seventh-grade girl that rears her ugly, jealous, approval-seeking head every once in a while, thinks that maybe if you knew I’m still an athlete, you’d be proud of me, too. Or maybe at least you’d take the time to ooh and aah a little over my cheesy running hat that says finisher.
So, J H, you are the first person I am writing a letter to this year, because I want you to know that I forgive you for being young and not giving me what I needed in middle school. I forgive you for being fairly self-absorbed and playing favorites. And, mostly, I thank you for showing me how I wanted to be as a teacher, and I thank you for giving me the drive to succeed in sports without a great deal of external motivation.
I hope you are well. Maybe one day we’ll bump into each other at a triathlon or a run.
EDIT: I finally found you on the Interwebs. You do utlra-running. You teach health and PE in Southern Indiana. You still think everyone should be thin, but it seems like you’ve worked out some of the kinks you had at Blackford Schools, because the students you work with seem to like you. I still think you look kind of sad and not very fulfilled, so I hope the best for you. And I hope you get happier.