We sat in a semicircle in the gym listening to Mr. Miller. It was our first class of the year. As 4th graders, he told us, we would now change clothing for gym, and take a shower after class. Soon we were standing in two lines, boys on one side of the gym, girls on the other, and uniforms were handed out. The girls’ uniform, a one-piece outfit in an institutional blue/gray fabric, resembled something between a tunic and shorts. It snapped up the front and had short sleeves and pants that ended a third of the way down our thighs, with elasticized hems that hugged each leg, just tight enough to allow circulation.
Then, while Mr. Miller remained with the boys, two female fourth-grade teachers led us girls into the locker room. If my recollection is accurate, the changing area consisted of three walls encased by rows of small square lockers, one stacked upon another. Across from the lockers was a large square open space with two showerheads attached to each of three walls.
We were each handed a slip of paper containing a locker number, the combination for its lock, and simple directions explaining how to open it. I remember standing, surrounded by the other 4th-grade girls, probably 25 or 30 of us in total, as one of the teachers read aloud the instructions. We were to turn the white arrow of the dial to zero. Then turn the dial to the right until the first number was reached. Then reverse and go a full rotation to the left and continue to the second number. Finally, rotate to the right till the arrow arrived at the third number. With a click the locker would open. Flooded with so much new information, I barely heard what we were told.
One of the teachers directed us to find our locker and practice opening it. I located mine and tried a few times to unlock it. Right, left, right – no success. With trepidation, I headed over to a teacher, waited my turn, and asked for help. She patiently, although quickly, showed me what to do. I’m sure I smiled with relief when I heard the click and watched the door slip open. We put my new uniform inside and shut it again. She suggested I continue to practice and moved on to help someone else.
I looked at my instructions and then the lock. I imagine my face got more and more flushed and my stomach churned as I set the dial back to zero, read the directions, and turned the dial this way, then that, over and over again. At some point, maybe 15 or 20 minutes later, we were told it was time to line up and return to class. I had not yet opened my locker.
If I remember correctly, gym class met twice a week. Mr. Miller monitored the boys‘ locker room and the 4th-grade teachers took turns supervising the girls. Because I couldn’t open my locker, at the beginning of each class I would go to either Mrs. Spinner or Miss Rita and ask for help. I’d changed into my uniform, being very careful to leave my locker ajar so that when we returned at the end of class, I didn’t have to, again, get help.
I had attended North Street School since kindergarten. Even though I was shy by nature, I had friends and was at ease there, but gym was not a class I liked, ever. We were taught all sorts of sports: kickball, Newcomb, basketball. We ran relay races, did gymnastics, and played a variety of other games. Small, skinny, and self-conscious, I wasn’t particularly nimble at any of them. From the beginning, my overthinking brain got in the way of developing any athletic potential I might have had. Instead, I worried – to the point of stomachaches – that when the ball came my way, I would drop it. I had trouble throwingthe basketball anywhere near the height of the hoop, and I pretended very hard not to care when team captains were assigned and given what today I consider to be the thankless task of choosing teammates. Regularly, I was picked either near last or last.
For a couple of weeks I didn’t mind asking for help opening my locker. But it didn’t take long before the layers of humiliationthat formed due to my ineptitude in class, and deepened with the embarrassment of not being able to use a combination lock, overwhelmed me. In a split-second decision, without a word to anyone, I went on strike. For what in my memory seems like a few months, but in reality was probably shorter, I’d go to gym and tell Mr. Miller I was sick and wasn’t allowed to participate. Each class he’d remind me that I had to bring in a note from my mother or I’d have to play. “I’ll bring it next time,“ I’d answer in almost of whisper, and then walk to a bench just inside the entrance to the gym where I would sit, silently, and watch my happy, seemingly deft classmates play.
The entire day of gym class was painful for me. Beforehand, I had to prepare myself mentally to tell Mr. Miller, yet again, that I was sick and that I’d bring him a note the next time. I’m not sure why he let this pretense go on for as long as he did, but one day I walked into the gym and my mother was there, standing next to Mr. Miller. I cried as I explained that I couldn’t open my locker. I don’t remember what happened next, but that afternoon, when I got home from school, my mom gave me a hug and a combination lock. We practiced for a long time until finally I was able to open it, and then I’m sure I practiced some more.
Later that week, when I had gym class, I avoided any eye contact with Mr. Miller. Head down, I walked into the locker room, opened my locker, and put on my uniform. At the end of the quarter, when I got my report card, I saw that Mr. Miller had given me a U, which stood for Unsatisfactory. That U felt like pouring salt on a still very raw wound.
Pamela Furth joined the memoir workshop to help find her voice, both spoken and written. From Wednesday to Monday, she agonizes to get something on paper. Then, each Tuesday afternoon, in a nurturing group of talented, warm, good-humored, and nonjudgmental writers, she shares the results. Her voice, she believes, is getting stronger by the week.