The smell of honeysuckle reminds me of the time I almost died. For other Florida natives, the sweet scent is synonymous with Florida’s perpetual summer, but for me, it’s a reminder of gasping for air as I nearly drowned in front of my first-grade class.
The public pool where my elementary school held swimming lessons was surrounded by a fence covered in honeysuckle vines. It was there I kicked and screamed in the deep end until my PE teacher Bill Ducharme finally pulled me up by my faulty life vest and spat me out on the hard cement. I was 6 years old and already I knew what it was like to see life flash before my eyes. A bloated man with a permanent sunburn, Coach Ducharme always smelled like Banana Boat and continued to torture and embarrass me until middle school. And I still can’t swim.
I felt deeply ashamed of what my body could and couldn’t do, compared to my competitive and athletic peers.
Since The Great Pool Incident Of 1999, I’ve been the poster child for the anti-gym movement. Running a mile around a fenced-in retention pond was my seventh circle of Hell, as I watched all the “cool” kids cross the finish line before I’d even made the first lap. I was always embarrassed for not finishing at the six-minute mark, the amount of time designated as “normal for my age” and what I “should be able to do.”
Was something wrong with me? Was I destined for a life of failure?
I loved getting picked last for kickball because that meant all the important positions were already taken and I could stay as far away from the action as possible. I mastered the art of feigning headaches and fading into the far left field. If the ball did come toward me—which always felt like a thinly-veiled murder attempt—I'd flail my awkward, uncoordinated limbs and kick the ball in the wrong direction. I felt deeply ashamed of what my body could and couldn’t do, compared to my competitive and athletic peers.
If middle school gym was the seventh ring of Hell, high school gym was the fiery center, where I was left to burn alive. During my most self-conscious teenage years, all of my flaws—along with my milky, jiggly thighs—were exposed for a full 90 minutes a day, in front of the world’s most judgemental audience.
There’s nothing more damaging than getting told by an adult authority figure you’re not fast enough, not fit enough, not good enough.
My high school PE teacher, Coach Bird, was a rectangular man who clearly dealt with all life’s disappointments by taking it out on teens. If you weren’t blessed with a strong throwing arm, he’d yell things like, “Get your head out of your ass.” Naturally, I was always in his line of fire. There’s nothing more damaging than getting told by an adult authority figure you’re not fast enough, not fit enough, not good enough.
Finally, just as I was about to saw off my limbs to get out of morning sprints, a gift came down from the heavens and that gift was online gym class. That’s right, in the state of Florida, there is a program usually reserved for homeschooled children, where students log physical activity and get their parents to sign off. I’ve never worked so hard for anything in my life as I did for a spot in online gym. I pleaded with my guidance counselor, who finally caved when I made up some bullshit about it “diversifying my college applications.”
Sure enough, I was a proud student of Florida Virtual School of Physical Education. I falsified the activity logs and my parents (bless them) blindly faxed a copy to my teacher. I'm hoping that no one reading this has the power to rescind my high school diploma.
Though now I’m safely out of the phase of life in which I’m required to run the mile, the embarrassment, shame and fear still linger. I want to walk up stairs without feeling like death and have chiseled arms like Michele Obama, but every time I set foot in a gym, a heavy anxiety fills my chest, like I’m back in the high school weight room all over again.
Is everyone looking at me? Are they making fun of the way I run? Should I be moving faster?
I hope to one day overcome my intense workout anxiety, but I worry my 10+ years of gym class trauma will be insurmountable. So for now, I’ll just sit in left field, watching from a distance.