So. I wrote a couple of times over at Fit and Feminist about my experiences with my lovely, charming — ahem! — ninth grade gym teacher. Basically, as evidenced by her handling of public weigh-ins and menarche, Mrs. D was approximately third last person on the planet who should have been teaching adolescents how to support their physical health.
Today, I move on to the PE volleyball unit, which was its own special blend of hell.
Because, you see, Mrs. D was also the junior varsity volleyball coach for the school. She took her volleyball seriously — so seriously, in fact, that she expected her gym students to be as skilled and competitive as the players on her team.
“No underhand serves here! Overhand, OVERHAND!”
“I can’t believe you missed that! There’s no excuse.”
It’s not that I’m not a good student. It’s not that I don’t try hard. It’s not even that I’m particularly uncoordinated or unathletic. It’s that volleyball is not my thing.
It’s true, at this time, books are my number one thing. Horses are second. In terms of PE-approved mainstream sports, though, basketball is the closest I have to a thing. That is, when I see a ball hurtling through space at my head, my instinctive action is to put my hands up and catch the fucker — not to hit it with extended arms or spike it down with fists. I maintain that this is not a terrible instinct to have though it does make me ill-suited for most of the main actions in volleyball.
As it turns out, though, I am not such a bad setter, perhaps because the spider-fingered action of setting is not so very different from creating sticky fingers to catch a basketball pass or rebound.
If I were teaching me — in a ninth grade PE class, mind you, not a competitive team — I like to think I would have noticed that. I like to think I would have said something supportive. I sure as hell would not have told me that my body was wrong for behaving as it did.
“You’re too big. You’re wasted as a setter. You have guy muscles, so you should use them to work on your overhand serves and spikes.”
I am already self-conscious about my body being too big, so being told as much and that I have “guy muscles” is not something I can take as a compliment. It is especially frustrating to be told these guy muscles mean I cannot try to do the thing I am good at and instead should spend more time doing the things I am not good at.
But this is gym class, and she is the teacher. In drills, I dutifully focus on the skills she’s set out for me. I am terrible at these things, so I try really, really hard to get better. I remain terrible. I spike the ball into the net. I toss the ball up for a serve and fail to make contact with it again, even a little bit. I spike the ball dangerously close to my classmate’s head; she is on the same side of the net as I am. During a serve where I actually make contact with the ball, I send it spinning twenty feet to the left, where it knocks Mrs. D’s clipboard out of her hand. I’d feel self-satisfied, except that it was completely and utterly an accident.
I never get any better, nor do I get any specific instruction in how to get better. I do, however, get a lot of disparaging remarks about how I’m “too scared of the ball” and “just not trying.” The former may well be true — see point about no specific instruction — but the latter is not.
The end of the unit: We break up into teams for two weeks of tournament play. Our test grade, yes, is based on how well our team ranks in the tournament.
On my team is W, a girl with whom I used to play middle school basketball. Given our respective strengths and positions, we had a fairly comfortable routine of me catching a rebound and sending it to her for shooting or dribbling downcourt. W also now plays JV volleyball for Mrs. D.
“I don’t care what she told you,” W says, glaring over at the teacher, whose nose is buried in her clipboard. “Serve underhand, bump when you need to to keep the ball in play, and when you can, set it up for someone who can spike.”
So I do, deciding that using less flashy skills competently is better than attempting showier feats with spectacular fail. Not only is our team more likely to score points and win games, but I am less likely to cause concussions. And until sending Mrs. D’s clipboard into her nose is an “accidentally on purpose” kind of thing, concussions are something I want to avoid.
Mrs. D is livid, though, just the same. She scowls every time I send over a predictable, easily returnable underhand serve. And I can actually see her roll her eyes and turn away every time I neatly float the ball for W or another teammate to spike. Lest you think Mrs. D is picking on me, I should point out that she has similar visible reactions anytime a student makes a move that might be considered mistimed, uncertain, timid, or careful.
At the beginning of the unit, we as students came to her with a wide range of volleyball skills and aptitude. By the end, very few had improved. Very few had fun.