And Why I Wish I Knew Then What I Know Now

exercise shoesRecently one of my characters, substitute teacher Barbara Reed, started an exercise program. Barb didn’t want to work out, but I gave her no choice. I’m the author and exercise figures into the plot of No Substitute for Money.


Barb is pushing 40 and has not-so-great diet and exercise habits dating back to high school.


Coincidentally, so do I.


What I didn’t know then—as a teenager—is part of the reason that I’m falling apart now.


Well, I’m not exactly falling apart, but you wouldn’t be far off base if you said I’m soft, sagging, and sadly in need of toning.


What I didn’t know then was why exercise was so important to my health—at the time, and years into the future.


Back then, in rural New York, you got exercise doing your chores or walking to a friend’s house or riding your bicycle to the post office. There were no fitness centers, no personal trainers, no workout tapes or DVDs. We had Jack LaLanne on one of the two snowy TV channels originating in Connecticut. And we had gym teachers at school.


In elementary school, most of the girls agreed that the male gym teacher was horrible.  He didn’t care about the frilly dresses we wore on our birthdays. He told us we should have worn pants like we were supposed to on gym days and made us jump and run until we were sweaty, humiliated, and sometimes in tears.


girl climbingAs for the female gym teachers in high school, well, clearly they’d gone over to the dark side. They refused to accept time-honored female excuses and, worse yet, forced us to dress out in gym suits.


My school colors were scarlet and gray. Gray would have been subtle and might have bordered on tasteful. So of course the suits were red. And of course, when I brought mine home to be washed (once or twice a year and only after much parental reminding/ordering/nagging) the color bled onto everything in the washer. I remember my father, a six-foot WWII vet and a carpenter, gaping at the stack of pink underwear in his dresser drawer.


When you look up “fashion disaster” in the dictionary, there’s a picture of me wearing either the one-piece suit with snaps up the front that came open when I inhaled deeply, or the suit with the short skirt and thick cotton “bloomer.” The ribbon of elastic that held up the bloomer was prone to snap—always at the precise moment of maximum embarrassment.


The one-piece model was difficult to get into, involving Houdini-like contortions to force my shoulder blades together while a friend yanked the suit up my arms. Getting it off while sweaty was equally difficult and involved doing something that resembled the Twist to the sound of the bell indicating three minutes to get to the next class.


Once we had our suits on, we filed into the gym where we bent, stretched, and crunched before we were divided into teams. Team captains—girls who actually liked sports—did the dividing. I yawned, pulled up my socks, retied my sneakers, and generally pretended I didn’t care that I was destined to be a next-to-last-round choice. I couldn’t blame the captains. After all, they wanted to win and my hand-eye coordination was even more appalling than my lack of interest in the game.


If the weather was too cold (meaning frostbite was a possibility) or too wet (an ark filled with animals had been spotted) we played volleyball or basketball indoors or dragged out mats and gymnastic equipment like that dreaded pommel horse. If the weather was good (defined as above freezing and free of hail and nearby lightning strikes), we were driven like cattle out to the field to play hockey. (Not the smooth and grassy football field because that was reserved for the boys, but a weed-choked, mud-puddle-riddled flattish area on the playground.)


There we squinted to make out chalk lines scuffed into the dirt by earlier gym classes and flailed at the ball—and each other—with hockey sticks. Those never struck the feeble padding of our shin guards, but instead connected with flesh and left strings of bruises and lumps. Field hockey games seemed endless. So did the season. It went on until—to our vast relief—snow shrouded the field.


Granted, I didn’t do a whole lot of listening in gym class (or high school in general), but I can’t recall an explanation of why we counted off sit-ups and toe touches and those wing stretchers that made the snaps on my gym suit lose their grip. Had I known I was building a foundation for the rest of my life, I might have put more effort into exercising and less effort into avoiding it.


As it is, with a combination of water aerobics, walking, hand weight reps, and crunches done while watching TV, I’m holding the line. Thanks to what I didn’t know then, it’s not a hard, firm line.


No Substitute for Money by Carolyn J. Rose

No Substitute for Money by Carolyn J. Rose

And, unfortunately, there’s a big difference between real life and fiction. If I decide to allow my character to shed those unwanted pounds, I could do it over the course of a few hundred pages and a few fictional weeks. If I decide to shed my personal poundage, it will happen around about . . . well, probably never.


Got a memory about high school gym class or an opinion about exercise? Share it in a comment and get in the drawing for a copy of No Substitute for Money.