No other activity inspired as much loathing and resentment for both subject and tutors as Physical Education at school.
What didn’t help was that I was a particularly clumsy child, and at that time of your life when your entire status and worth as an individual in school is based on how well you can kick, throw or catch a ball, PE teachers seemed to revel in humiliating us differently-coordinated at every possible opportunity.
It wasn’t enough that he would pick the two top players out to the front to select their teams, which always created arguments when they got to the final kid left leaning against the wall, I would swear he actually encouraged them:
“You can have him”
“Nah, it’s ok, that’ll leave you 2 players short – you have him.”
“No, look, I said, you have him.”
“Well I don’t want him. He’s crap”
“Exactly, I don’t want him either. Sir, sir, you tell him to take Kim on his side!”
“Stop this arguing right now! This isn’t the kind of sporting behaviour I expect from you two. We’ll toss a coin and the loser gets him…”
When you’re a kid, there’s no such thing as a coordinated approach, so in your average soccer team forget about positions such as “wing” and “defence”, it’s 10 strikers and a goalie. I was always shoved in goal. Big mistake – when someone kicked a ball at the net I was more likely to dive out of the way to avoid being hit. Those things could fair sting if they hit you.
When I went up to the high school, I was living in Wales where the national sport obsession is rugby (for US readers – think of American Football but with only a thin nylon shirt and shorts for protection). Our PE teacher must have been in his 60s and close to retirement; in fact, he looked like he should have attended his own funeral several years before. He would dress in a tracksuit and stand by the side of the pitch, resting his large belly on the heavy roller used for flattening the cricket green, where he would yell at us between hacking coughs with a fag hanging out of his mouth: hardly an inspiring role model.
When I was nearly 15 we moved back to England and the PE master in my new school couldn’t have been more different. He was in his 30s, tall, lean, athletic, square jawed and a more narcissistic person you would struggle to find in a room full of young conservatives. He was the kind of person who would get up 2 hours early every morning just so that he could have more time to admire himself in the mirror. More disturbing than that, though, was his insistence that every boy have a shower after PE, and he would stand there and watch.
My god how I hated the showers. As a teenager, your self consciousness about your body is bad enough at the best of times, but when you’re forced to cavort around naked in front of all your male classmates, some of whom have been shaving since they were six and have penis that would make a horse weep with envy, then my personal symbol of masculinity would shrivel up so far in embarrassment that it almost inverted. Still, at least I never got an accidental erection: one lad was beaten to a pulp for his and teased relentlessly until the day we left school.
Needless to say, I have grown up to have a pathological hatred for football, rugby, cricket, communal showers and PE teachers. So later this year, when there will be all sorts of patriotic celebrating of the 40th anniversary since England last won the World Cup, I’m sure you’ll understand why I won’t be joining in.