There were two kinds of girls at my school: there were those who were good at P.E. – who could run a mile or 10, who could leap over any obstacle, who could catch a ball without that sweaty moment of self-doubt that accompanied its painfully slow trajectory towards – inevitably – the ground (perhaps via your nose), and who could hit flying objects with ridiculous implements – a hockey stick, a tennis racquet or (most dangerously of all) a lacrosse stick – with force and deadly accuracy.
And there were those who couldn’t. Guess which camp I fell into?
To be seen to be trying and yet still failing was a far worse crime, in teenage-girl land, that simply not bothering. So I didn’t bother, with panache. When we were told to run round the field, I developed a stitch and walked. When practicing netball passes with a couple of partners in crime, we would stand statue-like watching until the teacher turned, then furiously pass the ball between us, until she turned back to the far-more-hopefuls and we resumed our somnolent state. When swimming widths in time trials I would swim in such a way that I wasn’t stuck in another girl’s wake, thus ensuring that I didn’t get a mouthful of spray and that I always reached the far side last. Or one of the last. There was a group of us, all equally useless, all equally afraid of making fools of ourselves. Our main objective was to get through the torture of P.E. lessons, under the teacher’s radar and, more importantly, to escape without the attention of those girls who were in the netball / hockey / swimming teams. Not to be ridiculed, and not to be yelled at – that was our goal.
The weird thing is that, left to our own devices, even we sad team of underachievers could enjoy sports. Once we were in fourth form – year 10, in new money – the teacher twigged that we would be far happier, less inhibited, and therefore more likely to actually, you know, DO stuff, if she left us to our own devices, taking the girls who were good at games away to train separately. Of course, it may also be true that these girls benefited significantly without being hampered by our uselessness…still, we blossomed, albeit in an out-of-breath cack-handed sort of a way. No longer were we held back by pointless instructions about the correct grip for forehand or any notion of an off-side rule. We were free to run and attack and defend, to hit and to leap and to…well, almost to catch. But it didn’t matter, because no-one was watching, well, no-one that mattered, no-one who was GOOD at this stuff. We just picked the ball up, brushed away the grass, and threw it – in entirely the wrong direction.
And in the middle of all that lack of expectations and pressure-off, I even discovered that I was reasonably OK at one or two things.
In the letter written to the Hebrews the writer says this:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
Hebrews 1:1-3 NIV
I have heard that passage preached upon many times. It is used to comfort and inspire its listeners. It is meant to make us focus, to redouble our efforts in the way that we live our lives.
But if I run, I don’t want to be watched. A great cloud of witnesses would paralyse me with fear.
Now, thirty years after the trauma of school P.E. lessons, I go to the gym, picking the time carefully to avoid most members. On the rare occasion my family persuade me to play a competitive game, I give up as soon as I realize that my poor attempts are making victory impossible and (to my mind) ‘spoiling’ the game for everyone else. I can’t help it: I am genetically and experientially programmed to want to crawl under a rock. If you ever want to precipitate my mental breakdown, put a rounders bat in my hand, gather round everyone I know – and a few strangers for good measure – start chanting ‘Hit it! Hit it!’ and then throw the ball towards me. But I warn you – it won’t be pretty.
If I am to be inspired and comforted, I need a different metaphor. I need a personal trainer, one who loves me exactly as I am but realises I could do with losing a couple of pounds, and improving my strength and stamina. I would enjoy training alongside those who are as rubbish as I am, and are open enough to admit it. Who think getting out of breath and going beetroot red are normal. Who want to play games, eclectically, not bound by rules and a sense of how things should be done. Who encourage one another in having fun, not breaking records. And who never ever throw spherical missiles near my head.
Since we are surrounded by a great cloud of underachieving but loving encouragers, let us run…