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July 20, 2023

Is it gym class or abuse of power?

It can be argued that childhood is traumatic. Growth spurts, developmental milestones, and relational challenges, be they family, peer, or other adult influences, can ensure there will be pain, during this thing called, “growing up.”

Most of us, surviving this time of our lives, have shared commonalities. One of the most brutal of those common experiences can be that of physical education class.

Who’s wincing right now?

Ideally, gym classes, implemented in first grade, through the high school years, should educate and encourage good health, positive fitness, teamwork, camaraderie, and people skills.

Notice, I say, “should.”

But does that happen? Eh, often, not so much.

What is in its place then, within this vacuum?

Well, all kinds of fun stuff, often explored within the walls of a trauma therapist’s office, years later.

So, physical education class.

What are we learning? Picking teams.

The first order of business for us tender children?

As children, we are taught about socialization.

My memories are not happy here.

My experiences of picking teams were that of me usually being picked last for Dodgeball, Kickball, Volleyball, or any other kind of “ball” known to man. I was neither athletic, nor coordinated. I didn’t run fast or well. I was an overweight kid. Therefore, I was deemed undesirable. It was widely known I would help no one win the game.

I have many memories of my gym teacher deciding just how we, the young pups who lacked empathy, would oversee picking who was first choice for a team, whittling down to the final teammate offering, usually me. I would see the giant groans and sighs, along with the occasional snicker or look of contempt when the picking “Team Captain” kid realized how they were stuck with me.

From start to finish, I wished we could have just numbered off “one-two” instead.

Less personal. Less hurtful. Less rejecting.

But, for whatever reason, the gym teacher thought there was merit in letting “Lord of the Flies” decide how to play a sport.

What was supposed to be the lesson?


We are taught to play with each other. It should be fun, right? Picking teams, through physical education class, therefore, is part of that “fun.” We learn how to play games.

Games involve a clear winner, and a clear loser.

The ideal lesson should be that of cooperation, socialization with peers, and fun. Maybe even tack on some leadership skills. Everyone’s working together for a common goal.


Young people are learning both the rules and the skills of a game or sport AND interpersonal dynamics of human interaction.


What was the lesson?

The Thunderdome.

Darwin’s survival of the fittest.

Kill or be killed.

Destroy that which is perceived as weak, slow, or different.

Justified ostracism.

Also known as lumping kids into one of two teams: The Have’s and The Have Not’s.

I’m subjective as I reflect of physical education classes of yore. I cannot help but see, however, there was a connection between the “picking teams” education approach, and the budding, increasingly solidified reality of creating “the popular kids” and “the nerds.”

There does appear to be a link between athletic performance and the desirability of a certain kind of peer.

You either have it, or you don’t.

Cutthroat. Ruthless.

Just another day of picking teams in an elementary, middle school, or high school near you.

What else are we learning? All about how to live in and move in our bodies.

What was supposed to be the lesson?

Physical health. Fitness. Nutrition. Self-care. Well-being.

These are the lofty educational goals. Passing on the knowledge and application of health. Children need this modelling.

How will they learn how to eat, exercise, meditate, and interact with others unless and until it is actively modelled for them?

It’s a tall order.

Within physical education class, the emphasis is on the body, moving it, conditioning it, training it.

Energy expenditure. Constructive outlets, channeled through sport.

What was the lesson?

How about… How to tolerate mistreatment/harassment?

Bullying over budding bodies and the encouragement of sexual harassment?

Yeah, that’s great.

I don’t know how much personal experience is indicative of context and/or culture.

But harmful, toxic, abusive stuff is at play, no pun intended.

Female bodies, arguably, get the lion’s share, worst end of it. Harassment goes beyond “Kids will be kids,” or, more specifically, “Boys will be boys.”

A female’s developing body, with the focus on growing breasts, is often targeted when it comes to lewd, inappropriate, and violating words and actions.

Again, my personal experiences permeate with this situation. Hearing the sexual comments about a jiggling bustline as females were running around the gymnasium, having the breasts and the buttocks being grabbed by these excited, and often, cruel young boys, and even witnessing an incident of a junior high male invading the girls’ locker room while the females were changing after gym class.

Yeah. All of those things happened.

And that modelled what was acceptable and allowed and what wasn’t.

Violation was given a free pass. No accountability for inexcusable acts of invaded privacy and boundaries was on display.

Not surprisingly, the offenders were of the popular kid set. They were untouchable.

And that’s a hard pill to swallow, especially when you’re young, insecure, and female. It’s frightening and painful to realize by age twelve or thirteen that it is open season on your body.

But violation can go further.

Sexual harassment from the gym teacher?

Yep, that can also be there as well.

A gym teacher who chose the behaviors of both patting a child’s rear end and grabbing a student by the neck scruff, to make effective points? Yes, that was the educational system at work. Teaching… teaching something.

Teachers are authority figures. They represent role models, experts, and those who must be obeyed.

And that all works together, the peer and the teacher violation, to create the next toxic lesson that physical education class can offer.

What else are we learning? Perceived Goals of Resilience and Strength?

What was supposed to be the lesson?

We, as children, through gym class, ideally, should learn how to become mentally and physically strong. We are encouraged to challenge ourselves, push past limits, and develop into stronger individuals. Learning lessons of persistence, patience, discipline, and attitude are part of the lesson package, ideally.

What was the lesson?

Invalidation: Who’d believe me, anyway?

However, physical education class, unfortunately, can be the hostile, sexually charged, and predatory atmosphere, promoting a landscape of unsafe conditions, risking bodies and psyches.

Therefore, is only abuse learned instead?

And, if that’s the case, the overarching me3ssage we can come away with as kids is that we won’t be believed when the unthinkable happens.

That’s a healthy body, mind. And spirit lesson, now, isn’t it?

It’s a too-common reality. We are not believed when we come up against power.

And whether it’s the abused power of a bully peer, a gym teacher, a school principal, or the larger school system and surrounding community at large, it’s often too formidable, too impossible, even, for us, as children to go up against the popular kids, the star athlete, the beloved teacher, or the untouchable adult.

There can be the argument made: “Well, that was a different time. That was the 1970s, or the 1980s. That was commonplace.”

Well, that was abuse, exploitation, and maltreatment.

That was abuse of power in action.

“Absolute corruption corrupts absolutely.”

This famous quote often references political, public, and religious forms of power.

But power being abused knows no bounds. It can exist person-to-person, as well as in its institution-to-person form.

We can be so quick to ignore or dismiss the real abuse that exists within a gym class setting. Abuse of power is not just the extreme case of sexual molesting, which, yes, unfortunately, can happen.

Abuse of power can also be the more subtle form as well. It can be the nonverbal intimidation emanating from a perceived powerful person. It can be the toxic acceptance of harassment, sexual or otherwise, that is written off, excused, or explained away, because it’s too inconvenient to confront and change it.

What have we learned from gym class? Healthy, constructive lessons?

Or how to withstand daily harm, targeted at us, in the name of “child’s play?”

Abuse, in or out of the school gymnasium, is never acceptable “child’s play.”

Copyright© 2023 by Sheryle Cruse


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