Among the many horrors of junior high gym class, the dreaded shirts versus skins ranked at the top of my list. That and Hit the showers, men! Boys were supposed to run around shirtless with reckless abandon, free and half-naked. I wouldn’t even take off my shirt at the city pool in 100-degree heat. I didn’t want to be that exposed, that vulnerable. It wasn’t because I was too skinny or too fat. It was more than skin deep. There’d begun the insidious whispers of “fag” and “queer-bait” in the hallways between class periods or “he throws like a girl” and “sissy” on the field. The nagging voice that said I’m not like the others grew louder and louder. And nowhere was this more evident or more exploited than in gym class, that earliest test of one’s manhood and masculinity. It meant a series of obstacles I’d have to fake, fumble and flub my way through. In other words, it meant forty-five minutes of hell.
Obstacle #1: The Coaches
Under the sterile florescent lights of the Maude Laird Middle School gymnasium that smelled of mildewed sneakers and fear, Coach Lloyd and Coach Black started class by barking at us to Line up ‘gainst that wall, men! Though some of my peers took pride in their calling us “men,” it made me uneasy. I worried that this directive meant something requiring aggressive skill and defensive combat was about to commence. Maybe it was a clever ruse to make us rise to the occasion, feeding that insatiable desire to be older than we were so we’d jump at the chance to do whatever they said, be easier to manage. As if they’d ever have any trouble with that.
Coach Lloyd loomed well over six and a half feet and even taller with his enormous, perfectly round afro. His assistant was short and stocky Coach Black. What square-jawed Coach Black lacked in height he made up for with his tree trunk legs and massive chest. And thanks to his Jan-Michael Vincent feathered hair, he enjoyed an immense popularity with the girls and a dubious envy from the boys. Personally, I couldn’t care less about his hair. I was mesmerized by the form-fitting Bike coaching shorts. Among all the other boys there was a shock and awe that these coaches’ manly physiques commanded, a masculine ideal to which we all aspired.
Obstacle #2: Team Selection
After lining us up against the wall, we numbered off. Odds were “Skins” and evens were “Shirts” or vice-versa. And despite my frantic line shuffling, I was always a Skin. Shirts weren’t completely peeled off, however. We wore our school-assigned, sweat-stained and numbered t-shirts with the bottom front stretched behind our neck creating a constricted reverse halter-top but still bare-chested. For me, it might as well have been a straight-jacket. Barely able to take off my shirt in my own bedroom without feeling self-conscious, it was a painful moment, especially in front of all the older seventh and eighth grade boys. But I wasn’t completely alone in my suffering. The chubby, the freckled, the extraordinarily pale or otherwise “damaged” Skin stood uncomfortably alongside me like gimpy gazelles pitted against ferocious lions on the hunt.
If we broke into smaller teams, my being chosen last was an inevitability. Already a humiliated Skin, I got to endure the awkward glances from team captains as it was down to me and pigeon-toed Bobby Bass. At least he gave it an all-out effort on the court—bug-eyed and panting, flailing his arms wildly in hopes of catching or deflecting the ball—whenever the game began. I just shuffled around in the background trying to do enough to look busy but not enough to actually get involved. My goal was invisibility. And god forbid anyone attempt to throw a ball in my direction. Coach Lloyd and Coach Black would shake their heads in disbelief at us misfits who struggled to demonstrate one ounce of coordination.
Obstacle #3: The Basketball Goal
One Shirt vs Skins competition required our rotating through various skill stations or "challenges." Whichever team successfully completed all the challenges first, won. Our team started at the basketball goal where you stood on the free-throw line until you made a basket (roll film of my teammates shouting at me in slow-motion as I tossed air ball after air ball wide left of the goal, then shaking their heads in utter disgust). Eventually, the coaches waved us through to the next station or a teammate subbed in and easily made the shot on his first attempt. Michael D. didn't fare any better when he arrived at Maude Laird the following year. He would dribble the ball off of his foot, sending it skittering across the gym to the other stations or in the clear opposite direction of the goal.
Obstacle #4: The Rope Climb
Next up was the seemingly impossible rope climb where a blue gymnastic tumbling pad would cushion the fall of many. Bobby Bass was up first. Knowing we were in for a long wait, most of us took advantage and sat down in a handful of flimsy plastic chairs that lined the wall. I happily rolled my eyes at scapegoat Bobby. I’d do whatever it took to direct attention away from my own gym-inspired shortcomings. The few available chairs were taken so I just stood around with my right hand tucked under my left armpit in the quintessential pose of preteen angst.
“Why don’t you sit down right here,” said a developed-beyond-his-years eighth grader, patting his hairy thighs.
“No, that’s ok. I can wait,” I squeaked.
“Oh I insist,” and he grabbed my wrists and pulled me down onto his lap. He looked at me and winked to one of his buddies in the seat next to him.
“Kenny’s got a girlfriend, Kenny’s got a girlfriend,” a couple of them chanted. I knew I was the target of the joke but even so, I felt a rush of excitement that Kenny had chosen me.
“See, that’s not so bad is it?” he grinned. No, it wasn’t so bad after all.
Obstacle #5: The Showers
When the final whistle blew there was great relief. But oh-so temporary. Now it was time to Hit the showers, men! At the beginning of the year, before our first shower, Coach Lloyd had sat us in the bleachers and given us a speech about our changin’ bodies. He went on to inform us that not all our bodies were changing at the same speed. Some of us is growin’ hair on uh faces, under uh ahms, and… here raising his eyebrows and glancing down below his waist… elsewhere, while others aren’t. And just like they’s some of us who’s taller or shorter and some of us got brown, black, or white skin, we got… he paused to find the right word… ’quipment that’s diff’ernt shapes and sizes. I appreciated the warning. In retrospect, it was a fairly progressive and sensitive thing for him to say in preface to boys showering together for the first time. But it didn’t make it any easier.
Though a short and timid sixth-grader, I did already have a dusting of hair on my legs. That gave me a little clout. And I gladly took whatever I could get. Sitting there on those hard metal bleachers during Coach Lloyd’s bodies-in-puberty speech, a sinewy seventh grader brushed his hairier legs against mine, the incidental contact making my stomach flip. At the same time, I couldn’t help staring at Coach Lloyd and Coach Black in those Bike shorts as they paced before us, acutely aware of just how different, indeed, our bodies could be.
In the shower everyone was a Skin and it was a torturous heads-down express wash for me. There was the requisite towel-popping and soap tossing I steered well clear of, though I stole a peek at some of the older, more developed boys and got out of there as fast as I could. On my speedy return through the locker room, I saw bikinied Farrah Fawcett postcards taped inside some of the lockers–proof of my classmates’ budding manhood. A few posters of busty women in my own bedroom gave me hope that maybe I too was a member of the club.
At my own locker, I played the game of How Long Can I Wait Before Removing My Towel. I shuffled through my clothes a few times, arranging them neatly on the bench, untied and loosened my sneakers to “get them ready” to put on, and finally made my move. Keeping my head down (if you can’t see them, they can’t see you), I fumbled to put on my underwear beneath my towel. But, as usual, the towel fell off when I had my underwear at mid-thigh. Frantically I put on the rest of my clothes over my half-dry body as the bell rang for 5th period. Then it was off to Mr. McKinney’s Earth Science class where I sat in the front row with wet hair and t-shirt sticking to my back.
Safe for another day.