By Ken Bradbury
I drove past the athletic field east of Jonathan Turner Jr. High one morning last week. (Sorry, but I can’t yet get the words “Jacksonville Middle School” out of my mouth. Sounds so sterile … like calling your youngest child “Number Three.” Of course I still refer to Barton Stone Nursing Home and in my mind the industrial plant east of town is Mother Tucker’s.)
The kids were sweating their way through a very hot period of what looked like a combination of soccer and whiffle ball, and I was once again reminded why I’m glad I’m not in school. But I guess it had been a long time since I’d observed a P.E. class and was a bit surprised to find a vital part of our American culture missing … no uniforms.
I can remember the Perry Elementary School uniforms with only a slight fondness mixed with a whiff of two-week-old perspiration. Walking into the aroma of the Perry boys’ locker room was akin to visiting the Bergman meat packing plant in nearby Pittsfield. It is no exaggeration to say that some of us had to unbend our shorts before we put them on. They had become atrophied from the weeks … nay, months spent crammed into the bottom of our P.E. lockers. Most physical ed. classes delineated teams by assigning “shirts” and “skins.” We could tell each other apart by our smell.
But the thing was, these uniforms were required. They could be used, threadbare, and nearly transparent by the time they got to the fourth boy in the family, but you had to wear them … or else.
When I began my teaching career at Triopia we had a series of P.E. teachers who worshipped the uniforms. Showing up for class without the required school shorts and shirt was a sin just short of allowing an active shooter into the school. You absolutely did not take P.E. in street clothes or just any old shorts. They had to be Columbia Blue and White or there would be hell to pay. Miscreants were relegated to the out of bounds area in the gymnasium so they could do their math homework while watching their friends have fun giving each other concussions with dodge balls. If you committed this infraction often enough you were given a detention. I’m telling you, this was serious business.
There was a story going around the school, perhaps apocryphal but I hope not, of the school secretary giving the morning announcements one day. “It has been reported to Mr. Brim, the principal, that certain female students have been taking P.E. without buying the required school shorts and blouses. From now on, any girls found without their shorts and blouses should be sent to Mr. Brim.” I knew Mr. Brim well enough to realize that a line of girls in their underwear was not what he’d want facing him every morning after lunch count. As a side note: I know for a fact that a school in our area had a secretary named Helen Hunt and the following announcement was broadcast throughout the grade school one morning: “There has been a rash of student losing their notebooks. From now on if you lose your notebook you should go to Helen Hunt.” (Say that one slowly.)
But something has changed. When I watched the kids at Jonathan Amalgamated Turner Jacksonville Middle School Incorporated I saw that none of them were wearing anything resembling a standard P.E. uniform. I had my windows up so the kids didn’t hear me holler, “Hurray!” No little rascals were left on the sidelines doing homework while their friends frolicked, and no little scoundrel was running around with his tail sticking out while wearing his older brother’s uniform. Which reminds me.-
Back in the old days we had to shower after P.E. Twenty little bare butts waiting in line, their moldy towels thrown over their shoulder, for the one water spigot in the Perry locker room. This was back in the days before cell phone cameras and for that we of the bare bottoms are eternally grateful. And boys were often advised if not required to wear jock straps, a sort of athletic thong designed to keep everything valuable in place and assure you of having very few children. The old Arenzville Grade School had an acre of pasture kitty-cornered from the school, and this served as the school’s physical education facility. One slightly distracted young man named Darrel readied himself for P.E. then ran out onto the field for a game of co-ed softball, only to then discover that he was wearing only his jock strap. Darrel was perhaps the only boy in history who wished that he had a P.E. uniform.