What did you think of your PE teacher? Lovely? Encouraging? Fun? Or did he/she come from the generation that missed their vocation as shouting sergeant majors – teetering on the edge of sadism?
I had one of each. At secondary school, we had the lovely Rosie Finn – a delight – who taught us yoga, and laughed when you dropped the ball in netball. She was in fact a basket of kittens, pretending to be a PE teacher – far too nice, far too lovely. She would stick her toe in the swimming pool, declare it too cold and bring us all inside for a chat about boys and periods. She was in fact, a human being.
I appreciated Rosie because before her, at my junior school, were the Misses O. Twin sisters who ruled by shouting and whistling and barking at us – their whippet thin bodies wrapped in tiny red skirts barely covering old mottled skin. They carried huge sports bags laden with lacrosse sticks and tennis racquets. They poked us with them instead of using our names, and their tyranny was especially obvious in the gym.
In those days we had to do these things called BAGA awards. For the first stage you did:
Climb a rope.
I couldn’t climb the rope Never did my feet get above that huge scratchy knot that dangled six inches from the gym floor and without climbing the rope, I wasn’t allowed to go on to the next stage – vaulting the horse. The misses O never helped. They just watched. So week after week I ran through the forward roll, backward roll, handstand, headstand thing – and stalled on the rope.
Everyone else – it seemed – could eventually climb the rope. Every Monday, before lunch, I went through the same humiliating experience – alone at one end of the gym, while everyone else flew over the vaulting horse and swung somersaults on the bars.
Finally, one dismal Monday as I approached the end of what was then called the third form (yr6) Miss O, the nastier, asked me to demonstrate my technique. Oh how they laughed. How they scoffed – how they rolled around on the floor watching my embarrassment.
I vowed then, that I would avenge myself.
Sadly my plans to burn down the school were thwarted by living too far away, so it had to wait 40 years until I wrote Dear Scarlett – but I didn’t choose to make Scarlett like me. Scarlett is physically competent – she can scale gym bars, swing from ropes, vault horses. Instead I chose to make Mrs Gayton like the Misses O. Mean, vindictive and humourless.
It’s been a great journey – digging into the painful past and re-examining the horrors of my pre-teenage years, but I have realized that I was not alone – that lots of other people had similar experiences, ones that mean we only have to hold a hockey stick to feel incompetent.
So I’d like the dedicate the character of Mrs Gayton to all those that ever had to suffer out there on the hockey fields in their little shell of fear, berated by a red faced teacher wielding a whistle and a bat, and I’d like to thank all those PE teachers that went the human way. Like Rosie Finn. To you, I am eternally grateful. May you and your kind continue to flourish.