By KELLY DE LA ROCHA
It’s been quite a while since Rosemarie McGinnis attended Mont Pleasant High School, but the 81-year-old has no trouble describing the blue suit she was required to wear for gym class.
“My gym suit was one piece. It had elastic on the thighs and snaps or buttons all the way down the front. The thigh part looked like bloomers and that’s what I didn’t like,” she recalled.
“Some of the girls had newer gym suits and they were nice. They had, like, little skirts over the top of their shorts. They looked real nice and I was kind of jealous because I was a bloomer girl.”
A lot has changed about gym class since the days when McGinnis was sweating it out in her blue suit — not only the workout wear, but the curriculum and even the name. Gym is no longer a class, but a place where students participate in “physical education.”
Ask anyone over age 25 and they can probably tell you a story about how gym class used to be: How they were the last one picked for a team, how they shinnied up thick, white ropes all the way to the ceiling, or how they were victorious in high-impact games of dodgeball.
Things are different now.
“I remember the big, rectangular trampoline, and you all had to stand around it with your arms out, covering the springs, and your arms were out to catch, in case somebody fell,” recalled Sue Ross, a 1977 graduate of Scotia-Glenville High School.
Those big trampolines have been bounced from the physical education curriculum, probably for safety concerns, but also because of a shift to activities that maximize student involvement, said Joe Scalise, athletic director for the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Central School District. Only one or two students at a time can jump on a trampoline, so that means most of the class is standing around waiting for a turn.
The ropes kids used to swing on and climb up one at a time have been replaced with a high ropes element course at Ballston Spa Central School District. Kids now perform feats like “the dangling duo” and “the centipede.”
“They’re all just different cooperative games where it’s something you cannot do yourself, so you have to have teamwork,” explained David Sunkes, athletic director for the district.
“You have to use each other’s strengths to be able to climb to the top of the apparatus, so it’s a lot of team-building, a lot of developing that trust in somebody else in order to do the task.”
Emily Kulkus, who graduated from Scotia-Glenville High School in 1998, fondly recalled wild games of floor hockey played in her phys-ed class.
“I just remember these bright, swordlike sticks going in a hundred different directions; pure chaos until the gym teacher whistled to drop the puck in a new spot and then it would all start over again,” she said.
Although team sports like floor hockey are still played in phys-ed class, more time is spent teaching activities that students can participate in for life, said Colleen Corsi, executive director of the New York State Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. Some examples are kayaking, fishing, tennis, golf, swimming, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and biking.
“I guess we’ve come to grips with the fact that we don’t see our students enough time every week in order to get them fit, so we need to teach them how to do that, and if you have a curriculum that’s completely team sport-oriented, once they graduate from high school, are we telling them they’re done, basically?” she asked.
A physical education teacher’s priority should be to teach students to enjoy physical activity so that they will create a life around it, she said.
Cheryl Sovern, who graduated from Linton High School in Schenectady in 1986, said she never minded gym class — not even the square-dancing unit.
“The guys did not do the square dancing, so we were do-si-doing with each other. It was fun,” she said.
Square dancing is an activity that has stood the test of time in phys-ed. Many local schools still teach it, touting the coordination and social skills it helps to build.
In the Ballston Spa district, ninth- and 10th-grade girls do a dance unit that teaches everything from ballroom dance to Latin dancing.
“Some they like, some they don’t like. That’s the whole point of offering that many different activities,” Sunkes said.
Eighty-two-year-old Walter Jewell, who graduated from Albany High School in 1951, said he never liked any of the things they did in his phys-ed class, so he tried to get out of it any way he could.
“I used to tell the teacher I didn’t feel good. I don’t know how I got away with it,” he said.
These days, missed phys-ed classes typically have to be made up on another day.
Instructors try hard to find activities that students won’t want to skip out on. Some offer a variety of activities to choose from during class, Corsi said.
Technology is also being incorporated into phys-ed. In the Mohonasen Central School District, dance pads are sometimes used in class, said Scalise, who taught in that district before working at BH-BL. Students hop around on the pads while interacting with the video game “Dance Dance Revolution.”
In the Ballston Spa district, students do an orienteering and navigation unit, during which they use hand-held GPS units to find their way through a high-tech treasure hunt.
Physical education classes now also offer activities designed to involve every student, regardless of their physical limitations.
Corsi explained a sports education model that focuses on an athletic event, like a basketball game.
“Students in the class would choose something that they would be responsible for — you could have a photographer, a sports writer, officials, coaches, athletes,” she explained.
“You could be in a wheelchair and be the sports writer; you could have a long lens and be the photographer. There are ways to create an environment within a physical education class where all students can participate.”
Some vivid memories
Gym class — now called physical education — often brings back vivid memories. Here are some that were shared by former students:
“You know what I hated? I hated when you went in and had to take a shower after, and everybody had to get undressed. I didn’t like that. It’s just too embarrassing if you have a sense of modesty at all.” — Agnes Haddon, 88, who attended Schoharie Central Schools.
“The teacher was not too pleasant with the girls that weren’t developed and strong and very athletic, so I made excuses not to go and I think I’m paying for it now.” — Rosemarie McGinnis, 81, who attended Mont Pleasant High School
“I remember really enjoying marching in elementary school. We would practice marching into the auditorium. We would march in lines to marching music and march in circles, march in squares.” Leiah Bowden, 70, who attended Niskayuna Central Schools.
“In middle school, we always started every class with “Chicken Fat.” It was a song — ‘Go you chicken fat, go.’ It was this whole routine to the song.” — Sue Ross, 54, Scotia-Glenville High School class of 1977.
“For years, Glendaal had these little wooden scooters, which were basically just wooden squares with four wheels on the bottom. Every once in a while we all got to pull them out zoom around, smashing into each other. It was the absolute best. And if I remember correctly, as soon as the teacher’s back was turned, you could stand up and whip your friend across the room — and hope he or she would do the same in return.” — Emily Kulkus, 34, Scotia-Glenville High School class of 1998.
This story originally appeared in The Daily Gazette.