The majority of people, when asked in a totally serious and non-creepy way, admit that gym class was the bane of their existence during their long, boring stay within the walls of the public education system. To me, this kind of snap judgement is an ignorant lamentation. Sure, middle and high school gym class were akin to slave plantations during the turn of the century complete with sweaty armpits, long bouts of exercise without rest, and angry masters hurling insults at you, brandishing a moldy coach’s whistle instead of a whip.
However, you’re letting all the bad parts of gym class cloud your recollection of all the good, and I’m talking REALLY good, times. In the 90s, gym classes in the thousands of elementary schools across the country were a time of reflection, fun, and primal, fist-clenching, elbow-scraping competition.
Now, you’ve got to remember, getting a roomful of rugrats together to do anything even slightly organized is more futile an endeavor than convincing them not to eat brightly-colored, food-shaped hunks of Play Doh. The gym teachers, clad in their windbreaker suits and sporting white New Balance cross trainers that conflicted horribly with the rest of their outfit, stood at attention wielding whistles and issuing commands to their minions in the same way a farmer gathers stray cows when they’ve had their fill of grass. My elementary school’s particular cattle herding room was affectionately referred to as the cafegymnatorium.
For those of you unfamiliar with multi-purpose rooms, they were almost always referred to as the cafegymnatorium. They were so multi-purposed that not only did they hold school lunches, raucous physical education classes, and any number of fire safety and Book It! assemblies, but they were also host to pancake breakfasts with Santa Clause and ice cream socials where they showed The Lion King on a projector to an audience of students on a massive sugar bender.
In my youth, the only way you could get kids to listen as they swayed to and fro anxiously was to entice them with creative, team-based games that combined fun and physical activity into a beautiful melody of mayhem.
The first of many delightfully violent objects used in games that occupied children and robbed them of their booger-eating free time was the unassuming fluffilo. Mind you, I never even knew there was a brand name for these things until I don’t know like 5 minutes ago? I always referred to them as yarn balls or large, fluffy facsimiles of the Ebola virus.
These things could entertain a kid just as easily as they could dust a floor and you’d be hard-pressed to find a gym equipment shack without a couple baskets of these bad boys. They were used in every type of game from broom hockey to garbage ball to “peg the smelly kid” and their non-lethal nature made them perfect projectiles to thrust into the hands of youngsters.
Wiffle Balls and Wiffle Bats
Speaking of projectiles, the only thing better than throwing a projectile with your hands was to hit them out of the air with large blunt objects. Thus, the game of wiffle ball was born. A hollow, plastic yellow bat and a hollow, plastic white ball were great on their own, but put them together and you’ve got a fucking party. The balls were just about as safe as fluffilo balls because of their innate wind resistance, but the bats were a whole other story.
Many a geeky kid probably gets nightmares when he sees these golden wands of destruction hanging unassumingly from a Toys R Us shelf. These were tools of pain and we knew how to use them, beating down our foes unmercifully with a ferocity that rivals the punch of a rabid Hitmonchan hopped up on amphetamines.
In the right crowd, the wiffle bat and ball set could be family-friendly play equipment, but in the wrong hands it was a sadistic tool of the devil.
The jack of all trades when it came to the schoolyard, playground, or gymnasium, the inflatable and overwhelmingly red kickball stands a crimson orb of both enjoyment and heartbreak. Every kid worth his weight in Pogs remembers launching this thing over the roof of their school with a swift punt after a perfectly-bounced pitch, but we also remember the flashes of light and stinging pain of being knocked senseless with one of these motherfuckers.
Dodgeball is a man’s game posing as a children’s pastime and it turned many a tough soul into a whimpering baby begging for respite. Besides the aforementioned sports, it also made a great makeshift (ghetto) stand-in for a soccer or basketball.
The only way this thing could put a damper on your day is if you were the unlucky rube who was doled one of the under-inflated kickballs and spent the duration of gym class wishing you weren’t such a complete failure at life, kicking meaninglessly at your oversized prune of a plaything.
No one in their right mind missed parachute day in gym class. If there was one day you absolutely had to arrive punctually at school, come hell or high sniffles, this was the day. If you were one of the moronic misfits who missed the BEST GYM CLASS DAY OF THE YEAR, you would be ridiculed so heinously that you’d have to resort to hiding your head under your massive, space-themed Trapper Keeper for the rest of your life.
Being under one of these magical parachutes was like encapsulating all of your classmates in a private clubhouse whose roof would slowly cave in the longer your sat there. The satisfaction of lifting one of these guys in the air and scurrying underneath in a flurry made you feel at one with your peers and convinced you that perhaps everything could be right in the world, if only just for a second.
In addition to its inner delights, the enigmatic parachute also held other beautiful secrets. Ringing around the perimeter, wiffle balls or fluffilos or whatever the fuck you want could be placed on the surface, allowing kids with nothing but bad intentions to whip their arms as hard as they could and fling said projectiles in every conceivable direction. If you think that experience isn’t a perfect metaphor for the joys and tribulations of childhood, then you can go fuck yourself.
Ah, we’ve come to the mack daddy of all gym class equipment: the scooter. I don’t think there is a person in America alive today who doesn’t remember the simple, finger-crushing pleasures of flying around haphazardly on one of these plastic butt plates with wheels.
The absolute best competitive game in all of elementary school lore required the use of this whimsical, wonderful, and horribly dangerous vehicle: scooter soccer. While it was much like the more physically-challenging, but highly-inferior crab soccer, scooter soccer was all about propelling yourself as quickly and as perilously as possible to a giant nylon ball in order to overpower your opponents and kick it triumphantly past their goaltender.I don’t care how adept you were at this game, if you didn’t horribly crush and maim at least 3 fingers on each hand, you were doing it wrong.
What seems like a friendly, moderately safe game of scooter soccer would dissolve into utter insanity once the hormones and egos came into play. If you came out on the losing end of one of these vicious contests, you were shamed worse than the kid who wore whitey tighties in middle school.
Like anything worth doing in life, 90s gym classes weren’t easy, they weren’t fair, and they weren’t pretty, but they were fun and free and they even helped burn off an extra pound or two of Fun Dip weight. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.