BOY’S MEMOIR: Physical Education

A stylized cartoon image of a blonde man of uncertain ethnic background in sunglasses, as if overlooking a physical education class.

Let’s call him LJ. He was tall and pale and kept his blonde hair buzz-cut. Stubble-faced, stud earrings, early to mid-thirties. His constant white t-shirts (maybe just the one, worn every day), as well as the basketball shorts, were always oversized, which made him seem larger than he already was to us children. He hid his eyes behind black shades and his voice was quiet, grumbling from low registers.

We were instructed to sit in an even block, straight-rowed, as he sat atop a red rubber ball and waited for chatter to die. His patience was overpowering, and instructive in how much a man could relate of himself without a word or noticeable motion. He’d sit there, hands folded together, until we were cowed, and when all was noiseless save for the dim sounds of the surrounding neighborhood floating over elementary barriers, some untraceable counter inside him would finally ding and he’d say, sans inflection: “Three laps.”

And so we’d run. There was a huge chalk-drawn ring by the space LJ had us congregate and we’d circle that however many times he’d arbitrarily declare. When that was done, and we were once more before him, gasping on the block, he wasted no time in saying: “Twenty-five jumping-jacks.”

If not jumping-jacks, then push-ups or lunges or seated butterfly-stretches. The amount, again, at random, and just at the limit (for us pudgier kids, at least) of our capacities. Physical education, here, was rarely about recreation. An examination of some kind seemed ever underway, the quality of which being un-apparent from behind those shades. It is his granitic position on the rubber ball I keep seeing, and most pointedly: that ridiculous wardrobe, perfectly adapted for impassivity; his face, turned towards nothing in particular, although I’m sure we all sensed his screened gaze train onto ours amidst a mistake. Fear, when young, is like that.

“Nobody talk.”

Silence, too, was exercise. He could shut us up at will, and our bodies also:

“Nobody move.”

We were somewhat used to that. The bell signaling the end of recess at our elementary school meant that every child had to freeze, no matter what activity they were engrossed in. There could be well over fifty kids run amok around the field and playground and a single resounding ring easily arrested all motion. It was simple enough, then, to train your body to stop, but with LJ watching you, such became a crash course in paranoia. With the shades, again, you couldn’t place exactly where he was looking, and with far fewer than fifty of us concentrated there, it was impossible to hide a swinging arm or shifting foot.

I feared P.E., and LJ unnerved me: the men in my life were never so taciturn. Things got done, on the contrary, through great displays of emotion: yelling and forceful gestures and the grabbing of arms and belts. I learned to respond in kind with quick tears and quicker displays of submission.

I didn’t think of LJ as a cool guy, although I’m sure that was how he saw himself. “Three laps.” “Thirty jumping jacks.” “Ten push-ups.” “Two more laps.” “Be quiet.” His time with us seemed to be to him, at once, a mere afterthought and the gravest of affairs. If there was more to it than that, we couldn’t know, for he obscured the rest of his life from us as cleanly as he did the color of his eyes.

At times, however, he’d reveal just a sliver, and perhaps unwittingly so: when you did well, out-performing everybody else at an activity, he’d have you come up to the front and sit on his leg for a minute or two, bouncing you erratically to your and the class’s delight. Then, the vaguest admittance of a smile would appear on his face. Maybe it was a calculated move to show he really was capable of affection, making it that much easier to bend our wills to his. We were innocent of potential malevolence, though, or at least I was. In any case, any type of affection was preferable to what happened when we performed poorly, or directly contravened order.

There was a chain-link fence at the very edge of the schoolyard, where old rainwater and litter collected, and if LJ saw fit, he’d send a misbehaving child to sit alone by that fence and be forced to watch from a considerable distance all the others participating in what now resembled actual fun. Maybe he made it fun on purpose to further isolate the one removed. I wasn’t to know, as I was too involved in tears whenever I became the child he chose to send away.

One day, exiled to the fence, I cried so hard and for so long that, even from as far as where he sat, LJ was irked.

Afterwards, he spoke with my homeroom teacher and I was pulled aside, with him standing nearby, arms folded. His face, albeit masked, nonetheless reflected her displeasure:

“Mr. LJ told me that you cried too long when he put you in time-out. Is this true, Ezekiel?”

What could I say in response that wouldn’t sound like a lie? I only looked down at my shoes and nodded.

“You shouldn’t do that next time. It isn’t right. Do you understand?”

The words, yes, but even then I felt that something essential between us had failed. I nodded again. I understood that this satisfied LJ, and perhaps my homeroom teacher as well, for she was now free to handle matters more important than a sensitive pupil’s uncontrollable sobs. That left just me, alone, and a chastised silence continuing into years.

I was saddened to see her take his side, since before that point she’d always treated me with kindness. I remember her more for what she said there, alongside LJ, than even her tenderest encouragement.

But the silence would find abatement of a kind, eventually. In the following seasons, ever restless, and having left the region for a long while, we’d make our way back to the Gateway Cities and that same school district. We were in junior high now and friends from early grades had dwindled. Those who remained were much older, made peculiar by adolescence.

It was a brief reunion, for within the month we’d be on the road to Texas for a more permanent transition, but I tried my best to go over lost time. I brought up past relationships, old teachers. The topic of LJ arose, instantly provoking scoffs. Last everybody heard, he’d been fired for picking at a student’s bra strap, with no news whatsoever of him since—which just about completes what you need to know of a man like LJ.

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More from Ezekiel Yu: SHORT STORY: At A Separate Pace, MEMOIR: A White Scorpion In Barstow, CaliforniaBolt of the Average: On Shirley Hazzard’s “The Transit of Venus”

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