When I was in the fifth grade, and no longer believed in Santa Claus, I had one, simple request from my parents for a Christmas gift: a set of 5-pound hand weights.
They laughed until they realized I was being quite serious. And asked me if I wanted anything else. I rattled off a few things I felt like I could use if they had the money to get them: a small FM radio; a bottle of real grown-up cologne; a new pair of Lee jeans. But the weights, I told them, was the main thing I wanted. They shrugged, exchanged a look that said, "Our youngest daughter is by far our weirdest," and searched department store circulars to figure out where they were even going to get such a thing.
It was not because I was particularly athletic in fifth grade. In fact, I was the exact opposite of athletic in fifth grade. It was not because I was vain and wanted toned arms. That day wouldn't come for many more years, when I was a sophomore in college and decided that I simply had to have Linda Hamilton's Terminator 2: Judgement Day arms. I wanted to work out with weights because I knew with certainty that until I beefed up my spaghetti arms, I had a snowball's chance in Miami of passing the Presidential Physical Fitness Test and getting an A in fifth-grade gym class.
Our teacher had announced early in the year that our grade would, in part, be based on how well we performed a test of all the guidelines for our age group set by the President's Council on Physical Fitness. To get an A grade, one had to complete a shuttle run, sit-ups, an endurance run, a chin hang (for girls) or pull-ups (for boys), and a sit-and-reach for flexibility all above a set benchmark. (I learned from a Google search that the year we did the final test, 1985, was the year that STILL serves as the benchmark for scores for this test today. Youth of America--you're welcome.) For a scrawny, out-of-shape fifth-grader who had spent the previous school year in a school without a gym teacher during a cold, snowy winter, with no sport credits to my name, I might as well have just been told I needed to climb Everest to pass my gym class.
The pre-test we had taken in the fall was dismal for many of us. Our gym teacher threw in a few other categories in addition to the main five set by the President's council. For reasons unbeknown to us, she added the standing high-jump and the standing long jump. This worked out in my favor. I aced the modified high jump in which we stood next to a huge sheet of butcher paper with sticky notes on our hands and jumped as high as we could, slapping our sticky note and later having its height measured. I was tall for my age, and had freakishly long arms, so my sticky note was among the top five in the entire class. And because my legs were also disproportionally long and I weighed about as much as a New York City rodent, I did well in the standing long jump, too. I was heartened by this.
But in every other standard I, to not put too fine a point on it, sucked. My shuttle run wasn't so much a dash as a stroll. I am pretty sure the average kindergartner could have done that challenge faster. Because it involved starting and stopping and changing direction, all things which take coordination, and not just all-out sprinting, I knew this would be my blind spot.
In sit-ups, I was pathetic. In the endurance run, which involved many laps around the school gym, I thought I was going to die. In the sit-and-reach, I couldn't get past mid-calf without thinking my hamstrings were going to snap like rubber bands.
Yet nothing could prepare me for my disappointment in the flexed-arm hang.
A classmate helped me get in position with my chin above one of the vertical bars on the playground, where we were taking this portion of the test. She let go. I was instructed to hold my weight as long as possible. I lasted 3 seconds.
There was much laughter because, as it turned out, that impressively bad time put me second-to-last in the class. The only person I beat was the class clown who started giggling before she ever got up to the bar, and consequently decided to just make a face to make everyone laugh and write the whole thing off. I had tried my best to hang and dropped out in less time than it takes to get an allergy shot. So, really, the joke was on me.
I could have just decided that physical fitness was not my thing and focused on all the things I knew I could get an A in in fifth grade: English, math, and, if I could memorize all the state capitals, social studies. Something really bothered me about my performance, though, and I found that I couldn't accept doing badly when we were retested in the spring. I had to pass that test. Or die trying.
The day after Christmas, with a pair of bright-white hand weights from Sears, I started to work out in earnest. Each evening after dinner, I followed the exercises in the brochure that came with my weights. When it was nice enough outside, I ran laps around the house. As my endurance got better, this became laps around our yard, which was much bigger. I learned that if I wedged my feet under the sofa to replicate someone holding my feet I could do more sit-ups more comfortably. I stretched every night before bed and made it my goal to be able to touch my toes without bending my knees. I still thought my hamstrings might snap, but everyday I could reach just a teeny bit further.
I couldn't very easily practice the shuttle run and just had to accept that, come spring, my time was still going to suck. So I worked out a formula in my head wherein I could still bomb that one event, but average that out with excellence in other areas. I practiced my standing long jump in the hallway so many times my mother finally told me to give it a rest before I wore holes out in the shag. I long-jumped against the side of the house with masking tape on my hand. Strangely, my dad didn't want to spend his Saturdays measuring the tape pieces and then peeling them off the brick. My sit-ups were still questionable but much improved, and I once went 20 laps around my yard without stopping. Success! I was going to do it...if only my flexed-arm chin hang wouldn't let me down.
In the weeks before the spring test, we had gym outside, doing grueling challenges on the various bars all over our playground. One day, our teacher had us try to do a thing she said military folks had to do at basic training. We were to lower ourselves with bent elbows on the parallel bars that came up to about our waists, and then without the use of our legs and using just our upper body strength, pull ourselves back up so that our arms were straight.
I watched other kids much stronger than I struggle with this. I was last in line, and I wanted to make sure everyone else had moved on to another challenge before I tried. Had all my work with the weights and the exercises paid off?
I lowered myself down. And then began to push myself back up with all my might. For a while, I didn't budge. My arms began to shake and burn. But I made a decision--I was doing this. I was going to raise myself. Failure was not an option. For too long I was the bony, uncoordinated girl chosen last for kick ball, whiffle ball, dodge ball...pretty much everything except for Red Rover, which I was always picked first for, because I was an easy catch. I knew there was more to me than that.
I began to move upwards. My eyes were clenched tight and every sinew strained to the point where I began to see stars. But I didn't stop. And when my eyes opened, my arms were straight. I let go and looked triumphantly at the gym teacher.
"You know why you were able to do that?" she asked.
"Because I got weights for Christmas?"
"You got weights for Christmas? Well, maybe that has something to do with it. But what I think happened is that you didn't give up. You were struggling, and it was hard for you, but you made up your mind that you were going to do it and you did it. Sometimes, your brain is stronger than your body and helps it do things that are really, really hard."
Huh. My brain helped my body. Who knew? I'd been told my brain was one of my better features, and a light bulb came on above it. I could use my stubbornness, my desire to do well, and my smarts to make up for what I lacked in actual physical ability. I could will myself into being, if not athletic, than at least not an embarrassment on the playground. I could try trying for a change rather than just accepting my weak-armed shortcomings.
Later we took the Presidential Physical Fitness Test. I had a lot on the line. I did well in the standing long jump and standing high jump. I finished in the middle of the pack on the endurance run, the sit-ups, and even the shuttle run. I was not good enough to get praise, but not bad enough to get jeers. I was right where I wanted to be.
The last challenge was the hang. Just like before, I was assisted into position by a classmate. The stopwatch was cleared. I was let go, nothing holding me in place but my own arms.
I held on.
Classmates started whispering, "Keep going, Toni!" They were watching me. I knew I had passed up every other girl who had gone before me. I was actually going to pass.
When I could absolutely positively hang on no longer, I collapsed in a drained heap on the dry ground. My friend Denise, the Queen of All Elementary Athletes, told me I did a good job. Of course, she went after me and totally smoked my time, but that was to be expected. When all was said and done, I had the third-highest time of all the girls in my class. Something I came home and bragged about to my weight-buying parents to no end.
And somewhere in my mother's scrapbooks, there is a Presidential Physical Fitness Award from 1985. It may say I was just a participant, but in my mind, I passed.
As I had been told, such things are mind over matter.