To Those of Us Who Knew The Pain of Valentines That Never Came

And those whose names were never called when choosing sides in basketball

The bane of my school existence: the Presidential Fitness Tests. The Presidential Fitness Test was a national fitness test that was given to American children in elementary through high school from the 1950s until 2013. In 2013, it mercifully ended, to be replaced by the Presidential Youth Fitness Program. The tests were given TWICE a year in order to double down on the humiliation and frustration suffered by students taking them. 

The Presidential Fitness Test was a one-size-fits-all fitness regimen that really was more like a military training program. It didn’t take into account the myriad reasons why many kids couldn’t keep up. Physically fit people are fit in different ways and have different strengths depending on their area of interest–a dancer is going to be strong in different areas than a sprinter. Not all of us are naturally athletically inclined. Not all of us are naturally graceful and coordinated. Kids grow at different rates and bodies are different. 

Some of us are really small.

I am really small. When I started kindergarten I was still wearing baby clothes. It didn’t matter too much then, but by the time I entered second grade, I was still in toddler clothes and the kindergarteners made fun of me for still wearing baby clothes. (Joyce started making my clothes so I could have kid fashions in my size.) At the start of every school year, the custodian would have to dig a small desk out of storage for me and adjust it as small as it could go. It was still too big. Until I was 55, I had never EVER sat at a desk that was the correct height. Until I was 55, I had never EVER sat in a chair with my back against the backrest and my feet flat on the floor. 

The Presidential Fitness Test did not take into account that kids in the same age group could be vastly different sizes and in vastly different stages of physical development. It was one size fits all  (which never actually fits anyone.).  And unlike a spelling test (which I was VERY good at) or a math test, (which I kinda sucked at), your grade wasn’t private. The PFTs were given during PE class where you openly competed against each other and your failure was right out in the open for everyone to see.

There were eight components of the test and you had to score above the 85th percentile in all eight areas in order to win the Presidential Fitness Award. At my schools, after the testing was done, there was an assembly of all grades and all students to hand out awards to the winners. I can assure you, those of us who didn’t win an award were fully aware that we hadn’t won and we did not give one good goddam about who had. Because the tests were unreasonable, unfair, and humiliating, and they were questionable tools for measuring actual fitness.

The components for the test were:

Sit-ups: as many as you can do in one minute

Push-ups: as many as you can before you have to rest

For boys: Pull-ups: as many as you can

For girls: Flexed arm hang: for as long as you can

30-foot shuttle run

V-seat stretch

Standing broad jump

50-yard dash

1-mile run

I could do sit-ups and push-ups. I was never at the head of the pack for these, but I also wasn’t at the end. However-I never remember being taught how to do sit-ups correctly so my back hurt awfully afterward. Maybe if the concept of using your core and not your back had been explained, more kids could’ve been successful at them? 

The standing broad jump. Remember I said I got pretty good at jumping high? I was not any good at jumping forward. I always wanted them to measure how high I could jump instead of how far. What’s the point in a standing jump anyway? If I want to jump far, I take a run at it.

Who does this? Take a run at it, ffs.

I’ve already talked about  how much I loved to run as a child. My siblings, my friends and I ran constantly and when we weren’t running we were tearing around on our bikes. I can confidently say our legs and lungs were strong. But I was literally half the size of my peers. No matter how hard I pushed myself, there was no way I could keep up with someone twice as tall as I was. Could we just base these tests on, I dunno– height/weight/body type? It was no comfort that I wasn’t the only one suffering this torture. Everyone bears their shame alone. And I always came in dead last at any running competition. The other kids never let me forget it either. However: kudos to my grade school nemesis, Lori. In 5th grade she flat refused to run the mile, instead taking a leisurely walk along the marked-out path, a walk that lasted long after PE class ended. The gym coach told her she’d better start running and she asked, “Or what? You’ll take away the award I’m already not winning?” 

Two components I aced every time? The V-seat stretch and the flexed-arm hang. I was always pretty limber and for the V-seat stretch, you sat on the floor with your legs straight in front of you, spread in a V (thus the name.)  You lean forward and place your fingertips on the floor as far as you can in front of you. The test doesn’t take into account how long or short your legs or arms might be in relation to the rest of you, but let’s not worry ourselves about the fairness of any of these tests. Or exactly what kind of fitness it’s testing. I could reach several inches in front of my toes. But I wasn’t allowed this small victory. The kids I beat would say, “Of course she can reach past her toes–look how short her legs are!”  Ok, listen up, assholes: A) that doesn’t even make sense; my legs are proportional to my body just like yours are. And 2) Where was this reasoning when I was days behind you in the running components? I never heard anyone say, “Of course she can’t keep up–look how short her legs are!” Yes, I am still bitter, as a matter of fact, and thanks for asking.

This is totally a picture of me acing the flexed-arm hang.

The other thing I could do–and damn, I could fucking do it, beating every other girl in my grade–was the flexed-arm hang. You grasp a horizontal bar 5-6 feet off the ground, with your palms facing away from you. You’re lifted to a position with your arms bent and your chin above the bar. The people lifting you let go and you hang there as long as you can. Even the strongest girls would get muscle quivers after several seconds had passed and eventually the shakes would get so bad, they’d have to drop and let go. Not me. I could hang there all day, whistling the while. It took a long time for my arm muscles to start quivering, and when they did, I’d just have to actually focus on what I was doing, meditate, and withstand the shakes as long as I could.  I ALWAYS had the longest time in the event, every time I took the test. I can’t explain it–I have weak-ass arms and my legs are by far the strongest part of my body. But my classmates could explain it. “Of course she can hang there the longest: she’s the lightest of us all!” Bitches, my skinny short arms are holding up my body weight, just like your bulging biceps are holding up yours. Can’t you even let me have one fucking win?

All while wearing these lovely and very flattering gym suits–which also did NOT come in my size.

I hated Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter, not for their politics but for putting me through this hell every year. The last time I remember taking these stupid, impossible, humiliating tests was in Junior High school. We had PE classes segregated by gender–do they still do this? The girl’s PE teacher wrapped a whole fitness and nutrition lesson plan around the Fitness Tests. We had to create a weight goal that we would reach through diet and exercise. (I just want to point out that 7th and 8th grade girls were being taught to obsess over their weight.) We had to share our goals and plans and progress with the class. 

The girls in my PE class never chose me for their team (Except for Karla–bless you, girl, for being the coolest kid in school!) They always chose me for Red Rover because I didn’t weigh enough to break through their line. They always broke through me when it was their turn to charge across. They mocked me for being shaped like a baby because I was tiny and a late bloomer. They ganged up on me in dodge ball because I guess it’s funny to pummel a tiny girl with a dozen balls at once (that’s what SHE said). I listened to them outlining their weight LOSS plans and how they hoped to achieve them. My friends, I took exquisite pleasure in informing the class that my plan was to GAIN weight so that I would weigh 70 pounds by the end of the semester. 

Red Rover Red Rover send Michelle right over. And over. And over. And..

I will never try to tell you I’m not spiteful. I freely admit that I am–sometimes to my own detriment. I didn’t make any friends that day. I didn’t care. Watching all their faces twist in irritation was enough for me. I’ll take my victories wherever I can find them.

They ended the Presidential Fitness Test program because someone finally listened to the PE teachers who had been saying it was unfair and humiliating and that it drove kids away from athletics. I wonder if the Presidential Youth Fitness Program is any better?


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