In Pursuit of an Exercise

Devon Price
Human Parts
7 min readJun 24, 2015

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In elementary school between grade 3 and grade 5, I was in Talented and Gifted academic classes, and Special Ed Gym. I wasn’t the only one like that, who took both of those classes — those spectrum-y smart kids who had really poor motor skills, who had to do wall push-ups and practice running, who were also taking Latin, and German, and Environmental Science, who were taking the Continental Math League tests — but I was one of only a handful. Most of the kids in Talented and Gifted, after all, were sharp, quick of wit as well as quick of reflex. The rest of the students in Special Ed gym were in Special Ed all the time.

On Wednesdays the Talented and Gifted Students took a bus away to a different school, where we learned foreign languages and chess and laid on the floor pretending to be supernovas; On Fridays the Special Ed Gym students were pulled from their classes and marched, silently and shamefully, down to an empty gym, where we were thrown balls under-handedly and encouraged to stretch. One exercise involved placing a thumb against the wall, with the bottom of a ruler dangled by the gym teacher in the space between. The gym teacher would wait a few seconds, then let the ruler drop, and then your thumb was supposed to catch it and pin it down. I never could. Most of us in Special Ed Gym never could.

I loathed being pulled out of my regular classes to attend Special Ed Gym. Of being marked so clearly as physically defective. In gym class, I always tried my damndest for a few minutes, until it became apparent that I would never be good enough, would never catch the ball, could never learn the footwork, that I was a strange alien surrounded by young active things whose bodies spoke a language I could not even hear. I hated the quiet slink down the hall with the other Special Ed kids, eyes pinned to the floor, shoulders sloping, singled out, nervous, incapable.

But even more than being pulled out, I hated the condescending cheerful encouragement I would get from the gym teachers and most of all, from the really athletic students. The way they would tell me I was doing right, that they could tell I was trying hard, as I ran for a base in kickball or scuttled across the floor on a creaky scooter. They smiled at me and waited for me as I ran laps. They gave me shit-eating thumbs-up or hovered over me to adjust my posture.

I was always the slowest. I never knew where anything was. In softball, I spent my time hunched over drawing in the sand. I tap-danced into a curtain because I didn’t know the song was over. Soccer balls and basketballs rained down on my head, making me flinch two seconds too late. I was always failing the Presidential Fitness Tests — except for the flexibility portion. I was weak and muscle-less, so I could bend and reach any which way, an overcooked noodle with so little integrity it was bound to dissolve.

It wasn’t my poor performance so much as the condescension that made me want to quit. When they told me I was doing a good job, when I just so clearly wasn’t, it flayed me inside and turned me beet red. It sent my eyes and my shoulders to the floor. My self-loathing became hot and rancid and swelled inside me. I was always the last, so all their eyes were on me. They were trying to help, but it only made me choke and look worse.

People in my family seem to think that I choose to be bookish and could’ve been more athletic if only I had tried. What nobody can recognize is that in my most flailing, desperately uncoordinated moments, I really was trying, I was pinched tight and focused with the whole of my being. I just could not do it.

And so I withdrew into an interior life of reading curled up with my core relaxed in the back yard. I spent countless weekends of elementary and middle school laid out reading or writing and chatting on the computer. As soon as my parents stopped signing me up for sports, I gave up physical activity almost entirely. I swam a little; I could hold my breath a long time. I liked moving nearly unseen below the surface, curling my body and pretending to be a dolphin or a mermaid. I lived in the silence and anonymity. But I lacked the grace to dive.

I got a C- in middle school gym class. At a parent-teacher conference, my English teacher leaned over the desk and said softly to me, “I was an unathletic girl too. Now I run marathons. I think when you grow up, you’ll be fine.”

I got a B- in ninth-grade gym. I skipped tenth-grade gym entirely by signing up for a college class that was at the same time. The gym teacher let me write papers and take walks around the track to make up for my absence.

I signed up for a kickboxing class when I was fifteen. It was me in sweatpants with a cadre of older women. The instructor was a short, precious looking guy with frosted tips, who later I learned was banging the woman who cut my hair. He was impressed by my flexibility and gave me free martial arts classes. He asked me back into his office a few times to talk about my progress. Each time I was in a state of near panic and anticipatory dread, the kind that so many women know. His intentions were in the air, a little heavier and more palpable each time, but nothing ever happened. When he increased the cost per class from $5 to $10 I stopped going.

In high school, I got a tiny bit exercise bulimic. My purge method was unorthodox: Dance Dance Revolution. Every night after school, work, and debate practice, I spent an hour or two running through the highest difficulty, 10-foot songs, running the calorie counter, glugging down water and trying to resist the desire to empty the cereal boxes in the pantry.

I played until I was drenched in sweat; I opened the windows and threw back the curtains and took all my clothes off. It was a secret; it was okay because no one was out and about at 1 am when I did it. I got pale; people got concerned. I slept in class, in the library, in between debate rounds. I impressed people with my ability to not eat; my period got irregular but did not go away. I got really good at DDR.

I took fitness classes at college. Step, kickboxing, Zumba. Dozens of people in massive Ohio State gymnasiums. I got sweaty on the exercise bikes and came home to silently eat bowlful upon bowlful of grape nuts with sugar.

In grad school I dated a guy who gave me a lot of shit for being “out of shape”. He tried to take me running. I was slow and got a strange pain in my hip. He noted that one of my legs was shorter than the other, but told me I “hid it well”. He tried taking me mountain biking but I couldn’t keep up and felt too unsteady, so instead he yelled at me and called me useless until I cried.

I started taking Zumba and Hip Hop classes at the gym. They gave me an oasis; I was terrible, always off-beat and lost, but it was only during those few hours per week that I forgot myself and forgot him. I remember walking into the cold Chicago night after an hour or two of dancing, sweaty and relaxed, feeling my depression waft around me and slip back in as I walked back to the apartment where he was. He marveled at how much more “in shape” I looked when I stood with proper posture.

These days, I walk about 5 miles per day. I don’t have a car and my work commute is about 1.5 miles, 3 round trip. I squeeze the other 2 in running errands or circling the cemetery by my house. As I walk, I listen to podcasts or dream up story ideas, peer up at the trees or into people’s windows from afar. I have found all kinds of strange detritus, odd people, and mysterious locales by virtue of these walks.

I rarely if ever miss a day, a rigidity of purpose that harkens back to the exercise bulimia days. But I find it’s a great compromise of impulses. It keeps me active without running me ragged; it gives me an appetite but doesn’t burn all my calories away. It allows me a break from people or the internet; I learn by listening and get to be silent. And it’s a task I can do, a sport I excel at, because there’s no way to do it wrong, and no one to stand on the sidelines and disingenuously encourage me. It is by definition slow and non-competitive.

Originally published at erikadprice.tumblr.com.

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Devon Price
Human Parts

He/Him or It/Its. Social Psychologist & Author of LAZINESS DOES NOT EXIST and UNMASKING AUTISM. Links to buy: https://linktr.ee/drdevonprice