With all of this exercise effort lately…

April 28, 2011, 11:20 PM

With all of this exercise effort lately on my part, I went digging around on the Internet to find information on the old presidential fitness test that we used to do in Phys. Ed class in school.  Remember that one?  It’s that test you did where you had to do pull-ups, sit-ups, and a few other things.  And you know what?  I realized, some 14 years after the last time I did one (Virginia does not require Phys. Ed past the 10th grade), exactly how screwed up the implementation of this test was when I was in middle and high school.

First of all, elementary school is always a bit of an outlier for me when it comes to school experiences.  I went to elementary school in Arkansas, and then we moved to Virginia in 1992.  And considering that I have not been back since, August 31, 1992 (the day we arrived in Virginia) is a bit of a “wall” in my life’s timeline, in that every event either happened before then or after then.  Plus with no Email or Facebook back then, all my people communications with the Arkansas folks ended when we moved as well (though I now have contact with many of them on Facebook).  My move to the DC area in 2007 wasn’t like that, because Washington DC was part of my life before then, and Stuarts Draft has remained part of my life since.  So thus it’s harder to compare elementary school to the rest because it is behind that “wall”.

But in elementary school, when most of us first learned of the physical fitness test, I believe the implementation was done correctly, based on what I read on the site for “The President’s Challenge“, as it’s called.  Basically, you had two award levels: “National” and “Presidential”.  That was something to work towards, but if you missed those benchmarks, it was okay as long as you put your best effort into it.  If you didn’t even try, then you were in trouble, but as long as you made a good-faith effort and tried, then it was good.  I still remember doing a mile in 14 minutes and 15 seconds as a first grader (why I still remember that 14:15 mile over 20 years later is beyond me).  Looking at the published benchmarks, I was only about two minutes off from the time indicated for the “National” award for six-year-olds today.  The numbers may have been and likely were different back then, but for this discussion, I’m going to use the modern numbers because that’s what I have easy access to.  If you have historic numbers circa 1988 or so, send ’em on over.

But basically, for elementary school, as long as you gave it the old college try, all was well, and that was a good motivator to keep the effort going, because as long as you did your best, that was great.

Then starting in middle school, I don’t know what it was, but things were different.  First of all, there was never a mention of the “National” award again.  Instead, you had “passing” and you had “Presidential”.  So thus by describing a level as “passing”, one is implying that it is possible to fail the presidential fitness test.  And so for five years, I reliably “failed” the physical fitness test in Phys. Ed class.  I “failed” it in the pull-ups, the sit-ups, and the mile.  I think I may have “passed” for the sit-and-reach test that measures flexibility, but that was about it, I believe.  The pull-ups were always an embarrassment in particular.  I’ve never had great upper-body strength, and back then was no exception.  I could not do pull-ups.  So it was always a matter of asking how long I had to hang on the pull-up bar before I could come down.  I think ten seconds usually took care of it before being told that I “failed”.  If you didn’t “pass”, you were told that you “failed”, and no mention was made of effort.

However, the mile was the best one as far as this line of thinking went.  See, for the pull-ups, the sit-ups, and the sit-and-reach, they did a few practice ones, then they tested you, and that was that.  And so I could “fail” as expected, and that was that.  But for the mile, that just would not do.  This was what they said: You would go out and do the mile run every day until you “passed”, even if it takes until the end of the year.  At age 12 in seventh grade, the alleged “pass” mark was an eight-minute mile.  There was not a snowball’s chance in hell of that happening, and I think we all knew that it was an impossible goal.  In seventh grade, I really did tire myself out running a mile around the track every day, just to be told at the end that I failed.  That meant that I would be trotted out again the next day to try again.  Why not just stamp “FAIL” on the front of my Phys. Ed uniform and use it like a scarlet letter?  It didn’t matter that it wasn’t an attainable goal for me.  It also didn’t matter that I had springtime allergies, and doing a mile’s worth of running outdoors in all the pollen was not helping things, as I was an allergic mess by the end of the period in Phys. Ed when we went outside for Phys. Ed in spring.  That was a good way to be for seventh-period Algebra.  Still, the whole idea of out-every-day-until-you-meet-this-mark was a good demotivator, and not in that funny demotivational posters kind of way.  After all, if the goal that is set for you is obviously unattainable, then why even bother, right?  Every day for a number of weeks, while most of the kids were off doing fun activities, one of the Phys. Ed teachers would take all of the fat kids out to the track and trot us around for four laps to try to get that eight-minute mile that everyone knew was unattainable.  They eventually gave up on us.

They did the same thing in eighth grade, too.  However, as George W. Bush ever so eloquently put it later on, “You can’t get fooled again.”  I gave the mile a good-faith effort, and “failed”, as expected.  Then they tried to pull out the you-will-run-it-every-day-until-you-pass nonsense again.  I went out as directed, and I walked it.  At a leisurely pace, no less.  I think they gave up after a week of that.

Now in ninth grade at Stuarts Draft High School, I had a Phys. Ed teacher who was a bit more realistic, and who understood that the mile run was not my cup of tea.  It was a breath of fresh air to be told not to worry about the time, and just to do my best.  Great. I did my best, and while I don’t remember what the time was, I put in a good faith effort, wasn’t the last to finish, and felt quite satisfied with myself.

Then in tenth grade, I had Joe Cochran, aka “Coach Cochran”, for Phys. Ed.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with Coach Cochran, he came off to me as your stereotypical Phys. Ed teacher, fitting the “dumb jock” model.  And he was of the belief that if you didn’t “pass” the mile run, that you were going to go out and do it every day until you did.  I don’t remember what the designated “pass” time was (I think seven minutes), but if I couldn’t make an eight-minute mile, what in blazes makes one think that I could make a seven-minute mile?  Mentally, I was raising a finger at Coach Cochran, and I think you know which finger, too.  He gave up pretty quickly, because I wasn’t buying it, and had pretty much lost all respect for him in the process, too, for that matter.  I could easily go on about Coach Cochran and how, based on the way his tests looked in Driver’s Ed, that he was amazingly incompetent on a computer, and that for a high-stakes test (the Driver’s Ed written exam), if I could hardly even read the damn thing, it meant that one could possibly fail on account of not being able to understand the test, let alone succeed or fail based on the merits.  And if you fail, no driver’s license for you.  I passed, but it certainly caused unnecessary stress, and I think I would have challenged the validity of the test instrument had I failed.

So unfortunately, the lesson that Coach Cochran in high school and others in middle school taught, albeit inadvertently, was that physical fitness was an unattainable goal, so why bother.

And here’s where the outrage comes in, and what prompted this discussion.  Look at the benchmarks.  Do you see any mention of “pass” or “fail” on this page?  Do you see it anywhere?  Anywhere at all?  No.  As it turns out, the President’s Challenge rewards effort.  The “National” award (remember that?) rewards above-average results, and the “Presidential” award rewards really above-average results – enough to get that certificate with the preprinted signature of George Bush and later Bill Clinton on it.  And by the looks of it, the “pass” and “fail” mark was the “National” award benchmark.  Wait a second – you mean that’s not a minimum-performance standard?  You mean we’re supposed to get an award for that kind of above-average performance?  You mean the goal of the test is to encourage and provide motivation for the building of good physical fitness habits, and that the benchmarks are goals to aspire to and work to attain one day?  You mean the test is more of a measuring tool of where you currently stand on your fitness levels and to give an idea of something to work towards, and not a measure of your worth as a human being?  Wow.  I wish someone had told me that back then.

I think you’re starting to understand exactly how f—ed up some of my Phys. Ed instruction was in middle school and high school.  I wonder how many other fat kids’ view of the benefits of good exercise were destroyed by this kind of demotivation.  I think that getting kids to watch how much sugar they eat is important (and the same goes for adults), but providing positive motivation to build good fitness habits in life will help in maintaining a trim figure in the long run.  Sure beats the hell out of becoming really heavy and now having to get all that weight back off.  So to Coach Cochran and a few others, thanks for nothing.  To the good Phys. Ed teachers, like my elementary school Phys. Ed teacher and my ninth grade Phys. Ed teacher (and you know who you are), thank you for helping promote effort over raw numbers, and in understanding that the goal of the President’s Challenge is not to determine whether you pass inspection, but rather something to help develop good habits in life.  Thing is, a little demotivation from the bad Phys. Ed teachers goes a long way in undoing all the years of hard work that the good Phys. Ed teachers did in getting everyone to do their best and just stay moving.  Hopefully this Journal entry will serve as a wake-up call for someone, but we’ll see, I suppose…

Web site: How it Works: Presidential Physical Fitness Test for Kids

Song: By the way, did you also know that there's a version of the President's Challenge for adults? Might be worth taking that for a spin, no? I promise not to make myself do the mile every day against my will until I meet some unattainable goal, but rather to use it as a diagnostic tool to help set realistic goals about physical fitness.

Quote: Meanwhile, strange moment on this evening's walk home from the Metro along Georgia Avenue. I'm just going along doing what would be 1.7 miles in 31 minutes (18 minute mile - go me), and I spotted a woman walking down the road a ways ahead of me, and wondered how long it would take for me to catch up to pass her. I passed her as we crossed Helsel Drive (about 2/3 of the way home), and my "pardon me" as I was passing her caused her to jump back and scream - loudly. Needless to say, I was surprised to see that, but apparently not as surprised as she was to see me. It was enough to make me stop my Randi Rhodes podcast and take my headphones off and ask her if she was all right, though. I think she was very much in her own world over there and I inadvertently burst her bubble. She laughed when she realized exactly what she did, and once I verified that she was okay (she was), I continued on. People do the darndest things sometimes...