A Project for Better Journalism chapter
Opinion, Student Life

P.E. Mandate: Coming Soon to a School Near You

I stopped regularly exercising halfway through my freshman year. My first and last season rowing Crew had just ended (a sport I desperately hoped was unpopular enough for me to finally stand a chance at) and prior to choosing to do it all again, I took a look back and evaluated the sum total of my athletic life: that major wreck of trying hard and always coming in last place. Deciding at that moment that throwing, kicking, tackling and running had no place at all in my everyday life, like many of my peers, I walked away, became immersed in something else, and never once looked back.

Kids like me are the reason why the physical education mandate exists.

For those of you who aren’t aware, Northampton High school has been worming it’s way out of a four-year physical education mandate that has been in effect in Massachusetts even before Salem Derby, the only full-time teacher in the physical education program at NHS, ever took his position.

“We might be the only school in all of Massachusetts – I know for a fact that we’re the only school in Western Mass – that is this far out of compliance,” said Derby as Superintendent John Provost has just now decided to force NHS to adhere to state policy. It’s a change that won’t be easy, and one that’s being met with much resistance from students, teachers, parents and administrators alike. However, as Derby reminded me, it is a task that “every other high school in Massachusetts is able to manage while still preparing students for college.”

Strangely enough, I actually took one of Derby’s P.E. classes my sophomore year. It was far from my first choice. I wanted to get my wellness requirements out of the way (back then you had to take Wellness 1 and 2) so I could focus on my AP’s my senior and junior year. However, to my frustration, my class size was too large and the Health program was too small. There was no room in any Wellness 2 class, and I was offered P.E. as a replacement. None of my friends could believe I was dreading it. I heard, “Man, I would kill to take P.E. instead of Wellness,” more times than you can imagine. But I simply did not agree. I was the only student in the class out of season, I had never played football or baseball or any other of the sports my peers had spent their whole lifetimes playing and I wasn’t about to be taught now. Instead of getting much physical activity, I simply changed into my pathetic gym clothes, tried to make conversation with kids almost twice my size who had no inclination of respecting me at all and, regardless of my strongest efforts, got utterly destroyed in sports I had no idea how to play every day for about 18 weeks. If there was ever going to be an experience that turned me off physical activity it was that class.

However, that experience wasn’t at all Derby’s fault. As Derby later explained to me, “In the late 90s there were four full-time P.E. teachers and two health teachers. So six people in the department. When I went to school here there were five full-time teachers and two health teachers – seven people in the department. Now, due to retirements and movements, teachers left and we never replaced them. Now we’re ridiculously understaffed. Now, I’m the only full-time teacher here.”

Instead of P.E., Derby listed several electives that could have been offered in its place had his program been funded: dance, zumba, yoga, cycling, walking and triathlon training as well as more specialized Wellness classes for only juniors and seniors – all of which I would have much prefered to take and all of which are currently an impossibility. Presently, there isn’t a single administrator who knows for sure how NHS is going to be able to handle a four-year P.E. mandate but as Derby told me, “anything is better than what we have now. Because what we have now is so bare-bones. We’re the smallest department in the school and and we don’t even have two full-time teachers. Not one other department is this small.”

However, even if those additional electives were offered it’s still doubtful that the mandate would get widespread support from the student body. The biggest resistance coming from students is undoubtedly from the academics and the artists of the school, insanely driven people like me who have been taught to view physical activity as a hindrance rather than a healthy activity. Although, with the exception of some athletes, students across the board are upset.

“I agree with the mandate in principle, like I feel like schools should take on the responsibility of training kids to be physically active and take care of their bodies, but I don’t agree with the implications of forcing classes on every school. At this school, for instance, physical education classes are just going to be some kids playing handball and some kids hanging around in a corner and some kids not even showing up at all and smoking pot. I don’t think it’s going be effective,” said senior Alex Koester. “What’s more I don’t think you need four years of classes in physical education to teach you how to take care of your body. It’s like forcing four years of math even if a person isn’t going into Math.”

Senior Anya Spector agreed that the mandate has many downsides, saying, “I think the mandate is going to take away from other more important programs and the people who don’t do sports are the people who are most likely to be injured by this new rule. These P.E. classes would take away from their art classes, and art is more important. Art is creative. P.E. doesn’t belong in school in the same way.”

Sophomore Harrison Edward had nothing positive to say either: “It seems like only the athletes actually enjoy the classes and since we’re in high school academics should come first…I think it would take away time where you could focus on like an extra english class or science class instead of having to take a P.E. class which won’t prepare you for college. There are some classes I really want to take that I wouldn’t have been able to take if the mandate was enforced.”

Derby has reminded me that the implementation of the mandate hopefully will not impede other electives, saying that he does not support a “blind mandate,” but rather one that will “serve the needs of students.” However, with no solution currently found, it’s as statement that’s much easier said than done.

NHS, I have a solution to suggest. You’d kill two birds with one stone, make students happy, make teachers happy and even make NEASC feel warm and fuzzy as well. It’s simple: combine advisory with physical education. During advisory we can cover issues of safe sex and healthy habits, curriculum that would actually be twice as effective because advisory is segregated by grade. We could also have a physical element as well – spending the remainder of the advisory period doing yoga or zumba. The students I’ve talked to seem to agree with me.  “I can see how that would work!” Koester commented. “Advisory would become the health class of the entire school.”

As for the mandate itself, I also personally disagree. I would have never discovered theatre, not only my biggest passion which has carried me through and away from tough times, but also what I will pursue after high school and hopefully through my adult life, if I had never had a free block to take a class taught by Stephen Eldridge. If I had to take P.E. instead of those art supplements I would be in a far worse place today.

Are P.E. classes really more important than art classes? Do we need people who are physically strong more than we need people who think creatively? I know that a mix of both would be ideal, but as much as there is a tremendous and insane amount of pressure coming from adults for students to be proficient at everything, students today cannot be incredible artists, AP students, members of the workforce who learned how to drive while still applying to college who maintain a healthy social life while doing chores and remaining in peak physical condition all at the same time. Those who try to do it are miserable and stressed beyond belief – spending their childhood slaving for a resume instead of actually enjoying what could otherwise be some of the best years of their life. I know. I’m one of them. What time has taught me though is that there needs to be a sacrifice somewhere. I think students should be able to choose where that sacrifice is, instead of it being forced on them by some administrators in Boston whose only interest in students are test scores. Before creating mandates, education needs to be funded in a way that can support it. Being healthy is important. However, being healthy looks different to everyone. Thanks for your concern bureaucrats of Massachusetts, but while I’m all for letting the athletes keep their footballs, let the rest of us keep our text books, our art, and our dignity. Before fixing physical education, fix the way we view education. It is not lack of movement that’s making us unhealthy. It’s a lack of breath.