How to Make a PE Teacher Disappear
You want to be someone.
That’s what you said when you graduated college. Someone who makes a difference. Changes lives. Like Zach de La Rocha spitting out Afrika Bambaataa lyrics, you wanted to be a renegade.
But now you want to disappear.
It’s easy in your profession. People don’t want to know how physical learning differs from free and unstructured play. How skill development has foundations and progressions and variables based on genetics, experiences, and personality styles.
It’s all recess to them.
You let them call it “Gym” because it’s less resistance. The “Gym” is a place. Like the playground. The cafeteria. The auditorium. You don’t ask if they’re teaching “Classroom.”
To them, you’re a babysitter. Earned your degree by mailing three UPCs from a box of Cocoa Crisps. Your job is to give them a break from doing the real work, the real influencing, the real change. So they can be someone who makes a difference.
They don’t know you’re also a writer. That you can use big words, too. But that you choose not to because you’re not pretentious. Because you’ve learned humility. You don’t need to say they’re being obtuse or pompous. You prefer words like 'fuckhead.'
They want to tell you how great they were at sports. Why they’re raising the next LeBron James or Alex Morgan or Max Scherzer. Messi and Ronaldo put together. Serena and Venus rolled into one. Their coaches are someone. The ones they pay to do the same job as you. Or try to do forty-five minutes once a week with thirty other kids whose parents also want that college scholarship.
They assume you didn’t want to be a professional athlete. That you didn’t play in the big games. Championship games. National Championship games. That you didn’t win trophies. Enough to fill their bedroom. They don’t know you’ve spilled your blood. Broken bones. Sprained ligaments. Dislocated joints. Ripped up your knee. Four times. You’ve been cut from teams, lost games that still sit in your stomach like the ice cream sandwich that never melts after days in the sun.
All they know is that you failed.
Their hurtful words will never compare to missing the game-winning goal against Indiana that would have put your team in the Final Four. A miss that still haunts you twenty years later. Wakes you up at night. Heart racing. Sweating. Your wife asks what’s wrong, and you lie so she doesn’t second-guess your marriage. You shake it off because you’ve moved on. Even when you haven’t.
You have stories, too.
“Do you grade?” they ask, “Or just give out participation stickers?” You have standards, write lesson plans, even collect data. But to them, assessment means whether or not you can climb the rope. Peg a moving kid with a dodgeball. Run the forty. Because that’s what Mr. McCauley did when they went to school.
Your profession doesn’t evolve.
They don’t respond to email. You’re not a classroom teacher. Not the principal. Sometimes they encourage their kids not to participate. They’ve told you so.
But even when you stay late to run a club, organize a fundraiser, plan for one Field Day that takes months of preparation, hours of lost sleep, of lost mental time, time where you’re thinking about schedules instead of your kid’s concert, instead of your anniversary, there’s always one person who tells you that you’re someone. That second grade girl who stops in the hallway and says, “Thank you” before she walks out to her bus. You cry inside. You could hug her. But you don’t. Because you like your job and don’t want to be accused of something wretched. Something they could pin on the guy who’s replaceable. By a college kid. Someone with a nicer piece of paper. By anyone. A computer screen.
They’re already phasing you out anyway. Re-allocating the funds. They won’t hire a new you after you’re gone. The next generation won’t be able to make breakfast, hit a tennis ball, or walk across the parking lot without hacking up a lung. But they’ll be able to YouTube it. Or pay someone to do it for them. Then blame that someone.
They’ll probably blame you.
How do you disappear? Just keep going. Keep planning. Keep dreaming. Fill a time slot. Show up. They’ll still criticize you when you don’t.
“Were you sick or something?” they ask.
They don’t care if you were puking. Or that you were cleaning up your child’s puke. Or that the numbness down one side of your body was the warning sign of a stroke. Or that you’ve had a hole in your heart your whole life and those dizzy spells you used to get on the soccer field could have triggered an arrhythmia at any moment. Or that you were peeing blood. Or that your wife was peeing blood. Or that you watched her slowly die for three years waiting for a new organ while you updated the district’s recently deleted online curriculum. Because you’re a professional.
You could say you needed a day off. To go to your kid’s school. To take the dog to the vet. To watch Homeland. To write. To take a nap. So you can feel slightly more important the next day.
You smile back. Say, “Yes,” and cough for effect. Go back to teaching gym. Then disappear.
Yes, it’s easier to disappear.
Greg Oldfield is a physical education teacher and coach from the Philadelphia area. His fiction has appeared in Maudlin House, Hobart, Barrelhouse, and The Broadkill Review, and he writes about soccer for the Florida Cup. He can be found on Twitter at @GregOldfield21.