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P.E. Gets a Life

Funding cuts. Outmoded ideas. Crowded classes. It all took its toll on phys ed courses. But a new movement in California aims to break the drudgery through fun and self-improvement.


The first crisp chirp of the whistle smarts.

Then another, more impatient, shimmers off the walls until, except for the pop and crack of bubble gum, a restless silence settles.

Carolyn Thompson squeaks along the waxed floor in amazingly snow-white-for-June leather high-tops. She releases the whistle from her lips, rests her fists at her hips. Students shuffle into place.

Not around center court ready for a tip-off. Not on either side of a volleyball net, bobbing on their toes, awaiting the serve. Instead, they queue up along the walls, clipboards poised, pens in hands.

Others stretch out on towels or blankets. They nurse "wounds"--broken bones, bruises, stage-blood cuts. Some hold unconscious "babies," others lie cadaver-still. As "dead" as breathing and fluttering eyelids will allow.

Across the quad, Gabriel Flores preps his students for their final exam. The quick-sketch scenario: The Big One has hit. Their marching orders: Tend to the victims (courtesy of Ms. Donnely's drama class) waiting in Bell Gardens High School's auditorium.

As the two groups converge, Frank Carbajal, 18, moves in gingerly to care for a baby who has stopped breathing. His large hands all but envelop the tiny figure. "She didn't move. I gave her CPR. I think she's going to be OK," he reports with a shy smile, perspiration beading on his brow.

"Miss T. taught me everything I know," Carbajal adds. "You can be prepared for the worst. P.E. gives me strength to be part of a team and to be concerned with another's life."


Most probably, this does not jibe with your memory of phys ed. That memory is what educators at the fore want to correct: nightmarish visions of polyester zip-front gym suits, the bird-bath shower routine (wet the shoulders and legs), multiple turns around the track to "build character."

Most adults, when conversation dares to drift this direction, play a crafty game of one-upmanship. Who had the most Gomer Pyle / Sgt. Carter-like relationship with her coach? Who suffered a worse humiliation than swinging so hard on a 3-2 pitch that the bat, not the ball, flew deep into left field? In other words, who has the best excuse for a life of couch potato-hood?

Old-school vestiges still stand. The banging lockers. The taunting. The shyness--wallflowers seeking shade not sun. But here in California, the movement to rid the collective consciousness of standard-issue boot camp images is underway, guided by the 1994 publication of the Physical Education Framework for California Public Schools.

Except for music and the visual arts, no discipline has fought as long and hard for respect as P.E.--it's not required after 10th grade, and few students take it as an elective. Some educators believe the framework will provide some long-needed PR. By focusing on fun and self-improvement rather than competition, this academically holistic approach could prove the biggest boon to youth fitness since Title IX. Only problem, say its most fervent supporters, is that even after two years, few know it exists.

For fitness zealots like Thompson, P.E. stands for "pretty exciting." Her goal is to motivate children to become physically active for a lifetime. The P.E. of old, she says, feels irritatingly irrelevant to students.

"They don't value the role of fitness in their day-to-day. They don't understand how fitness helps them to be productive. We are such a spectator society now." And, Thompson stresses, "we want them to be participatory."

Los Angeles of the '50s and early '60s was a model for physical education. School officials across the country stopped in to take a peek at hardy boys in strict battalion formation braving 100 jumping jacks despite the smog and white-hot sun.

By the mid-'60s, though, that reputation began to fade, says Jeanne Bartelt, physical education consultant to the state education department. "The great emphasis on competition changed. Everybody was doing their own thing. Kids didn't want to fool around on being on a team. People were involved with substance abuse. They were rootless."

Flooded with baby boomers, the schools hastily recruited instructors, many of them ill-qualified, Bartelt says. "At the same time, the [Vietnam] War had demonstrated the fact that we weren't sending over our fittest people."

President Kennedy responded by creating the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. In subsequent years, on the federal and state levels, other administrations carried the torch.

Despite their efforts, phys ed never returned to its glory days. "Most of the country thinks California has a great physical education program," says Melva Irvin, chair of Cal State Los Angeles' physical education program, "but they get here and go, 'yuuuuck!' "

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