We'll call him Mr. Jones (so I won't get sued). I heard tell of him from my dad and my dad's siblings. They all had him for gym class when they were in middle school. My dad was a naughty kid. So he'd had an altercation or two with Mr. Jones, which I couldn't even imagine. When nobody in my sixth-grade gym class was doing anything to piss him off, he still looked so severe. Never smiled. Stood shoulders back, arms crossed. Tight blue shorts made of unidentifiable fabric, most likely produced in the '70s or '80s. White leg hair from mid-thigh to ankle. White arm hair, thicker than what seemed normal to a 12-year-old. White head hair (what was left of it). No trace of a smile or even smile lines that might indicate he actually did show his teeth once in a while at home. Plenty of frown lines, though. So the idea of anger in those eyes directed right at my dad, inches from his face, made me keep as quiet as a Sunday morning in January.
I had just moved to Fairmont from K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base in the U.P. of Michigan. I had no friends, and it was my first year of middle school. So the last thing I needed was another reason to feel out of place and behind my fellow classmates. First-period gym class with Mr. Jones was that extra reason. It was a few months after my parents' divorce. I had put on weight. I was out of shape. I'd never run before, except for short bursts the way kids do. And here stood this cold statue of a man barking at me and my classmates in military style to run eight laps or 10 laps or however many he felt like that day.
I was always near the back of the pack. It wasn't unusual for me to get lapped by the fastest boy in the class. But still I remember how grateful I was that two or three girls were actually slower, somehow, than I was so that I wouldn't be dead last.
Every time I past Mr. Jones during each lap, a bit of anxiety would creep in. Sometimes he'd shout things. "Pick it up! Pick it up!" And when one of my tactics on long runs was to put tissues on the stage at the edge of the gym and pretend to have a cold, he was onto me in a heartbeat. "Carry that Kleenex with you, Dyslin! Don't stop!"
Until now, this is the only experience I ever had running. And every single time I have circled the track at the Y this week, having begun my couch to 5K, I have imagined Mr. Jones standing there, arms crossed, watching every unsteady stride. The funny thing is, though, the negative connotation I have with the actual act of running has started to go away. I wonder if it's because I'm choosing to be there, and I feel like it's for an actual purpose. When you're 12, there seems to be no reason at all to be asked to run half a mile in front of your peers, wearing hideous red shorts and doing everything you can to hide your pit stains. It just seems like a really mean social experiment, and you start to imagine ways to make Mr. Jones disappear without anyone tracing the crime back to you.
Hopefully, when I'm ready to move this running campaign outside and hit the streets, the old man won't be in my thoughts at all. Or maybe if he is, I'll just flip him the hand gesture that my dad was brave enough to do when he was just a kid.