Dear Miss Mitchell,
You were my secondary school PE teacher, and I’m not gonna lie, I was terrified of you. You were terrifying. But though you could turn even the icy fog of a 9.10 a.m. hockey game in December into a firestorm of fury, you didn’t just burn the asthmatic nerds, like me, or idolise the PE goddesses who could out-run a gale. When Shona vaulted because she could, even though you’d told us all not to vault, you ripped her to tiny pieces for being a danger to the rest of us, and you were right. Respect mattered more than showing off. I couldn’t somersault over a biscuit tin, but you never made me feel ashamed.
Compare this to my primary school, where I was publically called out by both my PE teacher and my headmistress for being a burden – a useless, crying child causing nothing but trouble – and you can see why I was so grateful to be seen for the effort I gave. I hit puberty when I was nine, and learned to be embarrassed by my body. I don’t remember an iota of that from you.
At secondary school, we were expected to excel in everything. It’s an absurd flipping notion – what child is fluent in German, great at maths, a genius at biology, sublime on the football field, and can discourse fluently about Thomas bloody Hardy? Average was unacceptable, and to this day the idea that our lives can only be measured by the weight of gold stars and A*s hung upon us, haunts many of the women I studied with.
PE was one of the few places where, if as you genuinely paid attention and weren’t taking the piss, it was ok to be a bit shit. How rare that is in an exam-based educational system. When I was slowest every year at the dreaded 12-minute run, you didn’t shout at me. “I like that you didn’t try to sprint at the beginning,” you said. “I like that you aren’t an idiot.”
In sixth form, you let me play in the optional hockey games on a Friday afternoon. Every other girl playing was genuinely good, and did all the skills classes that I shunned. I played hockey like a chess game. “Cat knows precisely where the ball is going to go, but never gets there on time,” was one report I received. Given that at that level it was all getting a bit inter-school-competition, you would have been well within your rights to tell me to go back to the library. You didn’t. You let me play the positions I wanted to, and never made me feel unwelcome.
Because of that, I felt confident enough to try some sports at uni. I say ‘confident’. This is a relative term.
My first karate teacher believed in punishment, berating the slowest kids (still me) or the ones who didn’t shout loud enough when they did their katas. My jiu jitsu teacher believed that his martial art could work for anyone, of any size, and when the four foot three, tiny female law student was unable to hurl six foot three of hunky German male economist over her shoulder at her first attempt, he shouted at her, then ignored her entirely, pretending she wasn’t even there when we all got our yellow belts.
Most of the students accepted this as the Way Of Bushido. Whereas it is, at best, bad teaching, and at worst, bullying.
And I thought – I don’t think you would have done that. You would have seen how hard this tiny student was trying, and found a solution that made sense for her body. “Throwing a giant man with one hand isn’t her thing, but she’s got a mean ankle-kick,” might have read the report card. I get discipline, I get effort – but the teacher who mistakes their own ego for respect has failed, no matter what.
My current martial arts teachers are way better, partly because they’re awesome, but also because different bodies are going to enjoy different tools, and that’s just reality. The hunky dudes with chests like the Berlin Wall – they love palm stick and tonfa. Me? I love blades, where malicious cunning does most of the heavy lifting. Even with escrima, I’m still basically playing chess.
I was gonna run the Hackney Half this year, but then the pandemic happened. I’m still scheduled to run it in 2021, but figured, what the hell, so am gonna run a half marathon this weekend. I’ve plotted a route that finishes at Tower Bridge, where I’m gonna be met with cheering and a packet of monster munch by my support team of one. I’ve also given location data to some of my running buddies so there’s a virtual gang who can cheer me on or, perhaps more realistically, occasionally needle me about how daft the whole thing is.
A lot of the dialogue around women and exercise is still either one of shame – you’re too fat, too weak, too whatever – or of unrealistic beauty goals – so thin, so strong, so whatever. So I guess what I want to say is, all these years later: thank you. Thank you for giving me space to be none of the above, and a bit shit at PE, and that being ok. Thank you for helping me learn that you can try, and be meh, and have a great time, and having a great time is sometimes better even than a gold star.
On behalf of a woman in an average body with average time to spend on exercise: thank you. Helping athletes be awesome is pretty cool; but helping the rest of us be ok all things considered is a flipping triumph.
All the best,