I look up at the clock with its seconds-hand tic-ticking away the last few precious minutes of kid-free time I have. It’s 1:56PM. In four minutes I have to pick up my students across the vast pavement by the dirt field where they have their weekly Physical Education class. I would give anything for just a little bit more time to get all my materials set up just right, so I can survive this last hour of school without a single misstep, like not having enough copies or forgetting where I put the cup of extra sharpened pencils I kept ready to fend off any excuses not to complete work. But Mrs. Snow the PE teacher was a gruff, grumpy woman and you didn’t mess with her. I picked up my students without fail at exactly 2:00PM each Tuesday and Thursday.
The PE classes of my middle school days were filled with awkward glances in the stuffy, dark locker room while our teacher would fuss about with paperwork and attendance behind a caged in office, careful to look down and away and never at us changing. We would squirm in large t-shirts subtly wiggling in and out of our Umbros so no one could catch a glimpse of the various bodily changes we were so desperate to hide. Trotting out to an expansive gym or the plush field directly behind it, I remember learning to toss a Frisbee back and forth, hoping my name would never be called to do the rope climb, clutching my side from cramps as we ran the mile and dodging the boys flirtatiously as they grabbed the yellow nylon strips on Velcro belts that swung from our sides during flag football.
None of these physical education staples were a part of my students’ experience at Belle Haven. They got a giant dirt pit surrounded by a chain-linked fence and that was about it. Mrs. Snow was an elderly obese woman with dangerously thin ankles who never stood vertically if she could avoid it. Her supplies, if you could call it that, consisted of a rusty shopping cart from the local Safeway and a handful of old basketballs, most of them never fully inflated to the point of being able to conduct a productive game of any kind. The most I had ever seen my students do in her class was walk around the dirt field around the edges. A few of the more energetic and athletic boys ran, their thin legs making a swooshing sound as the black denim fabric brushed together in the Bay Area heat. That was just one of the many unfortunate things about Mrs. Snow’s PE program: no locker rooms, no changing and a mandatory school-wide uniform policy of black pants and white collared shirts meant some sweaty, stained and smelly adolescents finishing out their day in room 115 with me. Most of the students walked slowly around the field, in pairs or clumps. Mrs. Snow would sit on the broken green bench off to the side, occasionally calling out for them to “hurry up!” but most of the time ignoring them completely.
On this particular day I noticed something different. As I approached the dirt field it occurred to me Mrs. Snow wasn’t in her usual, reclined position of utter indifference and resignation. Today she was hunched over, her back bobbing up and down a bit too enthusiastically. Something was in front of her, but what? A few students sat no more than ten feet away, huddled around something else. As I moved swiftly closer to them I can make out the faint tune of a popular video game. What were they playing? Animal Crossing?
“Hello, Mrs. Snow!” I call out. “How were my students today?”
“Uh?!” She snorts and jolts around, completely unaware of the time. Her face has a smear of something white on it. In front of her I see what had her so captivated this period. On her lap sits a half-eaten birthday cake in a clear white plastic tray, the kind you pick up at Safeway the day of your child’s birthday and drop off at school with a balloon and some plates. I can see the red gel frosting on top of the white, at one point wishing Jose a Happy 12th Birthday.