Middle school gym class.
Our gym teacher — I forget her name, but she and my elementary and high school gym teachers all fit the same profile: Female, white, and a 10K / Marathon / triathlon runner on weekends — announced that on this day, in addition to some other fitness test stuff we’d be subject to, we’d be having our body fat measured.
Each kid would need to remember their number when measured, because at the end of class, the gym teacher would do roll call and record each student’s measurement.
Now, a room full of 12 and 13 year-old kids who didn’t yet know of a thing called the internet don’t know a damned thing about body fat percentage — its significance, what exactly it meant, what’s good or bad about it, nothing. We just knew what everyone “knew” back then about fat: Fat, in all forms, was bad. The less fat, the better. Low-fat or fat-free foods, just like diet soda, was healthy. We were slightly misinformed back then.
But we did know the other, more basic and easy-to-understand use of the word fat: Overweight. Obese. Unhealthy. Subject to fat jokes. That, we knew very well. Measuring body fat in gym class, and having each student have to report their current state of fatness out loud at the end of class, was pure entertainment for mischievous kids like me. I and several of my fun-making peers cast sideways glances at each other, smirking and stifling giggles, knowing that some of our less-svelte classmates were set to be embarrassed in about 45 minutes.
The way we did body fat measuring back in 1992-93 was with this plastic clip thingy.
The clip would grab the skin / flab hanging from certain body parts (all the product photos I saw used the stomach, but I suppose school teachers wouldn’t be allowed to ask kids to bare their stomachs), and there would be a corresponding number that went with the amount the clip had needed to open to grab your skin / flab. Our gym teacher explained that, for purposes of our measurements, we would use the back of our arm/tricep, and the calf muscle. The number from each would be added together to give you your total body fat percentage.
At the end of class, the gym teacher would have all of us gather and sit on the floor around her, while she, seated in her folding chair, went down the class roll call, calling out each student by name, and we were to call back with our measured body fat number for the gym teacher to record.
Don’t ask me why the school needed to know this information.
We did the test. As the gym teacher went down the roll call list at the end of class, the overall measurements fit our basic expectations. The skinny, active and in-shape kids had low numbers. Many of the boys, including myself, were in the single digits (I think I was 8%). The females, naturally having more fat tissue, trended a bit higher, in the mid-to-high teens and low twenties. The chubby kids, those who abhorred the very idea of gym class itself, recorded some high twenties and low thirties.
Down the list our gym teacher went, nothing very memorable about the exercise, until she came to Avi.
No, not avatar — his name was Avi. I remember his last name too, but I’ll leave it out to avoid a harassment suit.
Avi was tall, white and big — I’m sure we ridiculed him for being fat a time or three — and obviously self-conscious about it. Avi’s dislike for gym class was visceral; he was always slow to dress for class in the locker room, he held up the wall while we played basketball and kickball, his participation was always at the bare the-teacher-made-me minimum. I don’t know what Avi’s hobbies were, but physical exertion was clearly at the bottom of his list of preferences. Though he was tall, I don’t know how a 12-year-old kid could get to be as big as Avi was. It would require a lot of bad, unconscious eating of heavily processed food. But Avi had somehow achieved it.
The gym teacher was on a roll in calling out names and quickly recording numbers. Looking back, it was obvious that she had done this before. Us students, as we had all been in the same classes together all school year long, knew when our names were coming up in the roll; you know which names were right before yours. No reason for any hiccups. But when she came to this particular name —
— there was a pause. No one had spoken up. Without looking up, she said the name again, a bit louder this time.
Avi was on the other side of the semi-circle from me. A few of us were looking at Avi now; by delaying his answer, he’d done the exact thing he was obviously trying to avoid: Bringing extra attention to the report of his body fat percentage.
Avi spoke now, but in such a low voice that, though you could hear him saying something, you couldn’t make out what it was that he’d said. My gym teacher, apparently, felt the same way.
For the first time since she’d started writing down our class’s body fat percentages, the gym teacher looked up from her clipboard. Avi’s (failed) face-saving delay had interrupted her flow. She perused the semi-circle of middle schoolers around her and requested clarification from Avi, the rogue student.
Oh, Avi. I’m sure he would execute this differently if he had it to do over again.
Given what we know now, I guess this incident would qualify as childhood trauma. Avi, all of 12 years old, had been forced, by a responsible adult, to (knowingly for him, unknowingly by the gym teacher) embarrass himself in front of his peers. Stuff that happens at this age — when we’re old enough to know exactly what happened and remember it, but too young to exercise full control over the situation — adults don’t just forget.
I hope Avi is doing alright.