For some students, merely hearing the words “math” or “reading” would fill them with anxiety. For me, the words that would send my stress level rocketing were “phyisical education.” As a visually impaired high school student in the 1970’s during the inception of mainstreamed education for the physically challenged, P.E. classes became a nightmare. I was required to have them to graduate, my mother believed strongly in the need for exercise, but the teachers didn’t want me in their classes for fear of liability. The times I was allowed in a class, I often saw teachers express the attitude that if a student wasn’t a prospect for a school athletic team, he or she just didn’t exist. Even though I went to a larger high school that offered elective P.E. classes, most of the electives were still team sports which, if I cared to admit it, I couldn’t do.
I went to college at a time when they still required two courses of physical education, yet the University of Arizona offered many more choices, including classes that were at least safe for me to participate in. I still was afraid – what teacher was going to put me down now? My first semester, an aerobics class, was a marvelous experience with a wise teacher who tailored an exercise program to meet my needs. She treated me as an equal, not as an inferior student. She regarded everyone in the class as people who brought to the class their individual gym bag full of unique strengths and weaknesses. For once, I was like everyone else.
So I approached my second semester with a lot more confidence. I love to swim, had learned how to swim, albeit not very well, but I certainly was no beginner. So I signed up for the class for advanced beginners.
The first day of class, I realized I was in over my head, literally. No shallow end swimming for this instructor. He dumped us in the deep end and was a task master at making us do laps. If anyone didn’t follow his instructions, he made fun of them, including me, even though he knew I was visually impaired. If I had a thing against special treatment, this dude certainly wasn’t going to even look my way. Without my glasses, I was totally lost and endured two sessions of his army sergeant approach.So I handled the problem like I handled many problems at that mature age of eighteen. I cried. Visions of past P.E. classes swept through my brain. Failure after failure rose up before me. I panicked. I had to pass a P.E. class. I was supposed to exercise to stay in good health. Was it possible to keep up with the rest of the world in spite of my limited vision? I was always going to be inferior because I couldn’t live up to the world’s expectations and no one was going to stop their own race to help me acheive.I wept all the way from the outdoor swimming into the hallway of the locker room. There I ran into my aerobics instructor.
“What is the matter, Karen?” she took hold of my still wet arm.
I spilled out between choked sobs the story of the last week. Her reaction surprised me.
Instead of telling me to pull myself together and deal with it like a mature adult woman, instead of hugging me and saying, “You poor thing. That teacher was so mean to you,” she took action. She said, “Let’s see what we can do to fix this. I’m going to get you in another class. You go get changed and meet me in my office.”
In short order, she pulled strings to get me in a beginner’s class taught by a young enthusiastic, instructor who believed in using praise rather than bullying tactics to get results. She personally went to the swimming instructor and explained my needs.
And here’s where God’s grace magnified her efforts. Unknown to my aerobics instructor, my new swimming instructor had an assistant, a senior phys ed major who was also working toward a minor in special education. The assistant often stayed next to me, even allowing me to put my hands on her body so I could feel the position my body was supposed to be in as I made the different swimming strokes.
My benefactor’s actions brought to mind lyrics penned by Dottie Rambo:
“I shall forever lift mine eyes to Calvary
To view the cross where Jesus died for me;
How marvelous the grace that caught my falling soul!
He looked beyond my fault and saw my need.
The words describe Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross as, “He looked beyond my fault and saw my need.” My aerobics instructor looked beyond my immature tears and my poor athletic ability to meet my need for a class where I could gain confidence and grow as an athlete.