Back in school - specifically, in grades 7-10 - I dreaded the end of basketball season. Being a basketball junkie, most of the reasons related to the sport and the disappointment that came with any season that ended with our team not making it to the state tournament.
But beyond that, the end of basketball season meant the beginning of archery.
Tonight I got into a brief argument with Louise and my parents about whether archery has any place in physical education classes. My stance is firm: No. They saw why it made sense, with Louise going as far as making the somewhat dubious claim that, "It stretches and strengthens the chest muscles, with that pulling action, so it's definitely good for a physical education class." Even her amateurish pantomime of said action did nothing to convince me. Typing strengthens the fingers. Doesn't mean it should be part of phy ed.
However, my arguments and beliefs actually have little to do with any concerns about education value. The scars from the humiliation I endured in the archery portion of our phy ed classes linger, each memory of those days piercing me like...well, hell, an arrow.
When the basketball season at Janesville ended each season, the archery targets came out, ready to be abused by dozens of teenagers eager to release some pent-up frustration. The targets remained dormant during basketball season, so the week after both the boys and girls teams had been eliminated, the large targets appeared from the caves where they'd been kept, along with the bows and arrows.
Most kids rejoiced. This was a highlight of gym class. Many of the students hunted. To them, stringing a bow and firing an arrow across the gym was second-nature, as easy as running a lap around the basketball court. As they eyed the target, they could picture a deer in their sights. The boys - and girls - in class all effortlessly struck the mark, often drilling bullseye after bullseye, or, in the case of the phy ed class, balloon after balloon they placed on the targets.
I didn't hunt. I didn't fish. That wasn't the norm for kids from Minnesota, but I never thought I was missing out on anything. However, that meant that I had no experience with the equipment. I went in blind. And dumb.
The debacles began in seventh grade and continued through sophomore year. Improvement should have come through osmosis or repetition, but it never did. The mental block was as imposing as the physical ones.
During those days of archery, I finally understood what some of my classmates felt every other week of the school year, when phy ed class was a living nightmare, an hour to dread. Humiliation was assured. The only question was in what form would it be and who would be the instigator? Maybe it'd be the star wrestler drilling them in the head with a rubber ball during dodge ball. Maybe it'd be the class bully hammering them into the boards - aka bleachers - during floor hockey.
But during archery, even those kids thrived. They transformed from nerd to William Tell, with a touch of Robin Hood, their bottomless pit of fear and despair replaced by endless confidence and even arrogance.
Every other week of the year I savored gym class. Ping pong, dodge ball, basketball, wiffle ball or kickball. Loved them all. Archery leveled the playing field, and my self-esteem.
During the classes, we'd walk into the gym and perform in our regular clothes, no need to change into gym outfits (and this is a sport?). We went off in groups. The first ones to fire had to string the bows, as learning this skill was a necessary part of the class and surely something that would benefit us later in life as well, no matter how inane it seemed at the time. Just like algebra.
My plan involved lingering outside the gym until the other students picked up the bows. That way I didn't have to string. Sometimes that failed. On those occasions I fumbled around with the weapon, haplessly trying to pull the string into the proper notch. My arms twisted and an onlooker would have had only a vague idea about what I was trying to accomplish. Years later I'd endure similar frustration while trying to put on a tie or change a tire.
The teacher didn't let anyone fire until all were ready. Children who can barely walk and can't talk can string a bow. For many Minnesotans, it's practically instinctual. I could not.
This meant all eyes turned to me, standing there entangled in the poorly constructed bow, as if I had introduced weapons into a game of Twister. Finally the teacher would take pity. With a shake of the head, he would walk over and do it for me. As he fiddled with the apparatus, he probably wondered how low of a grade he could give for this quarter, and what in the hell had happened to my manliness?
When "Fury" was finally ready, the teacher told everyone to fire away. And how they fired. The sound of an arrow releasing and whistling across the gym before finding its target really is a cool sound. Pfffit. My bow didn't make that sound. In fact, the only sound emanating from my bow and arrow came when the arrow hit the floor, followed by a low-decibel curse word. Every time I pulled back to fire, the arrow became dislodged. It either dangled pathetically in the front while I held onto the back end, or dropped to the floor like an oversized pencil falling in class. Anyone who saw it snickered.
"God, this bow sucks," I'd say. "Anyone else get a defective bow? How old are these things? They could at least give us some decent equipment. Jesus."
No one else had a faulty bow.
I'd pick it up, recalibrate, and relaunch.
To the ground the arrow went. By this time the marksmen in the class were finishing up the last of their five arrows, while I still struggled to fire my first one. When I saw that no one was watching, I'd sometimes take to throwing the arrows down to the other end.
I threw the arrows down to the other end.
It sounds absurd, because it was. I wasn't proud of it then and I'm even less proud of it now. But at that moment I had no pride, or shame.
Occasionally one of my arrows did escape from its prison. Instead of taking a direct line to the target, though, the arrow veered frighteningly off course, like a botched North Korean missile falling into the sea. Fortunately no one got hurt. I watched in awe as the arrow flew 20, 30, 40 feet into the air and toward the windows on the other side of the gym. If I had been an ancient English warrior firing my arrows at an enemy standing 150 feet away - perhaps with an arrow that's in flames - my shot would have been perfect. In a phy ed class, in jeans and a sweatshirt, with a target 30 feet away, it was simply a disaster that managed to avoid turning into a tragedy. I sometimes feared becoming the first person to shoot an arrow horizontally and into a classmate, or downward and into my foot. Surely the teacher and other school officials would have removed me after such an incident. That removal would have been the only positive thing to come out of all my days in archery.
If my cousin and best friend Matt was standing by me, I could sometimes talk him into grabbing a handful of arrows for his own use. He was happy to do this. He hunted. He knew how to string a bow, load it, aim, and fire.
We shot the entire hour, well-trained archers ready for the hunt or the Sheriff of Nottingham. And for 60 minutes I kept missing. In four years I probably hit the target four times.
The torment I endured in archery beginning in seventh grade actually had roots in sixth grade. That year I participated in a spelling bee, a natural fit for me and an event I anticipated with great excitement. My tournament ended just a few rounds in.
The word that tripped me up? Not chiaroscurist, or demarche, or prospicienc.
Instead they got me with archery. Or, as I spelled it, archerey. It was an unforgivable misspelling, as embarrassing to me as it probably was to my mom and dad in attendance. It's the type of word the judge gives to a kid he's trying to help ease through to the next round, as if he's throwing the competition for the student. Instead I added an extra e before the y, followed by cries of why?
That should have been my most humiliating encounter with archery, the word or the activity. It wasn't, and for that I have no one to blame but myself, a dubious curriculum and a basketball team that never quite made it to state during my school years.