In elementary school, my PE teacher was a drill sergeant.
Her name was Ms. McKnight. She had a sort of hi-top fade – mostly black, speckled with here-and-there grey. She sported a couple of matching chin whiskers.
To be fair, I don’t know for sure if Ms. McKnight was actually ever in the military. I do know that at the start of every PE class, before the actual PE portion began, Ms. McKnight would have us perform military drills. Well, not drills, really… formations.
After ‘dressing out’, we’d all line up in neat little rows, alphabetically by last name. We each automatically assumed the ‘at-ease’ position – feet firmly planted hip-width apart, hands lightly crossed behind our backs, backs and shoulders straight, eyes straight ahead focused on some imaginary point in the distance. We looked like some kind of Smurf version of S1Ws. We were a class of less than 30, none of us more than 10 years old, most of us, black. Our contrasting light blue top and dark blue bottom uniforms drove home the militant midget image.
How long had we been lining up like this?
By this point, the routine wasn’t so much memorized as it was ingrained. Was this not just the way one stood when standing around doing nothing? Would I not stand this way in similar situations forever into the future? In the grocery store checkout line? At the DMV? When waiting to ride the Scream Machine at Six Flags? When I looked to my left and right, whether it be now or 20, 30 years from now, would I not always find Ashley Davis and Greg Dinkins flanking me in line?
Once lined up, we’d stand there and await our instructions from Ms. McKnight. She’d take her time, finish with whatever she was looking at (‘How To Weaponize Adolescents (Revised Edition)’? ‘Retired Drill Sergeant’s Monthly’?) on her clipboard, then slowly walk to her starting position in front of us.
We’d spring into action, in one synchronized motion, we switched to the ‘attention’ position. Feet and ankles close together, bodies rigid, eyes alert, arms stiffly extended by our sides.
Our collective right arm engaged and landed in a taut salute.
Ms. McKnight would begin to walk slowly among our ranks, inspecting each of us for flaws, misalignments, sloppy or incorrect dress.
“AT EEEEZ!” she’d shout out as she continued walking, peering.
We’d shift back into our resting position.
Back to full salute.
We pivoted swiftly and curtly to the rear, one Smurf army united in motion.
This would continue for several minutes. Ms. McKnight shouting orders at us; us responding with the appropriate movements.
Occasionally she’d stop in front of one of us and bark a question that we were all to have memorized and be ready to answer at a moment’s notice. There was no way of knowing if you’d be the one she’d ask to spout off the answer like a Marine reciting the Rifleman’s Creed. It was as random as being singled out in a game of duck-duck-goose.
She’d slowly stalk us, row by row, scanning her eyes over us, while we dared not break formation by looking at her, moving or even breathing too much. All of a sudden, she’d stop and address one of us by last name.
“Demps! What is physical education!?”
To this day, I remember the answer to this question. It is tattooed on my brain. It is a part of my nervous system. If I were ever in a coma, and someone asked me this question, I’d probably wake up and respond,
“Physical education is that part of our education that strengthens us physically, mentally and spiritually!”
If we stammered, forgot or responded too slowly, we’d get a demerit. Ms. McKnight would note it on her clipboard then continue her inspection, looking closely for any other infractions.
Ms. McKnight was always stern, but never harsh or cruel. In fact, I’d dare say that we all liked her. We also feared her, but it was the same kind of fear we had for our parents, and we liked them well enough. We didn’t even mind the drills much. It was simply one more of the peculiarly unique things that was a part of being a student at the little red brick schoolhouse on Ward Street.
Was it odd to have a bunch of kids pretending to be tiny soldiers? Certainly. Was Ms. McKnight and her approach to physical education likely a holdover from her own childhood PE classes in the 1950s? Probably so. But if it were only the drills, the whole thing would have probably become a source of childhood trauma. Whenever I happen to reunite with my former Smurfs, we tend trade these old memories like survivor stories. But, unlike typical survivors, it’s not scars we have, rather a wistful sort of awe that what once seemed so perfectly normal is now bizarre for its quaintness and simplicity, and, for that reason, all the more precious to us.
Yes, if it were only the drills, Ms. McKnight’s methods might have been considered truly weird. Even questionable. But it wasn’t only the drills. It was the question. The question made the whole routine mean something more. I didn’t know it at the time, but there was a reason Ms. McKnight asked that question.
She could have asked any number of questions.
“Demps! What’s the school’s alma mater?”
“Ferguson! How many bones in the human body?”
“Bentley! If you were a hot dog, would you eat yourself?”
But she didn’t. She asked the one question that would remind both us and her of our reason for being there in that class – outside on the playground-slash-parking lot behind the little red schoolhouse in good weather, downstairs in the social hall under the church when it rained. Why we were performing those drills. Why she was inspecting and correcting every detail of our movements and dress.
She was there to instill pride, discipline, a basic and physical understanding of teamwork and cooperation. She was there to remind us that at this small Catholic parochial school in an all-black neighborhood, there were many kinds of education to be had. There was religious education to strengthen our spirits – the nuns and other clergy saw to that. There was classical education to strengthen our minds – our dedicated staff of lay teachers handled that; but only physical education addressed our entire selves. Spirit, mind and body. And only, she, the Commander-in-Chief of Physical Education, had the privilege and the duty of delivering this most complete form of education to us.
In hindsight I think we Smurfs were damned lucky to have a Ms. McKnight.
But that doesn’t mean I didn’t I feel a certain kind of way the first time I saw Full Metal Jacket.