I failed it.
Yes, the New Jersey state fitness test. I was in 7th or 8th grade. I wasn’t fast. I wasn’t strong. I cared, sort of. Happiest sitting and reading, every so often I’d have to do one of those things in gym class that made me self-conscious, uncomfortable or terrified — like the tests which marked how fast I could run. As it was, I was the last one picked for teams, the one who no one expected to catch the ball. That was more than enough dread and attention for me.
So, I failed the test. And they – the anonymous physical education decisors – placed me in Adaptive Gym. What?! It sounded terrible, ostracizing. But wait. I learned it was kind of perfect. Quiet. No teams. No balls to catch. It was solo. It wasn’t sitting with a good book, but there was potential.
There were maybe two other students in the weight room of South Orange Junior High that term, guided by one teacher, Mr. Renna. Augie Renna was a tall, short-gym-shorts-wearing, muscle-flexing teacher with slightly feathered hair (it was the early ‘80s in New Jersey). Each day Mr. Renna taught me about reps and sets and how to use the Universal gym equipment to lift weights.
I followed instructions and counted my reps and sets. I knew it all had to do with muscles, but didn’t know what that really meant — until one day. I put on my favorite light blue Polo button-down oxford (it was the days of The Preppy Handbook). The buttons barely buttoned across my chest, the cotton fabric pulled. I didn’t understand. What was that? Oh, the bench-pressing!
I moved on from Adaptive Gym and managed to survive high school PE, though not without tears of fear when gymnastics came around. In college I found myself in a weight room again, this time of my choice. And I knew what to do!
So it went — at Penn, the Jerusalem YMCA, the NYU gym, my Lake Shore Drive apartment building, and, for the past 18 years, my local YMCA. Sometimes I had someone to spot me — the cute guy in Jerusalem, my friend Jay, my Chicago doorman Dukes who possessed forearms the girth of my entire body, and a litany of local trainers who know me only in the gym where I am blissfully anonymous. Every time, the weights are there. I can walk in, pick up a barbell and return to bicep curls with familiarity and comfort.
Now, don’t get the wrong idea. My weights aren’t huge; nor are my muscles apparent. And my lifting takes extended recess — in summer for the good of outdoor swimming, in fall for sermon-writing focus, and who knows when when the stuff of life rears its head. But I keep coming back.
This fall, I returned. I’d been out of the gym a while and was between trainers. Finally, the promise of a new trainer drew me in. She began an assessment and commented, politely I am sure, that I am strong.
I laughed and dismissed her remark. But then I got to thinking. How many times in the last years did the stuff of life overwhelm with a different type of weight to lift: divorce, starting again, solo decision-making, parenting through anger and sadness, unimaginable deaths and accompanying grief, aging parent’s health panics, sandwich-generation pulls. This was solo lifting, of a different sort. Heavy weights without clear instructions. Again and again I came to recognize strength here, in the places I didn’t want to look or need it.
In the days following that polite comment, I realized that, ironically, the lifting of life weights has, on many occasions, kept me from the gym. But when I do get there, I know how to start, however slowly it might be. I get on the Elliptical first, and then move across the rubber-padded floor toward my favorite spots for free weights, pushups, squats. Then bench-pressing. The familiar movements bring me into rhythm. I am back in the junior high school gym, solo, and surprised. I am strong.
Thank you, Mr. Renna.