High school sucked. Always has, always will. But one week every year was especially worse than the rest. It was roller skating week in gym.
I never really learned to roller skate, not even to this date – I probably never will as I have a fear of falling on my ass. When I was in elementary school I tried to learn. My family owned only one pair of skates. I don’t know where they came from as I don’t remember ever asking for them and my sister never skated. Still, we had them, tucked away in the garage, behind the rags we used to wax the cars. About once a year I got the urge to strap them on and learn to skate.
After lacing them tight around my ankles, I would get a surge of confidence that this time, I would make it. Carefully, I would grip the edge of the storage unit, conveniently placed by the step upon which I sat, and attempted to stand. This was actually the easiest part for me as there was a mat under the step. Friction was my friend then. Once standing, I would take a tentative step onto the concrete of the garage floor, still gripping the storage unit. My mind raced with all the advice that friends had given me over the years. Bend your knees. Don’t lean forward. Keep your back straight. Balance your weight.
One skate on the mat, one on the concrete. Praying that this time it would work, the second skate made its way next to its partner. My left arm swung out in space, looking for something to grasp and coming up empty. One hundred pounds pressing down on eight wheels on frictionless concrete – the numbers weren’t in my favor, even if I bent my knees. I tried to balance my weight but as soon as I moved one way to balance, the skates responded by moving, even ever so slightly, causing me to shift my weight the other way. But then the skates would respond to that and slip even more. This lasted just a few more seconds, until I found myself sitting on the garage floor with a bruised butt.
So one could understand my hesitation to get up in front of my classmates and skate. If I were popular, I could have written it off, telling everyone that I was too cool to do something that a second grader did. But I wasn’t popular. Far from it. I hung out with the people in band. I wasn’t even in band, but all my friends were. Ergo, I was on the bottom rung of the high school social ladder.
Five days every school year, each period gym class (both boys’ and girls’) piled into the bus and trekked across town to the roller rink. There I would sit in the arcade and watch as my classmates skated around and around, making it look as if it were as natural as walking. All week I had to sit there, forbidden from even playing pinball, feeling like a loser and wishing that I could just go home. The gym teacher, knowing that I couldn’t skate and flat out refused to even try (why embarrass myself further?) would just give me a bad grade for the week. I gladly accepted it.
Junior year was different. The gym teacher made a deal with me. “Just once around the rink,” she told me, “and you get an ‘A’ for the week.” Now, it may seem like a bad idea, but the two long sides of the rink had hand rails and I would be allowed to use them. There was also a half wall along one of the shorter sides of the rink, which I could also easily grip. But that pesky short wall on the far side of the rink was as smooth as silk, with absolutely nothing to help me stay off my ass.
Upon hearing the offer, I weighed my options. One short wall, some embarrassment, and an ‘A’ or looking on as everyone else chatting and having fun, bored stiff out of my mind. I may have turned down the offer is some of the girls in my class hadn’t come up and offered to help me across that smooth wall. Not only would I have help, but they were sincerely sympathetic and – even better – part of the popular crowd. Even if I fell on my ass they could protect me from everyone laughing. (Unlike how the movies depict popular girls, in my school they weren’t vindictive or mean. I also was in a few after-school activities with them and while we didn’t hang out outside of school, we were still friendly to each other and here they were supporting me – figuratively and literally.)
So I accepted the offer and the three of us went, albeit slowly, onto the skating room floor. One stood to my left, one behind me, and with my right hand I gripped the railing with all my might. I bent my knees. I leaned forward to balance my weight, then back to counterbalance. Slowly and with much hesitation, I made my way around the rink. I did fall a few times, but the girls were there for me, helping me back up. The smooth wall was still difficult to cross, even with the help that I had. The last few feet of that wall, after having fallen down, I stayed down and crawled the rest of the way until I could reach up and grasp the railing. I probably looked as stupid as I felt but at this point the three of us were laughing at how ridiculous this all was.
Twenty minutes later, I was back at the beginning where the teacher stood, watching as I clumsily made my way around the rink, flanked by classmates. She may have said that she was proud of my effort, but I don’t actually remember. I sat down, now back on carpeted flooring, relieved that the whole ordeal was over and that the rest of the week would be spent in this spot, safely on the other side of that half wall, watching my classmates.
The next year I had a different gym teacher and she didn’t strike a bargain with me, but let me be on the sidelines. But I was comforted by something that I didn’t have the other three years: Jake, one of the popular boys and who was in the same gym class, also sat on the sidelines. He didn’t know how to skate either! I felt like a weight had been lifted off me. If someone popular didn’t know how to skate, no one would make fun of him and (hopefully) wouldn’t make fun of me! So that week I not only watched my classmates skate, but also watched as the pretty girls would skate up to that half wall against which Jake was leaning and start flirting with him. They didn’t care that he couldn’t join them on the floor. He was still cute and they still wanted him and in that fact, I felt a little more confident and okay with the fact that I didn’t know how to skate.
And to this date, I’m still okay with it.