(Not) Playing the Field

We’re going to be out of town for a couple of days next weekend, and my kids will miss a day of school. They’re bummed out because it’s “Field Day” they’ll be missing. “Aw, man, I LOVE Field Day!” my daughter announced at dinner last night when it became clear what would be happening at school the day they would be out. I’m now trying to figure out whose kids these are. They can’t be mine, because they would surely have inherited my loathing of Field Day. Right? (Note: in spite of this, they are mine.)

As an adult, there are things I dislike about being involved with school, most notably the Science Fair and the Carnival. When I was a kid, my school didn’t have Science Fairs (although I’m sure I would have hated them if we had), and I vaguely remember one sort of Carnival-esque thing, but it wasn’t the run around screaming-toss beanbags in a clown’s mouth-get a bag full of cheap plastic shit toys that will clog the vacuum in three weeks kind of affair that my kids’ school has. All I remember about it is that I somehow ended up doing magic tricks for small groups of parents that drifted by from time to time. I was stationed at a table in a hallway and had evidently volunteered to do this. That’s it—wine (and 33 years) has wiped out the rest of that memory. But we had Field Day, and boy did I hate it. In fact, on a list of things I didn’t like about school, Field Day must be about five of them. It doesn’t bother me as an adult, because I don’t have to participate in my kids’ Field Day, or try find a plausible excuse to miss it (and “plausible” was a relative term—I made up some pretty unbelievable shit trying to get out of it in my day).

As you may have gathered if you’re familiar with my rant about camping, I’m not outdoorsy. And although it’s not necessarily a given, in my case not being outdoorsy and not being athletic are parts of one another in the Venn diagram of Things That Totally Suck In My Opinion. In the first place, most sports are played outside. In the second place, as a normal human being, when someone throws something at me, my instinct is to duck, not stick out my hand and try to catch whatever the fuck they threw at me. And to address the obvious question (“Yeah, but wouldn’t you rather have done Field Day shit and gotten to miss class?”) the answer is, actually, hell no. The only thing worse than the academic part of school was the athletic part of school. If they had said, “You can do Field Day, or go sit in the library and read all day,” the wake that followed me as I raced down the hall to the library would have pulled everything off the walls and sent it swirling against the lockers in a tornado of homeroom announcements and “Just Say No to Drugs” posters.

I don’t even remember that much about Field Day (see wine and passage of time, above), but what I do remember about it was excruciating. It was always at the end of the school year, of course. I’m sure this had to do with the fact that they were basically running out of shit to teach us (plus the teachers were as eager for summer vacation as we were, maybe more) so they declared Field Day and it was a chance for the teachers to not have to do a lesson plan and try to teach something to a bunch of twelve year olds who were already checked out and anticipating spending their mornings watching reruns of “Gilligan’s Island” and “I Dream of Jeannie” before they went to the pool for the rest of the day.

I grew up on the East coast, and naturally the day of Field Day was always the first really hot day of almost-summer. The activities were held on playing fields that were twelve miles from the nearest tree, so there was no shade. This was long before concerns about things like sunscreen (we called it “sun tan lotion” of course, which only serves to underscore the fact that it wasn’t about protection, but about cosmetics) and hydration (no one had a “water bottle” in those days, and there was no bottled water, and the school administration apparently didn’t give a shit if we all passed out from heat stroke). As a child, I was often mistaken for Casper the Friendly Ghost, so lacking in pigmentation was I. As a result, I’m very sensitive to excessive exposure to heat. So right there I’m not all that excited about this whole thing.

And then they wanted us to run. I don’t remember anything we did at Field Day other than sprint up and down the field. The 100 yard dash, the 500 yard dash, the 1000 yard dash, the 4,927 yard dash or whatever the fuck. I suppose they had other activities, but I can’t recall what they were. I think we actually signed up for stuff in advance, so it’s very possible I just picked the things that required the least coordination. Of course, it’s impossible to have enough activities going at once to keep 250 kids occupied the whole time, so we spent a lot of time standing around waiting for shit to happen.

Out in a field for four or five hours, with the sun blazing down and with nothing to drink, waiting to get to run a few hundred yards so I could go stand around some more…I can’t quite put my finger on what about this I found so abhorrent.

The logical strategy was to find ways to get out of it. I did my damndest. If I had put as much effort into my schoolwork over the course of the year as I did in coming up with reasons I couldn’t participate in Field Day in the week before it happened, I’d have been a Rhodes Scholar. My first encounter with Field Day was in fourth grade. When the guidelines were explained to me, I immediately knew that this was something in which I would be gracefully declining to participate. Just about that time, I was starting orthodontic treatment. I had some little bits of wire between a few of my molars to make room for some bands they’d be putting on shortly. The pressure these were exerting on my teeth was causing them to ache, therefore I was so sorry, but it seemed to me it would be unwise for me to participate in this “Field Day” thingie.

That one was a failure. I realized that in future years, I was going to have to come up with something better. A doctor’s appointment or a broken bone would have been a godsend, but I was never that lucky. Probably because in order to break a bone, you had to be remotely athletic and perform potentially risky acts that could result in bone breakage. About the most dangerous injury I was ever likely to sustain was a severe paper cut, or perhaps a pinched finger from getting it caught in the hinge of my Barbie carrying case.

I tried a lot of different things, but the one that probably worked the best over the years was simply going to the bathroom, and never going back to the field. That probably wouldn’t fly these days—the schools are much more vigilant about things like where kids are, and visitors to the school buildings and such. But thirty years ago it was no problem. The trick was, I had to pretend enthusiasm up to the point where I allegedly needed to use the restroom. That was kind of challenging for me, since it wasn’t exactly a secret that I hated gym class and anything that resembled it even slightly.

Our school colors were blue and white, and when you enrolled, you were assigned a color, which was your “team” for the rest of your school career. On Field Day, success in events was rewarded with “points” for your team. The team with the most points at the end of the day was the winner. There was a lot of screaming about “GO BLUE!” and “GO WHITE!” Really, I always thought, who gives a shit? We’re not running for Congress here. It’s not like “winning” gets you anything tangible or important. In fact, about the only thing I can think of that you “got” was that if your team won, you got to say “Ha ha! We won at Field Day!” to anyone on the losing team for the next ten days until school was out for the summer, and everyone forgot about the whole thing until the next year on Field Day. But in order to make it seem like I cared, so I could be struck with such an unfortunate need to go to the restroom about 45 minutes into the whole stupid thing, I had to participate in the inane and pointless screaming. (I was a Blue, for the record.)

My memory of all this nonsense ends by about tenth grade. I don’t know if they didn’t force the older kids to participate, or if I managed to convince my mother to just let me stay home “sick” on Field Day day. Given how much my mother also hated physical exertion, I’ve always been a bit surprised by the memory I have of her urging me to give it a go. I suspect she didn’t feel like she could let a ten year old stay home by herself all day while she and my dad were at work. I know she sympathized with my distaste for all things athletic, especially since her genes were probably where I got it.

I’m grateful that as an adult, the few times I’ve been exposed to something that had a hint of a “corporate Field Day,” it’s always been completely optional. Unlike in elementary school, there’s no shame in saying, “Yeah, not my thing,” or, “You know, I don’t do team sports,” or, “I’d rather perform my own hysterectomy with a rusty corkscrew” (depending on your level of enthusiasm, or lack thereof). Also, when you do team building activities in a corporate setting, there’s almost always alcohol provided. Having to yell, “GO BLUE!” with a glass of wine in my hand is way more tolerable than it was when I was fourteen and empty handed. Also I can walk away whenever I want and drive home and no one can stop me. It’s not always obvious, but there are some really kick ass things about being an adult. Not having to participate in Field Day may be at least two of them.

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