Getting to Know Cheryl
In 1975, when I was in Grade 10 at City Park High School, physical education was a compulsory subject. Once you completed grade 10 Physical Education you could take sports as an elective for grades 11 and 12, as if that were some kind of reward for 10 years of hell. I can’t find the words to let you understand the depth of dislike I had for these three hours per week – 2nd period each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The high school was one of the smallest in the city and as a result the girls who were good at sports and on the intramural teams, were in my class.
There were about 13 of us in the class and you can do the math to figure out the ratio of athlete vs. non-athlete. As a practical approach to developing the team, each class became a team practice – and depending upon the season that would be volleyball drills, basketball drills or, the worst, baseball. Everything was superseded by the holy grail of competitive sports in my school, track and field. Yes, if you are wondering, there was an extra curricular football team. Competitive team sports became the default curriculum with the odd exception for ballroom dance for one week and archery one other time.
From mid April until track and field day in the 2nd week of June, classes were spent doing laps in the gym. Around the floor and up the stairs into the bleachers and down and around and up and down in timed laps. Horribly dreary and hated by me.
In case you haven’t ventured a guess, I lack athletic talent. On team sports I was a liability. I knew it and so did everyone else. Not only was I clumsy and uncoordinated, I had been a sick kid for most of my life and could only do some sports if I learned to pace myself so that I could keep breathing.
Asthma was my shadow, and back then, inhalers weren’t around and so, you learned. You learned to listen to your body, to your breath, to your heart, and gauge how quickly to move, in order to survive. I was skinny and long legged for my height and so it was assumed that I was a natural in track. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Each class began in the very clean and organized gym that was filled with stale air – the air circulation in that old school was limited to windows that opened – and the heat was usually a little too high for my comfort.
We used a common locker room to change into our gym uniforms in the school colours. In the school paper, The City Park Times, those school colours were described as gold and burgundy. But in reality, it was more like faded mustard yellow t-shirts and short reddish shorts with yellow piping around the legs and pockets. Socks were regulation white as were the running shoes. And in those days, running shoes made of canvas with flat rubber soles.
Regardless, the uniform was embarrassing. It didn’t even look good on the girls who were shapely with feminine curves developing. The shorts felt too short and the T-shirt was too depressing to think about.
The real-life drill began when the bell ending the first period rang. The goal at the sound of that bell was to get to the gym and into the locker room as fast and you could. You needed to get changed and out onto the gym floor before the bell for the start of the second period rang.
If you were the last one out of the locker room, you received a penalty which was usually extra laps before you could hit the showers, or worse, climbing the knotted rope that scraped your palms and scratched your legs as you tried to climb up to the ceiling, as everyone watched, and waited, for you to finish. For jocks like me, that mad dash into the locker room could be mistaken for eagerness, but it was just part of the strategy to avoid being last.
And so, in 1975 from the beginning of April until that second Thursday in June, all we did were drills and laps. There were minor attempts at the ever-challenging high jump and long jump, or the hop, skip and jump as it was called back then. A brief shot at practising hurdles that caused more injuries than I care to remember, but the focus was running.
Having no choice, and bowing to the inevitable, I ran as part of an awkward herd. First, there was the group who were fast and liked running. They liked to compete, and each wanted to win. Then, came the second group – those that tried really hard to be that first group but never quite made it, and finally, well, there was me and two others. We brought up the rear and didn’t care. After all, run slow enough and it will feel like you are in first place at some point during the race.
On that June morning, we boarded school buses in freshly washed uniforms, and were taken to the track and field site. It was a hot and humid day with low bluish clouds starting to form on the horizon, and the sun was hot, even in the early morning.
The day began, and for those not competing as part of the track team, the day slowly passed as we sat and watched, or helped at registration, moved chairs and whatever other tasks needed to be done. Finally, though, the last two events of the day were left. The 5280-foot run for the girls and for the boys. This was compulsory. One very long mile. I guess it was felt that running didn’t really require any extra skill and so all students would compete and enjoy the pleasure of participating.
The temperature in the arena had been getting hotter as the day progressed. Those clouds, once distant, were now rolling in with thunder and the odd explosive shock of lightning. This thunderstorm made the arena even hotter. I didn’t know it then, but running a hot mile was going to be difficult for all my sprinter classmates.
The girls raced first. We got in line, found our places (mine was near the middle closer to the back) and as the starter gun was fired, the race in all its glory and excitement began. I knew this horror would end in a few minutes, and all I had to do was finish.
I had no interest in competing and so I just ran. Not gracefully or even rhythmically, but rather dutifully. Head down, one foot down and then the other. Breathe. Glance around. Keep going. Breathe.
As the race continued and hit the halfway mark, I still felt pretty good and noticed that the sprinters were starting to fade. Bit by bit I slowly realized that I was passing these runners. And as I passed there were looks of surprise, but I just kept moving with my own surprise showing on my face.
It was hotter and the thunder echoed in the arena. I wanted to be done and then I noticed that there were just a couple of hundred feet left. So, it occurred to me, quite suddenly, that perhaps – just maybe – I could run a little faster and move up the pack. And get this over with.
I had lots of energy because, thanks to my asthma, I had learned how to pace myself. As a result, I wasn’t winded and felt good. So – I went for it. I ran faster (not better, just faster). I would pick out a runner ahead of me to pass and did.
As the race reached the end, I found myself finishing in second, just a couple of footsteps ahead of third. Not knowing what to do, I ran behind the winner halfway around the track to cool down. And then walked back to the start line where everyone seemed to be waiting for the ribbons.
Yes. I got a ribbon and not just a ribbon for being there, but for actually placing.
I was so surprised, and I heard that first faint whisper telling me I had more within me than I knew. It was like discovering a secret spring of power, of strength, of something not yet known, that I had been unaware of.
That strength would grow over the next few decades as I learned you don’t have to be part of the crowd, you need to find your own pace, and no matter what, you have the ability to survive almost anything.
Sports and I fell into a sporadic relationship over the years as I discovered that I liked tennis. I joined cycling groups to travel distance and learnt that buffaloes will charge at a cyclist. I walked for miles with a backpack, and skied with more time spent laughing, rather than skiing, as my awkwardness worked against gravity. I also skated for years on a frozen lake on the edge of town.
Those nights were the best. Crispy cold, indigo skies, stars and the blue-whiteness of the snow – the slow scratch of the blade against the ice.
Just me. Breathing.
“Smile.” he said quietly in an indifferent tone.
I looked at him moving my lips into another grin. “That’s not it. I said smile.” he repeated from behind the camera. I sucked in my breath, tried to relax, and tried – again.
It was supposed to have been a good day.
I’d taken the afternoon off from my ‘day job.’ And because I was starting a side gig as a life coach, I’d followed the advice of others. I’d joined a women’s networking group. One of the perks was having a professional headshot taken by a local photographer. The directory the photo would be included in, was going to print in a couple of days.
So, there I was. Standing in the studio – just fifteen minutes into it. Just dying to get it over with.
The photographer was impatient. His irritation was obvious. I could feel the tears start to prick at the back of my eyes.
But, I followed directions the best I could: straightened my back, tilted my chin, moved my shoulder, and smiled at the camera again. He sighed, took the shot and shook his head.
“Look, you say you’re a life coach.” He started talking. “Well, you’d better look happier about it, for God’s sake.” He adjusted the camera and kept talking without glancing at me. “So, who’d want to talk to you if you’re looking like this. Come on.”
I felt like hitting him. I guess the look on my face at that moment didn’t help the process.
He repeated the directions and I went through the motions: stand, tilt, look. Smile again. And, he sighed again. The camera clicked in rapid-fire.
He stared at the images on the back of his camera for a few seconds. “Alright,” he finally said, “it’ll have to do.”
I escaped as fast as I could. I got to my car and sat in it, rolling the window down. This day wasn’t supposed to have been like this.
It was a September afternoon. It was actually a beautiful day. The sky was an amazing deep blue with a handful of cotton-ball clouds, the leaves were turning golden, the sun was warm. It was a day when my goofy dogs, Angel and Ripley, would normally be having a great time outside.
And, my beautiful and gentle white labrador retriever, Angel, was living with cancer. She’d been a rescue dog and I’d had her for fourteen years.
Before the photo shoot, I’d gone home to let the dogs out. There was a stillness in the house when I opened the door. I called while walking into the sunny living room. Angel was lying on the floor, by the loveseat (her favorite place) hemorrhaging, badly. Ripley, my black labrador, was sitting ever so still beside her.
I grabbed Angel’s well-worn flannel blanket off the loveseat wrapping her in it. She’d lost so much weight with the illness. She was so fragile. I carried her as gently as possible to the car and rushed to the vet. Thankfully, traffic was light and lights were green.The the usual fifteen minute drive took about seven minutes.
While the vet was with Angel, I stepped out to call my mom asking her check on Ripley. I wasn’t even sure if I’d shut the back door properly.
Then, the vet was talking to me and I was signing papers, trying not to cry. Trying to be an adult when I felt like a little kid. And, I went to my dog, to stroke her head and slowly rub her ears as she was euthanized. Time stopped and sped up at the same time. Then, it was over. She was gone, peacefully.
Then, I remembered the photo shoot. I’d completely forgotten about it.
Feeling awful and wanting to bawl my eyes out, I’d left the vet’s clinic and had driven (raced) over to make my appointment on time. Walking into the studio, I’d tried to brush the dog hair off my navy jacket. Then, glancing down again, I noticed blood stains on my white cotton shirt. I did my jacket up to hide the stains. I noticed my hands were shaking. I’d said hello to the receptionist and the shoot began.
And now, it was over. I was incredibly angry with the photographer. His attitude and the lecture about how I ‘should’ be had hurt. It wasn’t fair. “Who the hell did he think he was?” I said to myself. “He had no idea about my day…”
And that’s when it hit me. It was obvious. The photographer knew nothing about me; I knew nothing about him. I was another anonymous client in his schedule. I was his 1:15. He had no idea of what had happened just minutes before at the vet’s.
But, maybe his day was as painful as mine, and maybe he was doing the best he could in that moment. Maybe he wanted his day over, too. Just like me.
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