Yesterday I saw a short man with black glasses and thick, Coke bottle-type lenses walking down the street. A chill ran up my spine, because he looked like Mr. Pappano.
I’m not sure that is how his name was spelled, but Mr. Pappano was the first gym teacher I remember having. There wasn’t gym in kindergarten, or first grade — just class, lunch, and recess. But by fourth grade the school authorities decided we needed some kind of organized, healthy physical activity, supervised by an interested adult teacher.
Mr. Pappano fit the bill. He was a small, swarthy guy who always wore a gray t-shirt and whistle and apparently felt that tumbling was a crucial part of child development. It was as if the kids in our class were being groomed for slots in a circus act . . . or maybe the school had spent a lot on tumbling mats and decided they had to get their money’s worth. In any case, we’d troop into the gym, see the dirty gray mats on the hardwood floor — and I would groan, because I was the worst tumbler in school.
You started with the “log roll,” where you would lie on your side and then roll forward. That, I could do. In fact, I may have been the best log roller in the continental United States. But once I was asked to move to more advanced forms of tumbling — like the head-over heels forward roll, somersaults, handstands, round-offs — I sucked. I was a fat, unathletic kid whose center of gravity just seemed to be in the wrong place, and I was perpetually unable to do what other kids seemingly could do with ease.
This made Mr. Pappano mad. In fact, it infuriated him. He would blow his shrill whistle, his eyes would bulge behind those magnifying glass lenses, his neck muscles would stand out, and spittle would fly from his red face as he berated me for not even trying. Then he would proudly do the tumbling maneuver himself, to show me how easy it was. Of course, I was aware that others could do it, so watching a fully grown adult who may have been genetically bred for tumbling wasn’t exactly the most successful teaching method. Instead, Mr. Pappano’s deft motivational techniques just made me associate gym class with personal humiliation and hate it all the more. The first blast of his whistle provoked a Pavlovian retreat to my personal happy place until gym class was blessedly over.
I hadn’t thought of Mr. Pappano in years, and I kind of wish it had stayed that way. We’ve all got those embarrassing memories looked deep in our subconscious, ready to somersault out, unbidden, at the sight of a stranger.