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Faking Cartwheels


My elementary school gym teacher committed suicide. Mr. Hill jumped out the window of the Brainerd Hospital while he was supposedly being fixed for drinking too much. At least that's the way Mary Anderson's mom explained it to us. We didn't really know he was an alcoholic though we suspected something was wrong with him.

"Holtan!" he bellowed at me one time. "How many push-ups can you do?" He never remembered my first name and the only reason he remembered my last was because my older and more athletically memorable brother Keith had been in his class. "Twenty?" I guessed, and hoped was true. "Ridiculous!" He blew his shrill whistle just in case somebody in the class wasn't already staring at me. "A strong girl like you? I command you to do 50. Now!" I pumped up and down until the shouting numbers stopped and Mr. Hill said, "See? I was right. Expect more of yourself Miss Holtan."

On the days when Mr. Hill's face was particularly red and he wore his shaded glasses, he took attendance, grumbled about our crooked squads and went back to his office for the rest of class. Those of us who were conscientious grabbed jumpropes or basketballs while the cool kids like Jon Brauer would screw around.

But by far the scariest thing about Mr. Hill was when he was being nice to us. He snuck up from behind and poked his stubby fingers into our ribs until it seemed like he'd actually punctured our skin. His nearly evil laughter accompanied by the noxious fumes of his hot liquory breath gave me the willies. We shrieked from his inappropriate jabs, but more out of fear and pain than laughter. One time Rachel Ferdig got so scared she peed her pants.

I don't remember the day Mr. Hill died, but I do remember the day of his funeral because we had substitute teachers in the whole school.

The day after his funeral we planted a tree for him and the day after that we got a new gym teacher.

On Mr. Hansen's first day he let us know straight out what would be required of us. " I know you kids have been through a lot but that doesn't mean I'm going to let you off easy. I expect you to work hard, stay motivated and SMILE!" A big phony grin accompanied his shouting of the word smile. Mr. Hansen was fresh out of college, wore those gym teacher shorts with the thick waistbands and gave us all nicknames.

Mine was "Brick" because of my lack of ability to shoot anywhere near the basketball hoop. He smelled like soap and much too liberally applied deodorant. While I can't say that gym class improved that much, it became less like an orphanage from the Little Rascals and more like summer camp that you were getting sick of.

Not that there weren't still moments of pure torture. I developed a tolerance to the team sports like kickball and dodgeball with the red rubber balls slamming into my face so hard it felt like the ball stayed there until I got home. But no amount of youthful exuberance by our hunky new gym teacher could stave off my extreme fear of the unit on gymnastics.

Because the thing is, I couldn't do a cartwheel.

Still can't.

It isn't quite as big of a deal now, but in the fifth grade, cartwheels, and my utter failure to do them never left my mind. Even Ursula Spribbile, the uncoordinated German girl who wore lederhosen for class pictures, could do them.

So strong was my desire to fit in and tumble correctly that I asked my brother, the Brainerd High School homecoming king, for help. This is the same brother who drew tattoos on my dolls and forced me to write down the lyrics to Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl" so that he'd look cool. He probably wasn't my best choice, but I was desperate.

Keith and I pulled out his sleeping bag with the geese and the hunting dogs as an impromptu gymnastics mat and I demonstrated my troubles. "Push yourself over!" he shouted at me.

"I am. I can't" I said in defense.

"C'mon!! It's not that different from doing a somersault except it's on the side and you have to throw your legs over your head. All you're doing is putting your hands down and kinda running around to the other side."

I kept trying and Keith would lift my legs and it would sort of work but not really and finally he just got fed up and said, "Goober!" Needless to say, his coaching didn't help.

The next day in Mr. Hansen's class I stood in line not breathing and not blinking. "Scribbler! You're up! Let's see those braids fly!" and Ursula effortlessly and a bit egotistically I thought, performed her cartwheel.

"Brick! Are you going to choke on us again today?" After his ringing words of encouragement, I ran down the length of the red white and blue mat with a charisma I didn't really possess. Before I had time to think I faked a cartwheel with what I felt was a pretty spectacular somersault, with Olympically outstretched arms and the required smile.

I basked in the momentary laughter I'd earned until I turned around and saw the clock behind the wire cage that reminded me that I had 50 minutes of faking cartwheels left.