I was never much of an athlete as a child. I was well coordinated, and certainly strong enough, but spending hours practicing a sport was not of much interest to me. My grammar school experience didn’t help; in fact, gym class with Mr. D discouraged it further.
Mr. D, short for Mr. Emilio Dibramo, was the only boys’ gym teacher at Quaker Ridge Elementary School, what kids today call P.E. Quaker Ridge was a small school, and each grade had about 150 kids in it. We had gym class every day. When the weather was poor we’d spend time inside, climbing ropes, running laps, shooting baskets, and using gymnastics equipment like “the horse.” When the weather was good we’d meet briefly in the gym, and then head outside to play baseball and soccer on the school’s fields.
As is true for most people, some kids were much better athletes than others. The “stars” in gym class attracted a lot of positive attention from the other boys, but particularly from Mr. D, who would use the talented athletes to demonstrate the right way to do things to the rest of the class. And because he was a nasty son-of-a-bitch, Mr. D would shame poor athletes to “teach a lesson” to us boys. Unfortunately for me, he placed me in the poor athlete category.
The first activity in gym class was to silently line up at attention in alphabetical order, a sort of post-WW2 military approach that imposed order on unruly boys. At that point, Mr. D would do “inspection,” yet another derivative of military discipline, and he’d assume the role of drill instructor. If you’ve seen Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket, you know how harshly drill instructors behave. Mr. D always started at the beginning of the alphabet, and since my last name begins with a “B” I was almost always an object of his attention.
Inspection consisted of making examples of those boys who did not have a proper gym uniform: shorts, t-shirt and sneakers. These uniforms were kept in lockers in the boys’ locker room. There were times in which I’d worn my sneakers home from school and left my shoes in the locker. And mysteriously, my shorts and shirt would sometimes disappear. In any event, Mr. D would go down the line three or four and call me out if my uniform was wrong. “Step forward, fatty,” he’d shout, so as to embellish my moment of humiliation. “Three laps around the gym,” he’d bark, as my punishment. Satisfied, his inspection was then over.
When it came to playing baseball, Mr. D divided the gym class into two teams, A-team and B-team. A-teams included all the good athletes and B-teams everyone else. I, of course, was on a B-team, which guaranteed lousy games during which I learned nothing. I grew up thinking, “I stink at playing ball.”
Then about fifteen years ago, while on a walk with my friend Stanley Cohen, I found a baseball lying in the gutter. Stanley was an A-team player; he bought me a cheap mitt and we began to play catch. Stanley’s left town, but I’ve been playing catch regularly ever since, gaining the practice I never had as a kid. I can now catch and throw a hardball along with the best of them, A-team quality. Take that, Mr. D!