When I first came to the US for college, I was perplexed by the physical education requirement: we had no such thing in Bangladesh. The only people who play sports in Bangladesh are professional athletes, and the only people who exercise are diabetics on doctor's orders. When I had to briefly do sports in ninth and tenth grade, I joined the chess club. Hey, that's a sport, right? Besides, I got to stay indoors in the air-conditioning, rather than running around in the heat and dust only to end up sweaty and sore. Most importantly, my appalling lack of physical dexterity was not on public display. Eleventh and twelfth grade were blissfully free from P.E., so after tenth grade, I thought I had escaped it for good.
Until I got to Wellesley College and learned that I have to do four quarters (equivalent to one academic year) of physical education, whether by taking classes in the sports center, or via intramural or club sports. It was a requirement for graduation—if you don't complete the P.E. requirement, you can't graduate, and that was that.
Naturally, I put it off as long as possible. It was around my third year that I finally decided to investigate the sport center's catalogue of sports and exercise classes. Cardio or fitness classes? Too much sweat. Tennis? Too much running. Swimming? Splashing around in the water sounded nice, but it would require wearing a bathing suit. Martial arts? Too hard. Dance classes? Hell, no!
And then I discovered my salvation—Archery! Now here was a civilized sport! No running around, no sweating, no unnecessary embarrassment from being ungainly and uncoordinated. And what a graceful thing, too—at least in the movies, where an eagle-eyed archer would focus intently on his target, draw the arrow with practiced ease, and release it to go whizzing through the air and thwack into a tree trunk, startling the bad guys and instilling fear. It made me think of Robin Hood and Sherwood forest, of archers shooting arrows from the ramparts and battlements of medieval castles. Archery has a kind of dignity and grace that sword fights don't, and gunfights certainly don't.
My archery class ended up being quite disappointing. It's true that this was a sport I could practice standing in one place, but drawing the arrow and bowstring with my right hand while keeping the bow steady in my left was much harder than I thought. It looks easy in the movies, but the string is incredibly taut, so pulling it backwards—while keeping the bow steady—is quite strenuous on the arms and shoulder blades. And my arrows, like most of my endeavors, invariably missed the mark and fell impotently on the grass on either side of the target. I did, however, get better acquainted with the physiology of my arms and shoulders, since my achy muscles would resentfully impose themselves on my consciousness for the rest of the day. In any case, I got through six weeks of archery and earned one quarter worth of P.E. credit towards graduation. One quarter down, three more to go.
I put P.E. on the back burner until I got to my fourth year, at which point I would have to do it, or else I wouldn't graduate. I pored over the sports center's offerings once more. This time, the class that caught my eye was Sailing. One of my favorite things about the Wellesley campus is its gorgeous lake, about 2.3 miles in circumference, and requiring about 45 minutes to walk all the way around. Students and townspeople alike walk or jog around it for pleasure, for exercise, or to walk their dogs. Legend has it that if a girl walks around the lake three times with her beau, either he will propose, or she can throw him into the lake. I never had the occasion to test the truth of that legend, but I did sit by the lake and walk around it many times in my four years there. The sailing class sounded like an excellent way to enjoy even more of the lake—actually being on the lake, rather than just walking around it or sitting by the shore.
There was one problem, however. Since sailing involved being on the lake, anyone taking the class would first have to pass a swim test. Even though we would be wearing life jackets, reasonable precaution (not to mention liability issues) meant that the sports center was not going to allow anyone to go out on one of their boats unless they knew how to swim. Did I know how to swim? Well, sort of. I had learned when I was 5 or 6 years old. Fifteen years had passed since then. Don't they say that swimming, like riding a bike, is something you don't forget? My friend Erin, a member of the Wellesley swimming and diving team, agreed to give me some lessons.
But there was one more problem. Having been raised on South Asian modesty mixed in with the mother's milk means that I really wasn't comfortable wearing a bathing suit. Even the most modest one-piece swimsuits worn by grannies still reveal too much. But I wanted to go sailing on the lake! So I somehow cajoled the lifeguard on duty into allowing me to use the pool fully clothed, with some nonsensical plea about cultural sensitivity, even though this wasn't normally allowed.
How outlandish I must have looked sloshing around the pool in a T-shirt and track pants, and how many curious or bewildered glances I must have attracted from other swimmers, I will leave to the reader's imagination. My friend Erin was totally patient and nonjudgmental about the proceedings, and the lifeguard only occasionally cast a confounded glance. In any case, my unprecedented pursuits paid off, and I obtained a little blue card certifying that I had passed the swim test, and could now engage in water sports on the lake. Hurrah!
A few days later, I proudly showed up to the first session of the sailing class. The first class was held indoors to cover the basic terms and concepts, safety rules and regulations, and how to tie various kinds of knots. It was in the second session that we would actually set sail. There were probably twenty of us, paired up so that each sailboat would be maneuvered by two people. Like a brood of eager ducklings, we trooped down to the pier to where the boats were moored. It was a gorgeous day, the surface of the lake resplendent with the late morning sun. I was so eager to be on the water that I was the first to step into one of the boats. The instructor had already covered how to embark and disembark safely, so I knew what to do. I swung my right leg over the edge of the boat and planted it firmly inside, then shifted my weight onto my right leg so that I could take my left leg off the pier. Except that putting my weight on one side of the boat meant it instantly tipped and I fell ignominiously into the lake. Did I mention I have two left feet?
The lake was relatively shallow there since we were close to the shore, so I wasn't in danger of drowning, and in any case we were all wearing life jackets. I clambered back onto the pier with my clothes dripping wet, acutely aware of twenty astonished pairs of eyes focused on me. I excused myself from the class, and took the path back to my dorm, my sneakers squelching loudly with each step, hoping other students passing by wouldn't wonder why I was completely drenched from head to toe. Needless to say, after squelching back to my dorm, I never went back to that class. I dropped out—or should I say washed out?
So the first quarter of my fourth year passed by, leaving only three quarters, which meant I would have to spend the rest of the academic year fulfilling my remaining three quarters worth of physical education.
I have no idea what possessed me to sign up for African Dance. Perhaps it was the drumming that drew me in. I had been playing drums with Yanvalou, an Afro-Haitian drum and dance ensemble, since my first year, and I loved drumming. Occasionally, the drummers would try dancing just for fun; invariably, they tried to get me to try a few steps, but I was mulish in my refusal to make a fool of myself. So I still have no idea what possessed me to sign up for African Dance, even though I had two left feet and was extremely averse to making a spectacle of my clumsiness.
Even worse, African dance lacks the prudishness of either the west or the east, and involves, shall we say, a lot of hips. As in, it accentuates the hips, pelvis, and buttocks. As in, the basic posture is to squat down so your posterior sticks out in the air, and you have to be ready to swing and shake like crazy. I couldn't help noticing that our African instructor's body was totally built for this, but my white classmates with their dainty derrières were definitely not cut out for this. South Asians, I suppose, are somewhat better endowed in that department, but are saddled with inhibitions against anything remotely suggestive or vulgar. Not that African dance is vulgar, exactly. One can easily imagine the roots of such dancing in ancient fertility rituals, for instance, which is true also of belly-dancing in the middle east. Prudery was our unfortunate inheritance from the scriptural faiths, and in that sense, the untamed and uninhibited nature of African dance is admirable.
So yes, reader, I did it. Except that a couple of friends from Yanvalou got wind of it, and showed up outside the dance studio on the second day. They couldn't believe that I would actually do it, so they showed up to see for themselves. Some friendly teasing followed, but I was mortified and decided that was the end of that.
Unfortunately, I couldn't cop out of the class because I was down to the wire and needed the P.E. credit to graduate. So I found another way. There was an African drummer, Senegalese I think, playing the djembe for the class. He also had a bass drum, but the djembe requires both hands, so he wasn't really using the bass. Hey, I was a drummer—maybe I could be of use! So by the next class, I had befriended him, and the poor lonesome drummer was very happy to have a sidekick to accompany him and play the bass. Nobody seemed to mind, so I played the bass drum for the rest of the quarter—and still got P.E. credit since no one came to check, and the African dance teacher didn't really care. Phew! Two quarters down, two more to go.
At this point, I'm in my last semester at Wellesley, and I really need to finish up my remaining two quarters. Despite my sailing misadventure, I was still enamored by the lake. As it turns out, a fresher named Jenny had joined Yanvalou as a dancer, and she was recruiting rowers for dorm crew. She and I lived in the same dorm, and each dorm had a crew team that would train for a semester, and then have a race at the end—a friendly intramural pursuit which would cover my two remaining quarters of P.E. Jenny was the coxswain for my dorm—i.e. she was like our captain and coach. She was petite, but more chirpy and spirited than anyone else I knew, exactly the kind of person who can both motivate people but also be tough when necessary. And since she was basically a friend from Yanvalou, I figured she would cut me some slack—or maybe she'd be a drill sergeant and help me stay on track and get the P.E. credit I needed. Either way, it seemed like a good idea. Besides, the idea of being on the lake was incentive enough.
Now, dorm crew practice took place twice a week at 6 a.m. Why this ungodly hour? Because the real athletes, the varsity athletes, needed the lake for their own practice sessions after that. So my chirpy coxswain Jenny would call me at 5:45a.m. and drag me out of bed: “Nausheen! Wake up! It's time for practice! Let's go!” Jenny knew that I needed the P.E. credit, and if I overslept and missed too many practice sessions, I wouldn't be able to graduate. Bless her chirpy little heart, she would make sure I got up, and walk me to the boathouse like a dog on a leash.
Crew was a very different beast from anything I had ever tried before. The long and sleek wooden crew shells gleaming on the water were a beauty to behold. Each one seated eight rowers, with the coxswain perched at the stern. The wooden seats roll back and forth with the rowers while their feet remain strapped in place at the footrests. As you grip the handle of the oar and lean forward, the seat moves forward with you, and the oar pivots on the outrigger and moves backward through the air to the starting point of its stroke. Then as you pull the handle towards yourself and roll backwards, pushing away from the footrest with your legs, the oar slices into the water and makes its sweep. All of this has to be perfectly synchronized. Being out of sync with the others means that you might find yourself being helplessly tossed back and forth by the rhythmic momentum of the team. Also, being out of sync means that you might be sliding backwards while the person behind you is rolling forward—which means suddenly somebody's oar is stabbing you in the back. Trust me, I learned the hard way—the hard wooden oar handle way.
Once I got the hang of the mechanics, though, rowing was actually quite wonderful. The seats were low enough that I could easily reach out and dip my hand in the cool water. I was close enough to the water to see the reeds and algae swaying their willowy yellow-green-brown fronds just below the surface—a mysterious underwater world. The sun would just be rising over the trees, and the mist rising off the lake in the dawn light had a prelapsarian majesty. One imagines this is how morning might have looked in Eden. Despite the difficulty of waking at 5:45 a.m., once I was actually on the lake and mesmerized by the water, it was totally worth it. And since we were amateurs, most of the time we rowed at a moderate pace and I didn't get oar-stabbed too hard or too often.
And so my last semester of P.E. passed blissfully by. But dorm crew still involved a race at the end, with the different dorms competing. By this time it was spring, the thick woods surrounding the lake verdant with fresh growth. What could possibly go wrong?
On the day of the race, positioning four crew shells roughly equidistant from each other at the imaginary starting line turned out to be quite a feat. As soon as one was in the right place, the wind and water would conspire to move the others out of place. Eventually we were all lined up. The judge blew the whistle and four shiny crew shells began to slice through the water at the highest speed we could muster—higher than I was used to during our more relaxed practice sessions. It was my worst day of rowing. I couldn't keep up or stay in rhythm with the others, which meant I got thrown back and forth like a rag doll, and endured some backstabbing in the process.
What's worse, though, is that it's impossible to steer a straight course when the wind and water have a mind of their own. Within a minute or so, we had veered off course—while going at top speed. There was another team to our right, also rowing at top speed. In a horrible cacophony of animate and inanimate sounds, we crashed into the crew shell on our right. Strictly speaking, it wasn't the shells that crashed, but the eight-feet long oars—ours and theirs—which got tangled into each other. My oar almost ended up swatting someone in the stomach. Someone else's oar broke with a sharp crack, and others struck each other like swords. We crashed into them, and they in turn crashed into the shore—or rather, into an overhang of trees with branches dipping down towards the water. The whole episode transpired in less than two minutes. There were screams and tears and bruises, and I was traumatized. Honestly, this is why I hate competitive sport. Rowing for fun was fine; why on earth did we need to race? What if there were fractures or concussions? And right before finals, too? Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt, but it was a cataclysmic end to my athletic career.
These days, on the Boston University campus by the beautiful Charles River, I enjoy watching crew shells streaking by, and sailboats with the wind filling up their sails, and a few indolent kayaks sauntering by. Graduate school is so much more civilized, preferring to exercise brain over brawn. I'll take poetry over P.E. anytime.
Nausheen Eusuf is a PhD candidate in English at Boston University. Her first collection of poems, Not Elegy, But Eros, was published by NYQ Books (US) and Bengal Lights Books (Bangladesh).