The other day a stunning, bright-eyed 14-year-old walked into my house and asked if I knew anything about Freedom Writers. The movie with Hilary Swank? – Yes. – Well in that case isn’t it about overcoming racism and its social determinism? – Umm, something like that. – Why? – We watched it in gym class today because it was going to rain….

For background information, there had been a chance of showers forecast, however, the day had been sunny and clear since dawn. This had happened three times already. Now, Freedom Writers is a perfectly understandable choice for a high school teacher looking for something to show the class. Especially given this girl’s gym teacher – whom I know to be the Civics teacher and involved heavily in the guidance program. What I don’t understand is why she kept her students inside on a beautiful day during their gym class to watch a movie. This cinematic viewing also took place in the school’s fitness room, equipped with dumbbells, medicine balls, skipping ropes, exercise bikes, treadmills, steps, yoga mats, etc.

So my request is this: Please, educators, bear in mind that “physical education” is so named for a reason. It is not to be neglected simply because it isn’t a “core” class like mathematics or English. Although, I would have to say I took more from my gym classes than any course in mathematics that has stayed with me through the years.

As important as it is to socialize students, instructing them on diversity and tolerance – respect for others – it is at least as important to teach students respect for their selves. In this case, their physical selves. Grade nine is the last guaranteed opportunity for most people to get even a modicum of the physical exercise the human body requires for peak efficiency and health. It is for many the last chance to teach teenagers how to enjoy and benefit from physical exercise in an increasingly sedentary culture. Exposure is the key – just like when it comes to the “diversity issue.”

It is not enough to fulfill a nutrition and sexual education unit (though both are important) and watch movies the rest of the year. Teenagers need to build a relationship with their working, moving body, to express themselves through measured movement – even if it is playing touch-football. Especially with issues of body image and obesity/lack of fitness rampant these days. It is an opportunity for kids in the class to become intimately familiar with their bodily movement, to feel comfortable with its limits and strengths. Students need a chance to learn how to care for, use, and enjoy living in their own body.

It doesn’t have to be a boot-camp either. I’m asking for physical educators, not staff-sergeants out of a John Hughes cliche. The school system is designed as a socializer. Well, sportsmanship seems to have fallen by the wayside. Video games don’t carry the same real-world consequences [risks] so who cares about a dirty trick? Do that in real life and you end up with blood on your hands or a gang at your throat. Read Cocteau, games are microcosms of life, smaller scale models of the real thing – like laboratory tests. Or how about the blend of competition and ambivalence for anyone who’s enjoyed casual sport? I am no athlete, but I know that trying to win is what electrifies the game environment and being at peace with whatever the final outcome may be is what allows me to enjoy the experience. It’s not only social rules the mustachioed, whistle-blowing, cargo-shorted, fanatic is in charge of teaching your children, it is general life-philosophy. The desire to succeed combined with how to be relaxed enough to allow oneself to actually succeed after the slightest hiccup.

Gym class is often overlooked. Many schools lack legitimate “gym teachers” until high school – especially for female students who often don’t even get those in high school but rather civics teachers who cut out units based on their own preference. Exposure once again. This 14-year-old girl complained in the same conversation about how her teacher refused to do a field-hockey unit. Knowing this teacher, I suppose their might be a resistance to latent sexism in the sport in her decision in addition to simply not liking it. Or she’s just close-minded and lazy when it comes to other people’s interests, regardless of sex, race, or creed. I only mention this because for this girl, field-hockey is the only sport she legitimately enjoys. How can you justify turning off a person’s only avenue into that bodily expression, into maintaining their physical health simply because you, the teacher (who doesn’t actively participate in the sports anyhow), don’t particularly like it or hold a poor opinion of it?

It is not radical science or new-age philosophy to say the mind and body are intrinsically linked. To starve one is to starve the other. Psycho-somatic phenomena affect physical health in very real terms. The street is a two-way thoroughfare (think of the release of endorphins and other bio-chemical/neural responses evoked by physical activity). If the body suffers, if it decays, so will the mind be afflicted. How much longer can we afford to ignore the mental and physical health of students at such a critical, formative period of their lives?