In high school, one term of gym was devoted to swimming. We began the class by changing into shorts and sneakers for attendance on the basketball court, then returned to the locker room to undress. A teacher, who awaited us, turned on the water in the shower room and directed us there. He handed out soap and told us how to wash ourselves. At the end of the shower, he passed out the towels and told us how to dry ourselves. Then we went back to the locker room to dress for the next class. No swimming.
I mean no swimming for the entire term. Each day we showered but never once entered the pool. Actually, there was good reason for this. Stuyvesant High School didn’t have a pool. It never had one.
Why then did we take swimming when all we did was shower? The best I could make out is that the Board of Education mandated swimming classes for all city high schools. This was an estimable idea, I’m sure, but it would have been even better if a pool had been provided. But no matter. In one of the country’s academically elite public high schools, thousands of boys received instructions on washing and drying because this was as close as we could get to the swimming requirement.
Did the school realize the absurdity of the situation? While none o f us students thought it was anything but stupid, the shower teacher seemed serious, if not grim. We went through the motions but he appeared to think it was important.
I sometimes wonder why we participate in activities that are patently ridiculous. Perhaps it is, to paraphrase the poet Irving Feldman, that we cannot see our own irrelevancies.
To step back once in a while and examine our own actions can be a useful thing. We may be able to get a good laugh even at ourselves.