The mile time.

It’s fitness’s other “What can you bench?” A totally singular measure of physical fitness that we, for some reason, wear like a badge of honor. When I lifted weights, people asked that one question.

“What can you bench?”

I’d tell them it was irrelevant because I worked on total body physique. That confused them–I was scrawny. I looked like a chicken trying to pack on muscle mass. Tough for skinny vegetarians to do.

They’d go away. Who wants to talk technical bodybuilding with a girl? That’ll get a guy banished from Manland just as quickly as when that girl trumps him in the football pool.

The mile time is the runner’s equivalent of “what do you bench?” Milers are superstars in the running world. I ran the mile in high school. It’s what the cool kids ran. I lost badly to the cool kids. I got my varsity letter running all the races that nobody entered. It’s easy to beat nobody, or the other team’s equivalent of nobody who’s out there trying to beat me.

I’ve spent years training, logging times and reps in journals. I look back–I’m getting old. I think, “What was the point?” I’m a terrible athlete–never been a contender. Who cares if I can do 8 reps or 10? Or if my mile can be reduced to under 7 minutes? A real miler ran to the store and back cooking breakfast while I was finishing my last lap.

No more competition for me, even if it’s just against myself. Time to enjoy the second half of the game.

My students come into class having just run their mile. “What’s your time?” They ask each other, jockeying for best and worst.

“Nine minutes,” one kid says.

“Okay,” I butt in. That’s my job. “Not bad. You can bring that down a bit if you start running. Good job.”

“Six,” says another.

“Do you run?” I ask.

“Only from the police,” someone volunteers.

“Nice run. Keep it up.” High five. Now for the detractors. “He kicked your behind. You should be working out, not eating that Pop Tart.” It is a well-established fact I hate processed food. Pop Tarts are the worst. Not because they’re more harmful for human consumption than anything else in a box or bag, but because it’s oh-so-easy to eat an entire box in one sitting. If you read the box, you know what I mean.

“And you?” I inquire.


“Thirteen! I can walk backwards faster than that!” I tell him this. He informs me he had to rest. I suggest he should think about fitness. Pick any activity if running’s no fun. I point out his Pop Tart isn’t helping matters much either. There must’ve been a half-price sale on Pop Tarts. Note to self to follow up with this boy.

Fitness is a tough thing in high school for those who aren’t athletes. They get gym part of the year. No recess. There should be recess every day. The whole school should work out together. Running. Yoga. Lifting. I don’t care what, but every day.

I tell the class a story of a cross-country meet I attended. Everyone stood watching the horizon long after the race was over. It wasn’t sunset–I was puzzled. Eventually, a very, very large boy came lumbering over, struggling to finish the race. Everyone else had crossed the line.

The entire world stopped and cheered for him as if he had won, because in truth, he had. He made it through. I loved that moment.

I tell students fitness is important. Health is important. And even Mister Thirteen Minutes with the Pop Tart can do it. Time’s not important, staying active is. Quit timing. Don’t quit improving. They seem to buy in.

I think we’re measuring the wrong things. Why have I always timed my mile, logged my reps? Society trained me that way. And now it’s training me to measure my students continuously. Their academic mile time. Their academic reps. Every day.

Fitness is a balance in lifestyle. It’s not what I can bench or how fast I can run. It’s the connection between body, mind, and spirit. When any one of those is out of balance, we’re broken, like a stool with one leg kicked out. We cannot stand.

I wrap up the Pop Tart fitness talk. Time for curriculum. That’s how they’ll be measured. Their reps. Their mile time.

This year I get some freedom teaching electives, but in other classes it’s hard-core standards and testing. No room for fitness talks. They’ll be drilled and drilled until their academic mile time’s under seven minutes. That score will define them. Nationally.

We measure the wrong things. I wish there was a way to measure the Pop Tarts they don’t eat, the kindness they show to each other, the struggles they overcome, and the individual talents and gifts they bring to the table.

Or maybe to avoid measuring, boxing, and defining at all, and just have a face-to-face conversation. People tell me that’s my dream world. It’s not possible. Maybe so. I just want to tell them to wake up, drink some coffee, go for a run.

And not to measure the time. Run. Listen to the birds. Smile.




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