you terrorized an entire generation from 1970 to 1992.
November 16, 2022 10:04 AM   Subscribe

Julia Zarankin, author of the 2020 memoir Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder (book excerpt) wrote a heartfelt "Good riddance, Canada Fitness Test." Relatedly, the memoir includes a chapter on how the desire to carry a spotting scope and accoutrements motivated a weight-lifting regimen, belatedly, after years of marriage to an amateur powerlifter. Interview with Zarankin. Recorded book talk. Life aspiration? "To sport the hairdo of a cedar waxwing, acquire the wardrobe of a northern flicker and develop the confidence of a Ross's goose." posted by spamandkimchi (26 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I kind of liked the CFT, partly because of the cool badges you got. I wasn't particularly athletic, but I wasn't *not* athletic, either, and aside from the chin-ups, which I was hopeless at, I always did well enough to get a silver or gold badge. I understood even at the time that my experiences and sentiments were far from universal, though.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:41 AM on November 16 [2 favorites]

You didn’t just make me feel bad about my body, but I developed an antipathy to the word “fitness.” For years, your test convinced me I was weak and unathletic, and made me fear that exerting myself outdoors would result in yet another failed attempt at a high-intensity sit-up marathon or an embarrassingly short long jump performance.

*waves "participation" award in solidarity*

I think I got bronze once, but still.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 10:43 AM on November 16 [10 favorites]

Also, Participaction; it was subsequently revived in 2007, but in the early 2000s I pitched a "whatever happened to Participaction?" piece to a magazine I was writing for at the time. When my editor approved it I started calling people and was getting a weird runaround where nobody wanted to talk about it, people got weird when I asked and referred me to other people who got weird about it and referred me to someone else, etc.. After this went on for a few days I started to think "damn, maybe there's some sort of scandal to uncover here," but then the magazine very abruptly went out of business and that was that.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:50 AM on November 16 [6 favorites]

Next to your comrades in the national fitness program
Caught in some eternal flexed arm hang
Droppin' to the mat in a fit of laughter
Showed no patience, tolerance or restraint

Fireworks, Tragically Hip

(RIP Gord)
posted by stevil at 11:00 AM on November 16 [10 favorites]

Trauma of the Canada Fitness Award aside (and it wasn't like that for everyone, but definitely a thing for many, and it was certainly a catalyst for bullying of various kinds at my elementary school), this is a great collections of links. What an interesting person. The piece on inclusive access to nature (the last link in the post) is quite good.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 11:04 AM on November 16 [1 favorite]

This sounds a lot like the President's Physical Fitness Test in America, which Maintenance Phase dissected (or maybe vivisected?) in one of their podcasts.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:06 AM on November 16 [5 favorites]

Yeah, pretty similar! That episode of Maintenance Phase was pretty good.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 11:14 AM on November 16

I remeber in grade 11 PE class your final mark was in a large part determined by success in a torture test called the 12 minute run, essentially run as many laps of the track possible in the allotted time. I determined that university acceptance rates did not consider what you got in PE 11 as germane to their ends. Uhh, yeah, I'll be across the street at the mall smoking cigarettes on the day you are doing that "test", fuck that.
posted by Keith Talent at 11:28 AM on November 16 [6 favorites]

Our grade school was pretty damn sports obsessed, at times excessively so. But I'll give our gym/phys-ed teacher a lot of credit for not bullying us about the CFT. I was near-bottom in fitness in my class but he did encourage just giving it a good try. He did push the more athletic kids a bit harder but it was always "you can do this," not "you're worthless if you don't." And I did manage to enjoy some individual and team sports into my adulthood, and maybe far more than my lack of innate athletic talent should have allowed, mainly just for keeping a positive attitude about it. And of course for having a lot of patient understanding friends/teammates along the way.
posted by hangashore at 11:47 AM on November 16 [2 favorites]

I think I got bronze once, but still.

Me too. But yeah I resemble that essay a little too much but it is very good.

As for acquiring the wardrobe of a beloved northern flicker it is totally doable. One of my partner's second cousins totally rocks that look. The cedar waxwing hair might require a lot of product and maintenance though.
posted by Ashwagandha at 12:21 PM on November 16 [1 favorite]

I remeber in grade 11 PE class your final mark was in a large part determined by success in a torture test called the 12 minute run, essentially run as many laps of the track possible in the allotted time

In the California 80s, "proficiencies" required me to run a mile in under 12 minutes before graduation. This is when I found out that I had some kind of weird running technique that caused my quadriceps to feel like they're being torn from my legs at around 500 yards. Having to walk the rest of the way in pain, I did not make the 12 minutes. I was otherwise healthy, skateboarding probably at least 40 hours a week, but my PE teacher still threatened to hold me back. I failed a second time (maybe 13 minutes or something) and I think he probably just passed me anyway. He drank during school hours.
posted by rhizome at 1:24 PM on November 16 [4 favorites]

I got the Award of Excellence badge in grade eight, the same year I failed gym and found out that it doesn't matter if you fail gym (they weren't going to hold back an otherwise straight A student because she failed her gym exam, which was a written test on rules of various sports that I couldn't keep straight). I have fond memories of those badges because it was the only time I ever did well at something physical. I was awful at team sports but could do the track and field type stuff pretty well. I don't remember the flexed arm hang but I also don't remember a lot about gym, I think I hated it and zoned out, which is probably why I failed...
posted by joannemerriam at 1:28 PM on November 16

I was in a gifted class so while we all had to take part in Canada Fitness no one put too much emphasis on it. It was kind of like a mini olympics with all of the different exercises that you'd never do again like the Shuttle Run. I don't think any of my classmates were traumatized by it but I do remember being really pissed off one year because I got a participation when I should have had either silver or gold because the teacher didn't record all of my activities.

I think gym is better in general these days not just for schools with lots of nerds in them. My kids did cross-country running this year and the practices were open to the whole school. For the first couple it seemed like half of the school showed up and it was great. Sadly the numbers dwindled but the coaches were pretty positive and as long as a kid could run the whole course they would be able to make it to the meet. One of the grade 8s was by no means fast but he made the top 40 at the first meet and qualified for the second one just by virtue of not stopping. It was very much a tortoise and hare kind of thing where a lot of other kids that started faster just gave up and started walking while he kept on going at his pace. He was by far my favourite of the runners (that weren't my kids obviously).
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 1:42 PM on November 16 [2 favorites]

I remember getting a Silver award once for one of the running events, and to this day I have no idea how that was actually possible. I assume it was my slide across the finish line, nearly slamming my kneecaps into the gymnasium wall in the process, that somehow made me faster than I should've been as a not-at-all athletic fifth-grader or whatever. I don't remember ever getting any badges of the other colours. Just that one totally ridiculous silver and a bunch of participation ribbons. I probably still have the badge, somewhere in my parents' house. (It's pretty.)

I was also in a gifted class so no one cared at all whether I did well in the tests or not; it was very much as any portmanteau in a storm described, basically a mini-Olympics/fun day.
posted by chrominance at 1:51 PM on November 16 [1 favorite]

At school in Hong Kong we did some stupid swimming skills thing that passing was mandatory. It involved treading water for five or ten minutes, and swimming a mile (?) all in your clothes. The teacher wouldn't let me float on my instead of treading water (despite that belong s perfectly reasonable approach to staying above water in a situation where you're in it in your clothes) but whatever, tread water with three class. But swim a fucking mile? My breathing is a little weird, and I could never do the submerged head swimming thing. I could just about do locomotion in water, by basically doggy paddling. Everyone else in my year (200ish people) was done before me. They were all showered and changed into fresh clothes before I was done. They were onto their lunch break before I'd made a mile. They had finished their lunch break, and were well into the next class by three time I was done. But I did it. And fuck the teachers and system that made me ever do it.

(On what I guess passes for my honeymoon earlier this year, I went swimming in a fjord. It was the first time I'd been in the water outside of a bathtub for well over a decade.)
posted by Dysk at 2:42 PM on November 16 [5 favorites]

ugh so much hatred for that test from an anxious fat kid. always led to a week of teasing. wasn't as bad as that time in grade 7 when the teacher weighed us for one section and it was supposed to be secret but of course Jenny Mitchell volunteered to help and the entire school knew by lunch time. ahem not bitter still..

its odd cause outside of school I played soccer, and biked and ran around freely but school did eventually kill that in me. Nothing more scarring than groups of kids in gym.

I really liked this writing though. I just really hate that test (and Jenny Mitchell)
posted by Bemused Recluse at 2:49 PM on November 16 [7 favorites]

The crappy part of the Presidential Fitness Test was that we never, ever, did anything in P.E. class that could have prepared us for it. Class was always a session of some competitive sport where the already-athletic kids had a good time and ruthlessly bullied the not-so-athletic kids any time they got in the way. Nobody ever made the slightest attempt to teach us anything. Even the rules of whatever game had to be absorbed through some kind of haphazard peer osmosis.

I almost wasn't allowed to graduate because I had never passed the Red Cross Advanced Beginner swimming test. Nobody had ever attempted to teach us the skills required for the test or or even told us we were going to have to take it. Swim class was for kids on the swim team to practice laps and fancy dives, and everybody else to hang out in the shallow end and stay out of the way. If nobody drowned we all passed the class. They had to hold a special class for those of us who had slipped through the net, as it were, to prepare for the test at the end of Grade 12.

I can't think of any other subject where they'd be allowed to test you without even once trying to teach the material.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:52 PM on November 16 [11 favorites]

I mean, it's not like we had the teacher's permission to hit and yell at the kids who took ten minutes to get through a sentence in reading group. On the contrary; we caught hell from them for reading fluently.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 3:01 PM on November 16 [8 favorites]

I hated the CFT because “try harder” was the only advice us slow, uncoordinated kids got. i didn’t want to be bad at sports, but couldn’t figure out how not to be, and was unfairly unpunished (i never saw any participation badges either). later, i realized my mis-aligned knees might have had something to do with it, along with an unspecified connective tissue problem. but those weren’t a thing back then. now i spend a ridiculous amount of time at the gym for someone who’d always rather be lying around reading a book. if you told my high school gym teacher I’d go rock climbing on a cliff in my 30s, she’d have laughed in your face. (and I would have too). i still have traumatic memories of gym class throughout my childhood and adolescence, and the rigidness of the CFT contributed to my experiences. not bitter! ahem.
posted by mollymillions at 4:49 PM on November 16 [3 favorites]

I was the first wave of the great Canadian nordic fitness comparison panic days in seventies that triggered the fitness test (and also the hundreds of miles walking challenges). The big problem back then as others pointed out was that phys-ed classes were taught by former high school & college football player types, shop teachers and/or alcoholics and all they knew how to do was reinforce existing physical dominance hierarchies rather than fostering physical improvements in kids of all capabilities.
posted by srboisvert at 5:57 PM on November 16 [9 favorites]

CFT was just however-many-days of rolling dread for me. Not a single redemptive thought. Since i am here in this couch, I also resent mandatory 9th grade PE credit, which allowed a large group of boys I had never met before to learn immediately at the start of highschool that I was a hopeless clod with physical activity and tease me about it for the next several years.
posted by hearthpig at 5:30 AM on November 17 [1 favorite]

I vaguely remember the presidents fitness test as a thing when I was a kid, but I had really bad asthma and couldn't really do PE til Junior high, then it was full on terror until my sophmore year of HS (last year I had to do PE) when my PE teacher told me if I stopped showing up, he'd give me a C.
So I've got that going for me.
Oh yeah, now at 64 I run 4 miles 3 times a week and 5 miles on Saturday. Weird.
posted by evilDoug at 5:41 AM on November 17 [2 favorites]

The big problem back then as others pointed out was that phys-ed classes were taught by former high school & college football player types, shop teachers and/or alcoholics and all they knew how to do was reinforce existing physical dominance hierarchies rather than fostering physical improvements in kids of all capabilities.

In America, in the seventies, we had a bunch of male teachers like that, and it wasn't until much later that I found out that many of the new teachers in the first half of that decade were there specifically for the draft exemption; they weren't enthusiastic or particularly skilled at teaching, but it beat hiking through the jungle and getting shot at in a war that had been declared unwinnable years before. Probably their equivalent after the draft stopped were people who might otherwise have gone into industry, which was beginning its slow decline.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:19 AM on November 17 [2 favorites]

Bennett elementary in Sunnyvale California in the 1970s used to play the song “Go You Chicken Fat Go’ while we did our presidential exercises. The only thing that has gotten me going to the gym was six weeks of physical therapy for my lower back, so I don’t lose the strength I gained.
posted by mecran01 at 7:27 AM on November 17

The big problem back then as others pointed out was that phys-ed classes were taught by former high school & college football player types, shop teachers and/or alcoholics

Maybe that's part of why my experience was comparatively positive. I hated gym class because of the (written) exams, not the actual physed, but my teacher was also our health teacher, a woman with an actual teaching degree, who did not tolerate bullying as far as I can recall. She didn't tolerate much of anything actually, and I remember her as a kind of miserable beleaguered killjoy, but I was grateful not to be bullied in gym like I knew from tv would have normally been my lot as a scrawny kid a foot shorter than everybody in my class.
posted by joannemerriam at 8:50 AM on November 17 [2 favorites]

"Go You Chicken Fat Go" was also in use in rural Minnesota. I guess it was just a part of US PE culture in the 70s. That decade did love a novelty song. The Presidential Fitness thing and gym class in general were always hell for me for a few reasons, the main one being undiagnosed low blood pressure. Running would immediately leave me a weak, dizzy wreck and I would be told that I was just lazy.
posted by LindsayIrene at 8:51 AM on November 17 [1 favorite]

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