When I was in elementary school and completing my gym fellowship, after the square dancing seminar but before I had to defend my thesis on crab soccer, we were advised that we would all be participating in something called the President’s Test on Fitness. The President’s Test, as we called it, was a series of five events by which we’d all be embarrassed in front of our peers: the shuttle run, pull-ups, sit-ups, the sit-and-reach, and the mile.
The shuttle run sounded interesting at first because it contained the word “shuttle.” This was a more innocent and simpler time in America, and shuttle launches had yet to become boring. I and my cohorts all had being an astronaut on our “when I grow up lists,” usually just behind baseball player, football player, and He-Man.
The shuttle run, however, was nothing like going into outer space. A pair of erasers was placed at one end of the gym, and a starting line at the other end. One by one we would sprint from behind the line, grab one eraser, run back to the starting line, deposit the eraser in hand behind the starting line, sprint back to the other eraser, grab it, and run back to the starting line before you could hear the other students making fun of how slow you ran.
Pull-ups involved taking an overhand grip on a horizontal bar set higher than you, letting your feet dangle for a few moments, and making it look like you were making a diligent effort at doing a pull-up without making so many funny faces that you became known as the kid who makes funny faces when he is trying to do a pull-up. Today the pull-ups are probably done in a private room so that only the gym teacher gets to laugh at the funny faces. But in those days public humiliation was one of the five food groups.
Sit-ups were easy. You just had a partner hold on to your feet while you did as many sit-ups in a minute as possible. I used to gain a competitive edge by playing with my partners Velcro sneakers, unfastening and re-fastening the noisy fibers over and over to disrupt his rhythm. Or if he came from that sect who wore KangaROOS, I would search for the little hiding place in the footwear that held the student’s milk or drug money.
The sit-and-reach was something that if on television today would say “Do Not Attempt” at the bottom of the screen. The subject sat on a mat with legs straight out, and a wooden box with scored measurements was placed at the end of the feet. The student would then be asked to bend forward and stretch his or her arms as far as possible past the feet. The performance in this event would be measured by the farthest measurement the student’s fingertips could reach on the wooden box, divided by the number of screams emitted as the gym teacher pushed on the student’s shoulders, shouting “Come now, you can reach farther than that! Don’t let those European kids beat us! You owe it to your country!”
Because that was the original purpose behind the President’s Test. The council that eventually created this wonderful opportunity for American children was established in 1956 by then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower after he saw a study that showed European children to be more fit than American children. I, however, did not know or care about the patriotic origins of the requirement that I trip along a dusty track, heaving and wheezing and flailing my arms like a whirligig, taking enough staggered steps in my Velcro sneakers to hopefully add up to a mile.
The President’s Test has probably been redesigned to include meditation and yoga and an exercise where you try to name as many vegetables as you can in under a minute. The tests are all done in private rooms, and everyone passes. And most of all, true to the origins of the test, the mile is only a kilometer.