One of my best-kept secrets has been that I minored in physical education in college. I’m not particularly athletic and certainly not very competitive (unless it is a card game called “Nertz.”) I was inspired, however, by a very cool physical education teacher at St. Johns College in Winfield, Kansas. I asked her once if someone had to be really good at sports to be a P.E. teacher, and she replied that it was not necessary to excel personally. What mattered was an ability to pass on concepts in a caring way. My P.E. classes were a foil to the heavier academic ones, and I enjoyed gymnastics, track and field, folk dancing, and whatever else I signed up for. Just not swimming.
When I was seven or eight in Wichita, Kansas, my parents signed me up for beginning swimming at the local pool. I biked over with swimsuit and towel, got in the pool, and tried to follow directions to blow bubbles in the water, but I panicked! So I biked back home. The next summer, they signed me up again, and again I flunked “Blowing Bubbles.” My experience after that was sporadic and in the shallower end of the pool. However, with a P.E. minor, I had to take swimming. Al and I married our fourth year of college and lived in the freshmen men’s dorm as “counselors” in return for free housing. We both took swimming during January — in Nebraska — at 7:30 in the morning. Walking home in the frigid air with wet hair was….memorable. But I did not drown and finally passed.
My other athletic nemesis was softball. My elementary school had one physical education program — everyone played softball. How I hated and dreaded that game! I prayed to draw outfield, that no one would hit one my direction, and that maybe this time I might not strike out. I guess I was living through a sanctifying season rather than a victorious one.
Fast forward to our last summer in college before leaving for our first teaching jobs in New York City. I always had a work-study job on campus, but what they really needed that summer was someone to help coach a softball team. The main coach needed help, so needing the money desperately, I said yes. Taking small steps and following directions, I lobbed balls to the girls to catch, and I actually began to improve my own ball-handling skills, but not to the level these girls appreciated. And then it happened — the main coach dropped out, and I was left in charge. One girl, “Cindy,” became very sarcastic and negative toward me. Her little posse made sure each practice to send verbal arrows my way. Dreading every practice and game, I limped through the season.
One day as I walked away from the field to my dorm apartment, my little adversary called out in a voice dripping with arsenic, “Don’t forget my birthday!” I called out to the Lord, “How do I handle this, Lord? How do continue to do something for which I have little confidence, few skills, and no support? How do I respond to the negative attitudes?”
In answer to my call, the Holy Spirit dropped this passage into my soul:
“To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:20-21
All right then! I went home, baked and decorated cupcakes, bought plastic cups, mixed up some Kool-Aid, and boxed it all up in the trunk of my car. After practice when we collected the equipment, I told the girls to gather around for an announcement. Opening the trunk, I declared that we were having a birthday party for Cindy.
Her facial expression will always be a snapshot in my memory. She was shocked and mortified. I could see the emotions playing one after another. Instantly, she realized that she did not deserve this party, and she saw her behavior for what it was. From that moment to the end of the summer season of 1969, Cindy and her buddies could not do enough to help and support me.
And I received a dynamic lesson in the truth and power of God’s Word at work.
My physical education “career” lasted through four years on the elementary level. When our children came along, I turned over the athletic skills to one with the prowess – their father. In college, he excelled on the basketball court and baseball field, and I cheered for the team.
The Urban Dictionary defines “frenemy” as “an enemy disguised as a friend.” In my case, I had an enemy who became a friend because of the grace of God.