In classes at the health club, empathy begets empathy

Unlike those scary school gym teachers, fitness instructors inspire affection

Real Life


Once, gym teachers scared me. They had field hockey sticks and knew how to use them. They made me wear ridiculous bloomers and pleated pinafores and could tell if I had tried to fake taking a shower. Worst of all, they taught gym. I hated gym.

Decades later, things couldn't be more different. Not that I'm an Olympian, but I like to work out. And much to my amazement, I enjoy taking several classes at the gym, in particular BodyPump - a weightlifting regime - and spinning.

I no longer fear my instructors. I've become very fond of several whose classes I regularly attend. And though I only know them by first names and they don't know mine, I find myself ruminating on their lives outside of the gym.

Are they happy?

Are they lonely?

What are their struggles?

Some instructors, as they hoist weights or sprint on stationary bikes, reveal snippets of their lives - where they took their moms for a birthday celebration or a funny thing that happened at their day jobs. Sometimes an instructor will divulge even more - a reference to a spectacularly awful breakup, for example, or details about the home they just moved into or the cool nightclub they discovered.

If you attend the same class week after week, it becomes easier to tell whether an instructor is in a good mood or a bad mood. Or it will become evident that she is pushing herself too hard - in her day job, in her personal life, in the gym. It's something you can glean from a few words, or by her body language as she conducts class.

These info-bits occasionally accrue to form a sketchy portrait of someone I'll probably never really know. But they do inspire an empathy that I never felt for those long-ago gym teachers who still haunt my memories. If I thought about them at all when I was a kid, it was as a bunch of loners living lives of quiet perspiration. Nor has time softened my image of these drill sergeants who only paid positive attention to star athletes and had nothing but scorn for the klutzes of the world.

I was never sorry when those classes came to an end in June. Now, I'm bereft. Consider the case of one of the few guys who taught at my all-female gym. His name was Jim. My sons used to tease me that Jim was my "boyfriend," even though he was openly committed to another man and I'm married. Other members and I adored Jim, who was also a schoolteacher, for his humor and playful presence. He often choreographed extra little moves into a routine that cracked everyone up. When Jim taught his last BodyPump class, members were so grief-stricken they could barely laugh at his jokes.

And there is Kelly, the ebullient woman who also teaches BodyPump. She often ends class with an inspirational thought or a reminder to stand tall and proud throughout the week. One Sunday morning, Kelly's words of wisdom concerned the way women tend to be so hard on themselves and unforgiving of their own shortcomings. We should go easier on ourselves and recognize our strengths and gifts, Kelly said.

She delivered her secular sermon from the gym stage, overlooking a pocked, wood floor where women in workout gear, with glistening brows and mussed hair, listened before facing a new week. After her brief commentary, I couldn't help but wonder whether Kelly, too, struggled with her own self doubts. And that perhaps she often let those doubts overshadow her own lovely qualities.

Inadvertently, no doubt, Kelly was letting her vulnerability show. That never would have happened with my old gym teachers. Then again, maybe I just didn't watch them as carefully - or wonder if they ever struggled with self-doubt.

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