To Her, With Love

"Miss? Hey, Miss! She wants to--"
"Miss who?" Miss Holder asks, fixing the two girls with her gunfighter look.
"Miss, uh, you know..."
"Nope. I don't. You tell me."
"Miss...Holder! Miss Holder, she wants to talk to you, Miss."
"Aha! And you're her interpreter?"
"That's right, and she--"

"And how much English do you speak?" Miss Holder asks the other girl, the one with the heavy gold crucifix around her neck and the schoolbooks clasped to her chest.

"Casi nada," the girl whispers.
"But you understood the question, didn't you? Hmm. That's a good sign."
With these auspicious omens, negotiations begin. Like at least one-third of the students on Miss Holder's physical-education roll, the quiet girl has missed a whole lot of classes. Miss Holder being her teacher, the quiet girl will not pass unless she makes up the missing hours. The penance never varies, and no slack will be cut.

First, they talk.
"So," Miss Holder asks. "Where have you been?"
Mexico, for Holy Week and to visit Grandma. Add in several days' travel time, and you have eighteen unexcused absences--not unusual at North High School at Easter time, or any other time. Miss Holder's classes routinely start out with forty students, but by April, fewer than half remain. Some drop out, but some, she says, just go.

In order not to become one of those statistics, here's what the quiet girl must do. Come to school at 6:30 a.m. Engage in "vigorous aerobic activity." Repeat after school, at 3 p.m. In addition, for every class period missed, turn in a written report on the health- or sports-related subject of her choice. Repeat the above steps eighteen times. Receive a passing grade--but not a puffy one, unless she happens to deserve it.

"It's a lot easier to just show up at my class than to make it up later," Miss Holder says, in the understatement of the year. "Make sure she understands," she tells the interpreter. "Tell her to follow me after class, and I'll give her a contract to sign. And then I'll need her right arm and three inches of her lovely black hair."

There is a pause, followed by a flurry of Spanish.
"Kidding," Miss Holder says gently. "Only kidding. I'll see you in my office after class. All right, now what? The bell will ring in thirty seconds."

Twenty-nine seconds later, the bell rings. Miss Holder looks expectantly at the door.

After over three decades of teaching, Miss Holder still does not understand why the sound of the bell fails to produce a payload of prompt, motivated, properly dressed PE students. Instead, the students trickle in, as they always have. Change comes elsewhere.

For example, the upcoming class, which once might have consisted of calisthenics and jogging in place and have a title like PE 101, now features two TVs and a Reebok step-aerobics video. Its name, thought up by Miss Holder herself, is Bodyworks. It has the potential to be co-ed, just like the weightlifting class across the hall, but it is nearly all-girl, just as weightlifting is almost entirely boy. This does not influence Miss Holder's approach. During Bodyworks, she is likely to lead the class to complete exhaustion, stepping up and down from the highest platform available and smiling tolerantly at the thong-clad Reebok models on the TV monitor. During weightlifting, which she teaches on alternate days, she will sometimes toss off thirty or forty pushups--but only to prove a point.

"That I'm not some little gray-haired lady barking orders," she elaborates. "That I can break a sweat and no one has to call 911. Ladies, I'm pleased you took the time to change for class," she tells two girls who are dragging their Reebok steps into place, "but the rules clearly state: yellow T-shirts and tennis shoes are to be worn to class."

Black T-shirts and hiking boots don't cut it. The two girls will not be allowed to participate. "I've been accused of being eccentric because I'm structured," she says. "We have guidelines in this department and I follow them, and I follow them to the letter. I don't waver. People tell me it's not always black and white. I tell them it is, too. I may be old enough to be their grandma, but I will kick their butt all the same. They say I'm eccentric. For instance," she says, alluding to the man who is teaching weightlifting across the hall, "I do not play the radio loud during class. I do not sit on the table. I do not let my students lean on the machines and talk to each other. I've been called eccentric. I've been called a bitch. 'She's a bitch. Don't take her class. She's too hard.' Yeah. It's all true."

After class, Peggie Holder returns to her desk in the girl's gym office. It is:

* The same desk she was assigned 36 year ago, after she graduated with a physical education degree from North Texas University. On a summer break from teaching in the small town of Snyder, Texas, she took a few courses at the University of Colorado. She scheduled an interview with Denver Public Schools "just for practice," was offered a job on the spot and took it.

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