Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Michael Brydon: All gyms are not created equal

This letter has not been submitted to any paper. These are just some rough thoughts on the potential community value of the north gym.

In the early 1980s, Princess Margaret was a pretty tough junior high school with its share of problems. Organized sports were not seen as being especially cool (I was one of exactly two Grade 10 players who bothered to go out for the junior boy’s basketball team). Yet I do recall a brief period in the spring, when the gym was not booked for anything else, one of the PE teachers would be on hand on Wednesdays from roughly 7 to 9 PM for “open gym”. A surprising cross-section of students took advantage of the opportunity to play informal games of floor hockey, shoot hoops, or just hang-out in the mezzanine overlooking the gym (where there were foosball, ping-pong, and pool tables). At certain times of the year, the gymnastics apparatus was set up. I will never forget watching some of the roughest kids in school (with their unlaced high-tops, Van Halen softball shirts, and mullets) launching themselves off the mini-trampoline and doing spectacular dive-rolls over the vaulting box. Flips, as I recall, were not permitted.

I don’t think there are many open gyms in the district nowadays. The teachers who would be willing to volunteer their evenings for such things are likely already tapped out coaching, doing graduate degrees, or spending time with their own families. Plus I suspect that the now-ubiquitous excuse for all sorts of inaction—“insurance issues”—has been invoked so open gyms are no longer permitted on school property, even if a willing supervisor exists. I think this is a shame because open gyms would give teens in this town something positive to do with their spare time. As the brief experiment at Maggie in the 80s suggests, such opportunities can even attract unlikely participants.

Given the high economic and social cost of youth crime and drug abuse in Penticton, one might expect the city to be interested any initiative with a potentially preventative effect. The city could, for example, organize regular open gyms for teens in its facilities. But here is the problem: the city does not have sufficient gym space. According to several city employees, the demand for the Community Centre gym during peak hours exceeds its capacity. Some may argue that this town is full of gyms, but this ignores two critical issues. First, the school gyms are under the control of the school district, not the community. As recent jurisdictional friction illustrates, this is not a trivial distinction. Second, and more importantly, not all gyms are created equal. Those attempting to attract teenagers to community-based recreation programs ignore the importance of having a socially attractive space at their peril. I think Maggie’s gym (circa 1983) worked well for open gym because it was bright and spacious. It had bleachers and a mezzanine so it was possible to participate at the margins without standing in the middle of someone’s court. I suspect an open gym for teens would be significantly less successful in, say, one of our tiny, boxy elementary school gyms.

This brings us to what was once Pen-Hi’s north (main) gym. As generations of former Pen-Hi students recognize, the north gym, with its massive bleachers and openness, creates a unique social space. In my day, the gym was where people went at lunchtime—not to play sports, but to congregate, to see and be seen. Here we have a space that has proven itself attractive to teens over many years for both physical recreation and social interaction. Why not exploit it?

Of course, there are no guarantees that an open gym program for teens will mitigate any of our youth problems or will attract enough teens to justify the effort. But there are a couple of things that we do know for certain: First, no problem will be solved if we fail to invest the time and resources required to try some solutions. Second, if an open gym for teens will work anywhere, it will be at the north gym.