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Tuesday, Dec 5, 2023

An unexpected defense of the Middlebury P.E. credits

The beautiful view of the mountain ranges near the Ralph Myhre Golf Course.
The beautiful view of the mountain ranges near the Ralph Myhre Golf Course.

As I hustled along South Street, dripping with September sweat after underestimating both the heat and the distance to Middlebury’s Ralph Myhre Golf Course, I regretted enrolling for Beginning Golf this fall.

Although exacerbated by the blazing sun that day, this has largely been my long-standing attitude towards the P.E. credits at Middlebury. I was once an outspoken critic of the college's Physical Education credits: the two classes involving “lifetime sports and activities” required for every Middlebury degree. I saw the credits as a farce and a distraction from my academic education at Middlebury. I remained cynical through my one-day CPR course during my first spring at the college and held firm as I spent two J-Terms without enrolling in a ski class. Up until a few weeks ago, I thought about writing an op-ed criticizing the requirement altogether. 

But after five weeks of Beginning Golf — five weeks that challenged me in ways that no academic course has, five weeks with a dedicated coach and 12 random students from across Middlebury —  I had a change of heart. A realization. You could even call this an epiphany: Middlebury P.E. credits can be enjoyable and worthwhile experiences that complement and complete the college’s promised liberal arts education.

I had low expectations for the course when I enrolled this fall, but as I went through the motions of learning how to swing a club, how to have an ‘athletic stance’ and how to putt a ball, I found myself enjoying the disruption it created in my day. I enjoyed taking the 15 minutes to walk to the far-off golf course; it was a place where I did not need to speak up in class for participation points or write down every term my professor mentioned. If I showed up on time, hit some golf balls and managed not to hurt anyone, I would have done my job for the hour.

The class also allowed me to get to know people from across the college whom I otherwise never would have met. For some class members, it was a fun time to practice their swings and show us new golfers how the game worked; for others like me, it was a low-pressure environment to try out golfing and learn from Middlebury staff and fellow students. I would strongly urge Middlebury students to embrace the idea of P.E. credits as an opportunity, not an obstacle; think about what interests you most or what you have never considered before, and find a class that will challenge you accordingly.

I chose Beginning Golf, in part, because I was thinking about my future. I assumed at some point I would need to go onto a golf course in the corporate world, and I wanted to avoid being embarrassed by not knowing the basics. I also wanted to connect with friends and family who play golf, so that I might understand why they loved the sport so dearly. At the very least, I hoped it might help me come up with better responses when someone makes a joke about my name’s similarity to Rory McIlroy, the one-time number-one golfer in the world. 

My two classes a week spent on the course — ten overall — will not make me a trophy-winning pro, nor will I be joining the Middlebury golf team next season. I enjoyed the time spent with my classmates in the natural beauty of the surrounding landscape, finally noticing the sweeping mountain ranges where fall foliage gradually painted the countryside in tints of burnt orange, shades of eye-catching reds and splashes of soft yellow. I hope to pick up the clubs again sometime in the future and take up the hobby. That day may even come sooner than I expected — the college offers Intermediate Golf every spring semester, after all.

My Beginning Golf class also has compounded a lesson I’ve been slowly learning this year: the importance of slowing down and appreciating the college where I am spending four years of my life. 

Elsewhere, they say stop and smell the roses. At Middlebury, I learned to stop and take in the Green Mountains. Beginning Golf helped me slow down enough for an hour every Tuesday and Thursday, and I hope everyone considers creating space for themselves in order to self-reflect and appreciate Middlebury’s natural beauty. I realized that this is the most jaw-droppingly beautiful place I have lived thus far and may ever live; how could I spend my days only rushing between classes and dining halls, too often texting or checking email on my phone, in such an amazing landscape?

I will add one caveat to my unexpected enthusiasm thus far: No P.E. course at Middlebury should cost money. In the CPR course that I took in my first year, there was a $115 fee. I paid that for the privilege of spending only a few hours on a Saturday reviewing an important skill to gain my first credit. Connecticut, where I am from, requires its students to graduate with CPR skills, and I had taken my First Aid merit badge in Boy Scouts, but I felt rusty and appreciated the opportunity to review those skills in college.

I understand the need to hire an external instructor trained in healthcare to teach students CPR and first aid, but the college should not restrict learning about such a vital, lifesaving ability for its students based on their ability or willingness to pay for it. Chest compressions are a far more useful skill than my newfound ability with a nine iron, but Middlebury has made the former something I paid for and the latter something free to all students.

Whether the class takes place on the putting green or it involves a CPR dummy, Middlebury P.E. credits help students gain new skills for their life and explore new areas of the college they may have not previously visited. As I reached the last class of Beginning Golf in October, I decided to practice my skills one last time and hone in on what I had learned throughout the fall. 

I felt my body fall into my practiced stance, straightened my arms and swung. I went through my whole basket of bright yellow golf balls, then began to borrow the other balls people had discarded and left behind. It was my most consistent round on the range yet. My scavenged supply dwindled until I had one golf ball remaining.

I know I did not have the strongest shot, nor had I perfected my swing. But with the growing fatigue in my arms, the scuffed turf underfoot and everyone else already packed up, I felt a sense of individual accomplishment and pride in realizing how far I had come from that first day of class. 

It was something unique and distinct from the feeling of succeeding on a physics exam or finally submitting that 12-page history paper. It was not intellectual or theoretical; I could sense each swing becoming smoother, watch as the ball traveled down the range and feel calluses beginning to develop on my hands. I am grateful that the P.E. credits I once saw as an irritating distraction forced on us by the college had created such tangible changes in my life and college experience.

As I raised my tired arms for the final shot, readied my stance and swung at that last neon yellow ball, I knew then that I had gained something at Middlebury that could not be found anywhere else but here.

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Ryan McElroy

Ryan McElroy '25 (he/him) is a managing editor for The Middlebury Campus.  

He previously served as a news editor and staff writer.  

Ryan is majoring in History with a possible minor in psychology or English. He also takes part in Middlebury Mock Trial and on campus. He spent this past summer working as a research assistant in the History department studying Middle Eastern immigration to New England.