It is hard to describe the desire I had as a little kid to grow up to be an athlete. When I was so young, all I dreamed about was being big enough to wear a baseball uniform, put on spikes and run around the ball diamond with my own baseball cap. I got to do all that eventually, and had a blast in that career and many other sports. I’m grateful for that.
But it wasn’t until middle school that the first real locker room experience came around. Our 7th grade gym class used the locker room every day. That meant learning locker combinations and following rules about personal conduct. Our gym teacher Mr. Davis was a strict man. He believed in the merit of order and responsibility. Any breach in decorum such as forgetting your jockstrap resulted in punishments such as writing 50 times on the chalkboard; “I will not forget to bring my equipment to gym class.”
The lockers we used the were classic, and that style of locker has not really changed to this day, fifty years later. They were painted some brand of military blue back in Martin Meylin Junior High in Lampeter, Pennsylvania. The school was brand new, and the lockers were toned to match the school’s decor.
But the latches were all silver, and all worked like lockers handles still do. There’s a hole in the handle where you can hang the lock. The latch slides up to open the locker, which always makes a familiar clanging sound as you pop it open. The classic locker has hooks up near the top shelf where things like hats and keys or socks and underwear go.
Competitive locker rooms
All through high school and college there were lockers like that in the gym. Many nervous and excited nights were spent standing before some locker getting dressed for games. The feeling of suiting up for a basketball game was like nothing else in this world. The anticipation of putting on that slick, clean uniform. Pulling up long socks. Lacing up tall shoes. Pulling on wristbands and other bling meant to give some kind of mental advantage. Then slamming shut the locker, popping the lock shut and trotting out onto the hardwood floor. That was magic, I tell you. Simply magic.
There was similar allure in getting ready for cross country races and track meets as well. The equipment was different with spikes clicking loudly against the floor of the locker. Running kits were thin affairs. Just a wispy jersey, most times, and a favorite pair of running shorts. Just short of naked, if you think about it.
The lockers were sometimes open air affairs once we got to college. That let your equipment dry out, which was a good thing for runners especially. But we also had traditional lockers in rows. I don’t know if the metal lockers we use in America are the same kind they use overseas, but it seems like every locker I ever used in gym class or hallways in high school were made by the LYON company out of Aurora, Illinois. I live right next door to that town. But I’ve seen those lockers all over the country. The metal tab logo on those products is so familiar. We almost take these thing for granted, but I still look at that logo every time I suit up for a workout. It’s a little piece of home in so many ways.
Stuck on lockers
During my senior year in college, our cross country lockers were all marked with athletic tape bearing out names. The captains all lined up on the same north wall of the locker room. Magic marker was used to write our names, and it bled a little into the tape. So they were fuzzy when they were written.
They were still fuzzy but legible 20 years later when I returned for a college reunion and went downstairs in the fieldhouse to change before going for a run. I stood there stunned at the idea that somehow our names had remained stuck to those lockers all those years. It meant that perhaps we’d actually done something worth remembering?
We had managed to place second in the nation in cross country. That was something. In doing that, we set the stage in some ways for the teams that came after us. One of them won the national championship in 1985, seven years after our first breakthrough.
So the locker room is sort of a sacred place in some respects. Yet it is only elevated by the efforts of those who stand before those lockers. Otherwise it’s just another line of gray metal doors in another school locker room.
These days the locker rooms I visit tend to be quite public affairs. The locker room at the little hometown gym where I pay $25 a month to lift or run during the noon hour has remained unchanged for twenty years. The lockers show little signs of rust here and there on the inside. Years of moisture and sweat will do that to plain old metal lockers.
By contrast, the lockers at the Vaughn Center are fresh and newly painted. They show no signs of rust at all. Those lockers are also tall enough to hang your clothes and still have room to store your bag of extras on top of the shows below.
Perhaps the reasons that I spend time in locker rooms aren’t as exciting as they once were. I must admit that the world looks a bit different looking back down the rows of lockers rather than ahead to another cross country or track season like in school days. Yet that locker room feeling you get from suiting up for a workout always bears a hint of excitement. I still plan for races. Still like to compete. Still like to lock it up and go see what I’ve got in the tank.
That’s because the feeling of getting ready to do your best never really changes. And sure, I still forget a piece of vital running or cycling gear now and then. Then I’m glad there isn’t a Mr. Davis around to catch and punish me. It would still be a bummer to this day to spend an hour writing on the blackboard in chalk.
But when I shut the locker and pop on the lock, I cherish that locker room feeling. I’m grateful to be working out. Grateful to be alive. And I’m not Lyon about that.