SIOUX FALLS, SD—In spite of a professional obligation to treat all P.E. students equally, Thorpe High School gym teacher Brad Malanga, 37, secretly hates the unathletic nerds whose forebears he bullied and ridiculed back in his own school days.
"Pathetic," said Malanga, eyeing a trio of honors students huddled in the corner during dodgeball Monday. "It's just like it was when I was in school. There are always a few kids who refuse to make any effort in gym class. These kids become magnets for teasing because of their bad attitude. If they weren't such wimps, they'd win more respect, but they never change."
Added Malanga, under his breath: "Buncha pussies."
Though he would never admit to doing so, Malanga looks the other way when nerdy students are teased and harassed by the more popular "jocks." He also tends to focus his attention and teaching efforts on a few select individuals whose athletic potential makes them prime candidates for varsity sports.
"[Sophomore Chad] Shelby definitely has the goods to be a wide receiver, and I'm really pushing for him to go out for track next spring, too," Malanga said. "[Freshman] Kim Kause has got the same hustle that made her brother Mike the best point guard in THS basketball history. Very excited about her. And [freshman Kurt] Winters is a natural-born wrestler. Can't wait to see what he can do with another 15 pounds of muscle on that frame. If that happens, we could be going all the way to State next year. He's that good."
Malanga failed to make any mention of sophomore Joshua Kiesler, who throws softballs backwards; junior Hugh Howell, who cannot clear a hurdle; and freshman Tricia Wasserstein, whose epileptic seizure during a volleyball game last September relegates her mostly to the sidelines.
Malanga, who grew up in Sioux Falls, is a 1983 graduate of Thorpe. Earning letters in football, basketball, and baseball, he has always had an interest in physical education. He has also always had an interest in terrorizing students who prefer science to sports.
"Yeah, well, you know, boys will be boys," said Malanga when asked about a 1982 incident in which, as a high-school junior, he administered a locker-room "swirlie" to Westinghouse Prize winner Howie Krumholtz. "Man, I forgot all about that. I sure was a live one back then."
Malanga attended Yankton College, where he majored in physical education. Believing that physical fitness was the best way to instill confidence and self-esteem in young people—and eager to repent for his poor treatment of nerds in high school—Malanga vowed to become "the kind of P.E. teacher who reaches out to all students."
"I had so many ideas, and for those first few months after I returned to Thorpe, I implemented a lot of them," Malanga said. "Extra-credit intramural sports teams. Remedial after-school gym classes for kids who needed a little more attention. I even gave more responsibilities to the shy kids, like keeping track of the equipment or collecting towels for the laundry cart."
Yet Malanga became disillusioned when he discovered that the unathletic students he wanted to help were often "unwilling to help themselves."
"I had to discontinue the after-school classes because nobody came," Malanga said. "I heard it was because the kids who needed them didn't want to be branded as dorks. Well, I was trying to prevent them from becoming dorks in the first place, but they just didn't get it."
Malanga said his resentment of the school's more academically oriented students only deepened over time. Of this year's crop, Malanga is particularly critical of senior and National Merit Scholar David Chang.
"I've hardly seen Ching [sic] this semester, since he keeps weaseling out of class to participate in his Science Olympiad team," Malanga said. "The guy can't even do a push-up; I guess fitness just isn't as important as some big science prize. And I can't make him stay after class, either, because he's taking some extra-credit college-level calculus course. See what I mean? Absolutely no sense of commitment among these kids."
In spite of his efforts to mask his preference for athletes, Malanga has earned the dual distinction as one of the most and least popular teachers at Thorpe. Depending on the student, "Mr. M" or "Malangaloid" is either a trusted friend or a hated foe.
"Last Friday, Mr. M took a bunch of us to a non-conference Fighting Sioux [hockey] game, and then out to Domino's [Pizza] afterwards," said 15-year-old Bryce Donovan, one of the stars of Thorpe's junior-varsity swim team. "He's the bomb!"
"I'll never forgive him for making me stay up on the rope until I climbed to the top," said 16-year-old aspiring paleontologist Joe Wagner. "I was up there for almost 20 minutes, struggling to get more than a few feet off the ground before he finally said I could get down. The whole class was pointing and laughing at me as I tried to lift myself up. And the whole time, [Malanga] just stood there all smug and satisfied, like he was teaching me some important life lesson. I can't tell you how humiliating it was. Malangaloid is a total bastard."