This story was originally published March 11, 2013
P.E. and health teacher Laura Girard turned to a white board and introduced a math problem. In gym class.
“What is 7 times 2?” she asked her charges, a bunch of squirmy third-graders at Spring Valley Elementary in Raytown.
That, she explained, would be the number of jumping jacks you’d do if you got tagged. To tag people, you’d have to scooch on your scooter — a square, four-wheeled skateboard-type thing just big enough to accommodate a small bottom — faster than they could scooch away from you.
And with that, Girard hit play on the dance music. Familiar beats boomed through the gym: “Y’ALL ALL READY FOR THIS?”
They were. And within seconds, kids were popping up to do their jumping jacks, up and down and swaying to the Europop. Then back to the floor to their scooters for more tag.
Spring Valley’s third-graders are smart, no doubt — just try to stump them with a multiplication problem — but here’s one thing we bet they don’t know: Jumping jacks could soon become the official state exercise of Missouri.
Y’all ready for
Not that it would mean much. Missourians would not, for instance, have to do a certain number of jumping jacks to earn their Missouri jumping jack license.
But still kinda cool, right? Especially as jumping jacks are jumping back into favor.
Only one other state has an official exercise. That’s Maryland. Their exercise is walking.
As for why jumping jacks in the Show-Me State, the credit goes to students at another school: John J. Pershing Elementary in St. Joseph. Kids there started pushing for jumping jacks as the state exercise five years ago because the school’s namesake, the Army general who led American forces in World War I, is said to have invented jumping jacks. More on that in a bit.
And as for the official part, state Rep. Pat Conway, a St. Joseph Democrat, has introduced a bill to make jumping jacks the state exercise. He did the same last year, and his bill passed the House. This session, a colleague on the Senate side, Republican Rob Schaaf of St. Joe, has also introduced legislation.
Now it’s just a matter of seeing whether the sausage factory in Jefferson City will end up producing a state law on jumping jacks.
Conway thinks the odds of passage are 50-50, and yes, he’s aware that some view this kind of thing as a waste of time. (Last year, a fellow legislator proposed an official state butterfly.) A friend in the House plastered the Capitol stairwells and elevators with a picture of Conway’s face on Richard Simmons’ body.
Around St. Joe, though, interest is high, Conway reports. Parents and grandparents stop him in the grocery store to ask what’s going on with jumping jacks.
Before he became a war hero, John J. Pershing was a middle-class farm boy in little Laclede, Mo., east of Chillicothe in the north-central part of the state. He taught at both a black school and a white school and saved enough money to attend the teachers college at Kirksville, the institution now known as Truman State University. Pershing earned a two-year degree in didactics (teaching).
Today, his boyhood home and the Prairie Mound one-room school where he taught are a state historic site. (The schoolhouse used to be outside Laclede but was moved into town.) The 5,000-acre Pershing State Park, a wetlands wonder, is nearby.
In Kansas City, Pershing Road runs along the north side of the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial, where his face is memorialized in bronze on the Dedication Wall outside. It was Pershing’s leadership in that “Great War,” of course, that made him famous.
But long before that, as a student at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, he invented a version of jumping jacks, according to at least two Pershing biographies. (Pershing would later be a tough, unpopular instructor at West Point and acquire a hostile nickname for having led an African-American cavalry. The nickname evolved into “Black Jack,” but that’s not the moniker originally coined by West Point cadets.)
Here’s the story on jumping jacks. We found this account in a 1918 article about Pershing’s West Point years, in a magazine called The World’s Work:
“The inspiration came to him in this same summer camp of (1885), when Pershing was a cadet captain. He would get a line of plebes (freshmen) out in one of the ‘company streets,’ perhaps twenty or thirty of them standing one behind the other. He had them ‘count off’ so that each one knew whether he was ‘odd’ or ‘even’ in the line. Then, when Pershing pulled an imaginary string in one direction, all the ‘odd’ plebes would have to throw their arms out at stiff right angles to their bodies; when the imaginary string was pulled in the opposite direction, the ‘odd’ men would drop their arms, and the ‘even’ men would jump their legs out V-fashion. Then the imaginary string would be again pulled in the first direction, and the legs would jump in and the arms jump out.”
The book “West Point: The First 200 Years” says this was his “so-called string trick.”
As Frank E. Vandiver’s “Black Jack: The Life and Times of John J. Pershing” described it: “Back and forth went the string, arms flapped, legs splayed, while upperclassmen howled at the marionettes in action.”
So: jumping jacks, kind of, but with arms straight out instead of above the head. And not for fun: The calisthenics were a means of hazing the younger cadets. Pershing was “a champion at deviling plebes,” biographer George MacAdam wrote in World’s Work.
Oh, and if a tactical officer happened by, Pershing would forgo the imaginary string.
Speaking of which, a “jumping jack” is also an old-school toy, a jointed human figure often made of wood. You’d make it jump or dance by using strings or a sliding stick. This kind of toy goes back thousands of years and was especially big in France in the 1700s.
The first known use of the term “jumping jack,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was in Harper’s magazine in 1883, referring to the toy. That was two years before Pershing is reputed to have come up with the exercise.
One of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books mentioned a jumping jack toy — belonging to spoiled Nellie Oleson, natch — in a story set in the 1870s. But the book wasn’t published until 1937.
Whether or not the dictionary date is accurate, it seems likely that Jack Pershing’s jumping jacks exercise was inspired by the toy. Was it named for the toy or for him? That’s not clear.
The general didn’t include the jumping jacks tale in his memoir “My Life Before the World War, 1860-1917.” The book is to be published, for the first time, in June by University Press of Kentucky.
We can state with some certainty that jumping jacks did not take their name from the late fitness guru and TV personality Jack LaLanne, although he is often credited with popularizing them.
Rocket soldier 1!
But enough with the history. Whatever role Pershing played in developing jumping jacks, they’ve stuck around, particularly in schools.
Leon Greene, associate professor of health, sport and exercise sciences at the University of Kansas, remembers watching an instructional film featuring a phys-ed class in England in the 1930s, “and I’m pretty sure they were doing jumping jacks.”
For most of us “they’re fairly easy to do, and at the same time it’s a beneficial exercise,” Greene says.
But wait. If you’re doing what one might call lazy jumping jacks, you’re not reaping all the benefits. Make sure your feet go out a little more than shoulder width apart, not close together, Greene says. Extend those arms and get them up over your head.
You can clap your hands when your arms are up there in the ozone. Or snap your fingers. Or do quarter-turns each jump.
Girard’s students in Raytown taught us about “rocket soldier,” a way little kids can visualize jumping jack movements. Arms-over-head resembles the top of a space rocket. The soldier part has to do with military precision: standing “straight as a soldier,” starting with arms at sides.
“Rocket soldier 1!” the third-graders counted off. “Rocket soldier 2! Rocket soldier 3!” And so on.
(“Jumping jacks” must sound like fun, which might explain why the military calls the exercise “side-straddle hop.”)
April Pfannenstiel, a P.E./health teacher at Laurel Hills Elementary in Raytown, often uses jumping jacks as a warmup activity. A Wacky Workout Wednesday in her class might involve eight to 10 workout stations, one of which is jumping jacks.
And jumping jacks (known in the U.K. and some other countries as “star jumps”) are back in favor in the larger world of fitness. At the North Kansas City Community Center, jumping jacks are staples in the boot camp and cardio kickboxing classes, fitness supervisor Kari Thomas says.
“They actually are a cardio exercise if you do it continuously,” Thomas says. “It’s like jump-roping. That’s old school, too, but it’s back” as well.
Thomas, who has worked in fitness for 30 years, says jumping jacks faded in popularity for a while — sometime in the ’90s, she thinks. But 10 years or so ago, they bounced back.
‘Hopes are really high’
In the main hallway at Pershing Elementary in St. Joseph, a bulletin board illustrates “The Jumping Jacks Journey.” Teacher Kristy Lorenz says that journey started in the 2008-09 school year, when, during a field trip to Jefferson City, the fourth-graders stopped at the Pershing home and museum in Laclede.
One thing that caught the kids’ attention was a jumping jack-type toy on the wall. They heard a story about how West Point cadet Pershing, fond of making the plebes do push-ups, was asked to come up with something that would result in fewer grass stains on uniforms.
The next week, several students asked if Missouri had a state exercise, Lorenz says. After all, they’d been studying state symbols.
State dinosaur? Yep (Hypsibema missouriense). State grape? Yep (the Norton/Cynthiana variety). State dessert? Of course (ice cream cones, which debuted at the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904).
But no state exercise.
The kids decided to take up the cause.
But that year’s fourth-graders are now eighth-graders. Between then and now, Pershing students have written state legislators, given media interviews, even lobbied lawmakers by handing out buttons and brochures.
On March 28, three or four students will testify before the House Tourism Committee. Last year, a sixth-grader told elected officials that besides honoring Pershing, the bill could help Missouri overcome its status as one of America’s fattest states (see “state dessert”).
House Bill 1063 passed the Missouri House last spring but got stuck in the Senate. This year, with bills winding their way through both houses (HB 258 and SB 206), “I think their hopes are really high,” Lorenz says.
Conway, the state rep who has now thrice introduced a bill to declare a state exercise, may find himself on the Capitol steps doing jumping jacks if the proposal actually becomes law. He’s made promises to that effect.
If jumping jacks really do become the law of the land, “I would be pretty excited that I played a part in that,” says Pershing fifth-grader Mason Murphy, who testified on behalf of the bill last year.
We’ll all keep our fingers crossed, Mason. And our arms and legs in an X formation.