True Confessions of an Ex-Cheerleader

Go Rams!
Go Rams!

I Was a High School Cheerleader

And not just any cheerleader: I was one of just two juniors who made the Varsity squad.

Senior year, I was Co-Captain.

Surprised?

You should be, especially since, as I’ve lamented before, I was often the last kid picked for teams. I was deficient in two key factors: hand-eye coordination and popularity. Both are hard to come by when you’re the kid with “four eyes” who reads books during recess.

I probably would’ve been better at sports if I’d believed in myself. I was a decent runner and cart-wheeler and younger-brother-beater-upper. I spent a lot of time in the woods, camping and fishing with my dad, and proudly proclaimed myself a tomboy.

Yet, I was crippled by perfectionism and self-consciousness. Whenever it was my turn at bat, I told myself, “I can’t.” If I couldn’t do something perfectly the first time, I wouldn’t do it at all. Once, when I was about eight, my mom offered to sign me up for ballet lessons. Oh! I had always wanted to be a ballerina. But I said, “No.”

Why? Because I felt, at the age of eight, it was too late. I was too old to begin ballet if I wanted to become a prima ballerina, so I might as well not try.

I was good at one thing, though: school.

So How Did an Awkward Brainiac Become a Cheerleader?

Freshman year of high school, I did what most nerdy, smarty-pants kids do: take Theater class and hang out after school in the cemetery across the street sharing deep secrets.

Naturally, the first play we put on was Bram Stoker’s Dracula. My mom drove me to the audition, and though I got really nervous and tried to turn-tail at the last minute, she somehow persuaded me to walk through the door. I got the female lead: Miss Lucy. Performing was a blast. It built my confidence and gave me a thrill. I was good at it. People thought I was a Junior.

But the best part was friendship with a group of students that cut across typical party lines. Popular girls, jocks, hippies, and trench-coat wearers: in Theater class, we were all equals. I really looked up to a certain Sophomore who starred in our spring musical. She was a cheerleader, a top student, and a peer counselor. She dated the younger brother of the Senior who was the object of my unrequited crush (you guessed it: Dracula himself). She was so happy, and so friendly, and so cute. Plus she was nice to me. We raided the Theater costumes and both dressed as flappers for Halloween. I wanted to be just like her.

I applied to the peer counseling program and tried out for cheerleading, and got into both. And I was good at them.

But I Wasn’t Perfect

Cheerleading taught me to laugh at myself. Cheerleading taught me it was okay to fail be less than perfect. I trained hard–several hours each day–on top of keeping up a 4.0 GPA and being involved in at least three other clubs at any given time, usually as president.

Cheerleading combined dance, gymnastics, and performance–all latent talents that finally had a place to thrive. I worked hard at it, and could eventually do perfect toe-touches and herkies. I felt strong. I felt healthy. I felt awesome.

Herkie Jump: Look at that joy on her face!

Cheerleading took trust, as I suppose most sports do. But cheerleading takes it to another level. Trust in your team-mates is essential if you are going to stand on their shoulders or sit aloft in their hands.

And yes, I’m talking about guys’ hands. My butt in a guy’s hands!?! Unprecedented. Once, my stunt partner asked me if I felt like a “piece of meat” when he held me up there. As a feminist, I appreciated the question, but as an athlete, it didn’t compute–we were just doing the stunt. It wasn’t sexual. Working with guys on the squad meant we could do bigger, higher stunts–and that was a key reason we took fourth place in the state competition.

In cheerleading, as with all things, I was a perfectionist. Our coach called me “Eagle Eye” because I was such a stickler for form. But, despite all the training and practice, I messed up. Frequently. In public. In front of indifferent crowds and opposing schools. I’d miss a stunt or fail to get into my perch in the pyramid.

At least once, I kicked someone walking past me to go up into the bleachers.

Here’s my most vivid screw-up: we didn’t have a school band, and I lost time while dancing to the fight song during an assembly because the crowd started singing faster than the scratchy tape recording. I stood there, in front of 800 students, cracking up laughing, while our coach tried to get me back on track. It was a watershed moment. It didn’t matter.

I Was a Subversive Cheerleader

During games, another girl–the one who’d introduced me to the Red Hot Chili Peppers–and I would get up to no good. We’d wave our pom-poms, kick our legs, grin our grins, and yell keyboarding terms, “Shift Lock!” or slightly lewd wordplays on our mascot, “Ram Tough!” It was ridiculous, and it was our secret.

When we made “Beat the Other Team!” posters for the games, I’d make a few that were nonsense: “How’s My Driving? Go Rams!” I got really good with Texas Markers and picked up some graphic design skills that I rely on to this day.

On days I wasn’t bemused to be wearing one of the shortest skirts in the school (my Catholic high school had a dress-code requiring skirts to be no shorter than an inch above the knee), I wore jeans and flannel shirts and Birkenstocks. I led the efforts to start a recycling program and protested the first Iraq war. I rarely wore make-up. I put my hair in perky pony-tails and braids because my only other option was an Irish afro–not the cool kind.

Source: Zazzle

I couldn’t have cared less about the sports we cheered for. I knew enough to decide when to call a chant for defense or offense, but barely followed the games otherwise. I may have been one of few girls in the advanced four-year science track, but my analytical mind just couldn’t follow football. And I really didn’t care. That was MY sports-field, for my sport. They were just our backdrop.

Cheerleading Taught Me to Fall and Get Back Up

It taught me to feel confident in front of a crowd, and give it my all even when they aren’t responsive to our attempts at drumming up “spirit.” To this day, I love to stand up in front of a crowded room and give a rousing speech. I’m good at it.

My only humiliating memory was in PE class. The teacher put me on the spot. This was the same teacher who coached the volley-ball all-stars on one side of our fancy, Nike-funded gym, and left the rest of us to our own devices playing what she called “dork ball” with a beach ball on the other. In probably our only interaction ever, she asked me to get up in front of everybody and teach the class a cheer. I chose the simplest one I could and felt like a fool. I blushed red and half-heartedly walked them through the motions. I got the distinct sense she wasn’t trying to “honor my diversity” but was trying to highlight my outsiderness. My school valued jocks–volleyball, softball, golf, basketball, track–both girls and boys were top in the state. Cheerleading was decidedly not cool.

The jocks went to parties after the games. The jocks had boyfriends. On Friday nights, I begged rides home from friend’s parents. On Saturday nights, I babysat.

I got asked on one date: I walked into physics class and a football player asked me to Homecoming. We were surrounded by a group of guys looking on. I blushed, mortified, thinking it was a joke, and said, “no.” The other boys all laughed. Later, I realized he was being sincere–the football coach had ordered all of them to take dates to the dance and this guy was desperately trying to find someone to go. I was the kind of girl only desperate guys asked.

Or maybe, they all thought I was out of their league. As an adult, I notice other women talking about “that cheerleader type” when describing their aerobics teacher or the skinny, blond moms at school, or those popular girls in high school. “Cheerleader” seems to be code for the kind of woman we all love to hate–fit, pretty, perfect, though maybe not too smart. Girlie and sweet. Happy. Sexy. At least, that’s what I’m guessing people mean. Most people aren’t willing to decode the stereotype.

It always feels like a stab. I was a cheerleader, but that didn’t make me an insider.

When I was so busy earning straight A’s, saving the Earth, counseling my peers, starring in plays, and, of course, cheerleading, I was just trying to feel okay. I was battling depression.

Yes, I was an over-achiever. Yes, I was over-compensating. Yes, I would do it all over again. I chose activities that built my confidence, taught me skills, engaged my brain, and exercised my body, and most important of all: helped me learn to laugh at myself.

I was just trying to prove to myself that I was worth something. Did other people somehow think that I had it all?

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Part of the solution since 1973.

30 thoughts on “True Confessions of an Ex-Cheerleader

  1. This was very interesting for me. I went to an all-girls school and we didn’t have sports, so I got a vicarious look at the other side of what I missed. You are pretty cool! Like it that you learned from it all!

        1. Thanks! I took my daughter ice skating yesterday, and there was a teenaged girl practicing jumps in a hallway off the ice rink. She was amazing. I asked if she was a cheerleader; she was. Then she took to the ice and was amazing on ice too. I was thinking how cheer leading is similar to ice skating, gymnastics, and dance because they share similar athletic skills and are largely considered performance art. The key difference is that cheerleading is conducted in tandem with another sport, often to a male sport (though we did cheer for a few of the girls’ basketball games. It was awkward.) The auxiliary nature of it is part of why it’s seen as disempowerment.

          1. It could also be argued that basketball, football, soccer, etc., are performance art. They are called ‘spectator sports’ and bring in a lot of money from fans and through cross-marketing. Celebrity athletes are often marketed as eye-candy. There is so much to discuss!

          2. Huh, I hadn’t considered that (auxiliary), but I think you are right. It’s never, unless you see cheering movies, seen as a sport in it’s own right. Great Scott – cheerleaders need cheerleaders to make others realize that they are athletes too! How weird is that?

  2. What you do or participate in at that point in your life is everything, it seems…and then it becomes a very distant inkling of a memory. We define ourselves by these things when we are young, and often let ourselves be defined by others, and then we discover we are so much more.

    I cherish the skills we learned in that school, on that squad (too many to name here)…but I am also so thankful for the multitude of new experiences, people and circumstances that continue to shape me as I mature. I am thankful for at one time trusting my teammates enough to toss me in the air and then catch me…but I am also so thankful that I lost that desire to do that a very long time ago.

    🙂 thanks for taking me down memory lane!

    1. I read something a couple weeks ago about how teenagers are really bad at identifying emotions based on facial expressions, and that so many changes (and so many hormones) during adolescence mean that a lot of our memories are from that short time in our lives. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Great post! As you know, I was a cheerleader in middle school. I tried out for the high school squad and didn’t make it, probably because I was too shy. But, my best friend made it and then we kind of parted ways. That was the sad thing. I moved on to dance and academics, always trying my hardest to accomplish the highest level of achievement. I can relate to your article well. Growing up is a confusing time. I think we kind of fly by the seat of our pants and hope for the best. When it’s all over, we can say we say learned a lot about ourselves. I think a lot of it is just coping and getting through. Great post!

  4. How cute you are in that picture!

    I was one of only about three girls in junior high that didn’t try out for cheerleading. I never wanted to be one, and everyone seemed bizarrely surprised by that fact. It was almost an obsession for some girls. Guess I was the oddball out. 🙂

      1. My take on achievement was always “do as little as possible” (and pass with as little attendance as possible), do not conform, do not have an idol, do not take after anybody…almost take pride in not giving a shit.

          1. Or it means that I possess the knowledge that failing after putting in lots of effort sucks hard (I’ve never really failed, and haven’t sincerely tried not to, which somehow makes a lot of things a great success for me…weird?).

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