We can’t all be heroes. Someone has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by.
— Will Rogers
Today’s Writing Group prompt: Support: Write about a time you’ve been on the sidelines cheering for somebody else, literally or figuratively.
When I was in middle school, there was literally nothing I wanted more than to be a cheerleader. In my mind, cheerleaders were IT: cute, smart, popular, beloved by everyone. I tried out every year and never made it. The spots all went to the girls who’d done gymnastics their whole lives and could tumble.
When it came time to try out for the Junior Varsity squad – for 9th and 10th graders – at the end of my 8th grade year, I signed up, of course. We had a week of practice at the high school, learning a cheer and refining our jumps. I was so, so nervous. You had to be “on” from the time you ran into the gym before the judges until the time you cleared the doors on the way out. As I was running out of the gym, something in me knew I hadn’t been good enough, and all of a sudden something possessed me and I did a running roundoff, startling my try-out mate. She was all, “Uh, I did not know you were going to do that.”
I remember very clearly a few days later, sitting in 8th grade Spanish class at the end of the day when the afternoon announcements came on. They announced who’d been selected for the JV squad, alphabetically. My last name was at the end of alphabet, and my stomach was in knots, just waiting. In a turn no one could have seen coming, the principal’s assistant called my name. My face turned bright red, my classmates laughed, my teacher congratulated me. I’d done it. I was one of the chosen ones, and I’d beaten out several rising 10th graders who’d been cheering their whole lives.
It wasn’t until summer practices that I learned that there was a rule: the squad had to be made up of 7 10th graders and 7 9th graders – and only 7 of us had tried out. I’d won by default, not talent. Never mind. They couldn’t take it away from me, even if they thought I didn’t deserve it, so long as I worked hard. And I did. I never missed a summer practice, I followed all the rules, and I never earned any demerits. The first time I got to wear my uniform at school on a JV football game day was, I thought, the most exciting day of my life. It was also pretty cool that I got to cheer for my brother, the starting center for the JV team.
In late September of that year, I fell off some bleachers (in a noncheering-related incident) and tore all the ligaments in my right ankle. I had to wear a walking cast for, I think, 6 weeks, which meant no cheering. I was devastated. I’d finally gotten the one thing I’d wanted so badly and then couldn’t participate. They still let me wear my uniform on game days, and I still went to the games, but I had to sit in the bleachers. I still remember, to this day, when a classmate came up to me in the bleachers, saw my uniform, and said, “Are you like an alternate or something?” I was crushed. An alternate? Bitch, please. After that, I basically insisted that they let me be down on the field, cast be damned. I wouldn’t jump, I promised. (I totally jumped. Didn’t hurt in the least, but it freaked people the fuck out. One guy came up to me after a pep rally and told me I was a bad-ass.)
After basketball season, there was no cheering left to do, so I played softball in the spring. I tried out for cheerleading again for my sophomore year, but they’d changed the rules and the next year’s squad only had two 10th graders, neither of which was me. So I played tennis, then basketball, then the lead in the spring musical.
Then it was time to try out for the Varsity squad. I was chosen second alternate. That meant I had to come to all the practices in the summer, learn all the cheers and dances, and be prepared in case someone dropped out, but I didn’t get a uniform (or pom-poms – and only the Varsity girls got pom-poms, so I totally missed out), and wouldn’t get to dress on game days. One girl quit pretty quickly after the squad was announced, which meant I was bumped to first alternate. I never missed a practice that summer, and lots of other girls did, but before a certain date, you couldn’t get demerits for missing, so those girls got to stay on the squad. My dad, who never really wanted me to be a cheerleader to begin with, was really pissed on my behalf about that. Something about demonstrating commitment and all that. No one else ever quit, and I never got to cheer under the Friday night lights.
At the end of my junior year, sign ups went out for fall sports tryouts, including cheering. My dad had already planned his sabbatical from his job as a college professor to do research in Spain from August to January, and my mom and I would have to go with him (well, my mom wanted to; I had to). That meant no cheering tryouts for me. I remember the coach, my sophomore English teacher, stopped me in the hall during sign-ups to ask why my name wasn’t on the list. I told her I wouldn’t be there in the fall. She seemed disappointed, and told me she knew how much cheering meant to me and had always appreciated my dedication and determination. I guess that’s something.
When it comes up that I used to be a cheerleader, people are always shocked. Maybe now it’s my because of my weight, but it used to be because, they said, I don’t seem like the cheerleader “type.” And I guess maybe that’s true – I’m not especially peppy, and my hair has never had that trademark cheerleader ponytail bounce (see Lyla Garrity for reference), and I don’t particularly care to wear the same thing as 13 other girls once a week. But I loved, wholeheartedly and unreservedly, the season I spent as a cheerleader.