I was the dorkiest cheerleader you’ve ever seen. At my parochial grade school, there were two options for extracurricular activities during the winter: basketball or cheerleading. My parents told me I had to "participate in something" to keep me from spending the entire snowy season watching cartoons. The two months in sixth grade I spent on the basketball team only emphasized my complete lack of coordination whenever a ball was concerned, never mind that I had no idea how to play. The coach put me in for two minutes during one game and I made a panicked basket for the other team. That was the end of my illustrious basketball career.
Cheerleading, I decided, could be my sport. There were no balls involved, for one thing. I didn’t have to catch or throw, keep score or run. And I got to wear a cute little skirt and wave pom-poms that made a satisfying swishing noise when banged together. At my small school, there were no try-outs. Our league also forbid pyramids, acrobatics and flying for insurance purposes, so the cheers involved fairly simple dance moves, chants and clapping combinations.
Or at least, they looked simple enough. I soon discovered my lack of hand-eye coordination translated into a difficulty clapping, jumping and shouting all at the same time. My routines were regularly a step or two behind the other girls’, so much so that our cheerleading coach asked me to come to practice half an hour early once a week for extra practice, one-on-one.
Middle school girls are a cruel breed, and my fellow cheerleaders were a Mean Girls rip-off waiting to happen, years before the movie came out. One look at me and it was clear I wasn’t stereotypical cheerleader material, even before we started. For one, I wasn’t bubbly and chatty like they were. The thought of calling someone on the phone brought me to tears on a regular basis, forget about making small talk with my teammates. My wardrobe mostly consisted of hand-me-downs and souvenir t-shirts from Disney world or one of the national parks our family visited every summer. Top it all off with a full set of braces and coke-bottle glasses, and I was a clear candidate for the dork squad.
But my parents said I would cheer, so cheer I did. The day before our interscholastic competition, we practiced in the cafeteria adjacent to the gymnasium because the boys had a game at the same time. This gave the braver girls the chance to gawk at the boys after our practice ended, the picture of adolescent cool with their high ponytails and flirtatious smiles.
I wasn’t too interested in basketball, but I didn’t want to be the dweeb who waited for my mother in the hallway, so I leaned up against the door frame leading into the gymnasium, pulling at my bike shorts self-consciously.
The whisper slithered into my ear like a snake, crystal clear even over the squeak of rubber on linoleum. “Did you see what Elizabeth was wearing at practice today?”
Funny how one’s own name always stands out from every other sound. Funny too, how it snatched my breath away and rooted me to the spot both at once.
“Those disgusting bike shorts with the smiles on them? Like, so 1985. I don’t know why she ever joined our squad.” The speaker’s name was Christina, a petite ash blonde with a snubnose and a perfectly turned-under page boy, not to be confused with the tall, buxom, curly-haired Kristina seated next to her.
“She’s so gross. And she can’t even cheer. Did you see how she stuck her butt out during the Mambo number today? If we lose the competition because of her, I’m going to like, flip out,” Kristina answered.
My stomach felt hollowed out, like their words had formed a fist and punched me there, and suddenly the hallway was a tunnel and I was falling down it. The basketball game seemed very far away.
“You know what?” a third voice chimed in. This was Molly, the ringleader of the group because she was the oldest and always had the latest in Bonnie Bell chapsticks, the only makeup we were allowed in school. “I bet she buys her clothes on sale.”
“Yeah, on sale at goodwill,” Christina snorted. “She’s such a dork. And she smells.”
They all cackled at that, the highest of insults among we devotees of Bath and Body works hand lotions. In fact, my clothes were not from goodwill. More like from my mom's friends' daughters' closets. I mentally resolved to never wear those shorts, my favorites, ever again.
The buzzer sounded signifying the end of the game, and I slunk out to the parking lot through the cafeteria exit to avoid any of my teammates. I felt betrayed, insulted but worst of all, embarrassed. I had never thought these girls were my friends; we barely spoke at practice or games, and I would never have invited them to sit with me at lunch, or expected them to ask me. But to hear what they had said, to imagine what they might be saying at any moment outside of my earshot made my head pound. How could I trust these people, knowing what they had done, and would probably continue to do?
I barely remember the cheerleading tournament, except that the girls all seemed maniacally friendly, smiling their sharklike grins and giving everyone high-fives when we won third place, even me. I remember a sense of camaraderie between them that I felt as if through a dusty screen door. Our moment of victory was tainted by what I now saw as an undercurrent of cruelty running under every word, every look, every interaction.
Sure, I had experience with bullies. One girl in particular, Erin, had tormented me at every lunch, recess and after school bus line since kindergarten. She called me names, shoved in line, ripped up my homework and stole my gym clothes, but her Erin’s hatred was overt, obvious, scathing as a lit match against my skin and just as bright. I could almost touch it, could imagine it bouncing off my skin like so many marbles, and that made it bearable. This shadow of undetected hatred sifted through everything, slithering along the floor and in through my ears, my mouth, my eyes like a disease.
Walking into school that Monday, it was as if I had suddenly been plucked from anonymity and placed under a microscope, projected onto the blackboard for everyone to see like the bugs we examined in science class.
For a girl who would rather have a cavity filled than give an oral report, this perceived scrutiny was torture. Until then, I never thought I was interesting enough to arouse the attention of anyone, much less the queen bees of middle school. Suddenly, my flaws were amplified, and I was sure that someone, if not everyone, had noticed.
The gossip didn’t stop after that day, just as that wasn’t when it probably started. It continued, as human nature is known to do, although the sting wore off with the novelty as years progressed. I see no reason to confront these girls years after the fact, for incidents I doubt any of them even remember. We grew up. We moved on in our own directions.
We all nurse scars from those days. No one’s childhood was perfect. And I think that’s the message here, if there is one. No one emerges from each life stage unscathed, and hopefully we don’t get through unchanged. I will never forget that feeling, that first day I realized how words can be used as weapons. I won’t say I don’t engage in gossip, I’m not that noble. But I do think twice before I whisper cutting epithets about someone else. My mind goes to a scrawny kid pressed up against a cement block wall, pulling at smiley face-covered bike shorts as her world changes around her.