Typical Individuality

Or How Diversity Unites Us

Lizz Schumer

Lizz Schumer
Location
Buffalo, New York, USA
Birthday
August 13
Title
writer, editor, reporter, photographer, propagator and patron of the arts: all.
Company
http://lizzschumer.com
Bio
Author of "Buffalo Steel" (Black Rose Writing 2013), I'm the editor of a small newspaper in upstate New York, hold an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College. I also freelance for several publications, both print and online.

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OCTOBER 17, 2011 4:16PM

Gossip Queen

Rate: 8 Flag

 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. 

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Comments

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Your story is so authentic. I know exactly how you felt/feel.
Thanks Linnnn! I think it happens to a lot of kids that age, or kids of any age, for that matter.
Great writing.

"I remember a sense of camaraderie between them that I felt as if through a dusty screen door."

We never forget the hurts that opened our eyes to the real world around us. But it's a beautiful world, too. Filled with the people that love and cherish us. These people have a much greater influence on who we become, but they get much less credit.
Thanks CrazyKBall! I completely agree with this:

"We never forget the hurts that opened our eyes to the real world around us. But it's a beautiful world, too. Filled with the people that love and cherish us. These people have a much greater influence on who we become, but they get much less credit."

There should be an Open Call to thank those who did just that.
You nailed it perfectly with this: This shadow of undetected hatred sifted through everything, slithering along the floor and in through my ears, my mouth, my eyes like a disease
Your story is so beautifully written, and told so well.

I think I'd rather have someone outright mean to me than saying things behind my back.

The good thing is, it's made you a kinder person, which will no doubt help someone who's not as strong as you. And you would have to be -- you lived thru it and you wrote about, and that's brave.

Knowing how it feels keeps me from saying things I shouldn't to other people.

--Andrea
sandra: Thanks! I think that's what gets me about gossip, its subversive quality. Makes me want to shower.

Andrea: Appreciate it! I don't know about kinder, nothing makes me want to throw some 'bows if it's not seeing someone beating up on someone weaker, be it mentally, physically or emotionally. I'd always rather have someone throw a punch at me than toss around words behind my back.
Ouch. Female adolescence is such a rough time. Reminds me of this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Eiv7H9XQRY
What a fantastic video, Beth! I love Tori Amos, but I'd never seen this one.
What a lovely piece of writing. You really managed to capture the pain and loss of social innocence that accompanies female adolescence.

I particularly love the phrase, "The whisper slithered into my ear like a snake". Such a perfect description of overheard gossip.

Your story also resonated with me because I too experienced something similar in seventh grade. Our parochial school had a small (8 person) cheerleading team similar to the one you describe (although ours had try-outs).

Despite being a shy, awkward kid, I decided to compete for a spot on the team. After school, I practiced on my own so that I could bring my best self to the try-outs. When the big day came, I won a coveted spot on the team and was thrilled to be chosen.

The team (all "A list" clique-sters with the exception of moi) were not exactly pleased to learn that I made the team. Especially since one of their dear friends had failed to make the cut because of me.

So they rallied the gym teacher (who coached the team) to protest. By the end of the day, I was off the team, replaced by the girl who initially failed to make the cut.

When the gym teacher broke the news to me, she explained that there had been a 'mistake' in scoring at the try-outs, and that I never should have made the team in the first place.

For me, this incident represented my first significant awareness that merit alone isn't quite enough to get by in this world. It's who you know that really counts.
Charmaine: How very true! It's so damaging when adults join in the discrimination against children, and makes me sick to hear about. I'm sorry you had to go through that. On the other hand, doesn't sound like the kind of group you would have enjoyed being a part of. Thanks for reading!