I spent most of my high school years really hating cheerleaders.
I hated their little pleated skirts, their cliquishness and most of all, I hated their cartwheels. Of course, they didn’t notice me hating them; they didn’t notice me at all.
Being careful not to get what you wish for is nothing compared to being careful not to hate something so much the gods cannot resist a good laugh at your expense. Which is what must have been going on when my 14-year-old daughter announced she was trying out for the high school cheerleading squad. I tried to be supportive, but secretly I was seething. Was this her way of sticking it to me? Did she deliberately set out to become an anachronism just to prove that mothers like me can spawn cheerleaders in spite of our best intentions?
Everyone who knows me well has gotten a small chuckle out of my predicament when this daughter of mine actually made the squad. Not only am I the mother of a cheerleader, it gets worse. I am a cheerleader mother. These mothers speak a certain code. Most of them were cheerleaders in their former life, the life they miss a lot. They understand things like when the gift maximum is $5 per gift, it really means $15 per gift. The secret, underworld cheerleader mother code is incomprehensible to me. I am always one step off the beat, one gift short, one sock missing and one daughter late enough she has to run a mile as punishment for a bad mother.
“But why do you want to be a cheerleader?” I ask her, exhausted by another cheerleader mother meeting where we plan endlessly for camp and order objects like matching, monogrammed pom bags.
It’s a sport now, I am informed. It’s less about cheers and more about winning competitions with complicated pyramid formations and gymnastic displays. What football team? It’s also about injuries and torn, sprained, wounded body parts. It’s not for sissies but it’s also not where the popular girls hang out.
“What?” I exclaim. “It’s not about being popular?”
I narrow my eyes and get in my daughter’s face. “What is it about then?”
She answers as honestly as a 14-year-old can answer.
“It’s about the skirt.”
Like mother, like daughter?
Admit it. You get pregnant, have a kid, and you figure it’s going to be somewhat like you. Take it a little further and you hope it has your good qualities and none of your fatal flaws, Achilles heels or irritating, obsessive-compulsive disorders. You secretly hope her hair is either blond or brunette but not the muddy dirt color yours would be, if yours were yours, that is. You wouldn’t mind if she tanned naturally so you didn’t have to freak about sunburns and all that.
A nice voice would be nice. A sense of rhythm would not be too much to hope for. Other things, math ability, kind heart, curious mind and if you are really lucky, not too much of an overbite. I know, I know, 10 fingers and toes and the right amount of chromosomes would take precedence over all of the above. Let’s just say that’s understood.
Watching her personality emerge is like opening a beautifully wrapped present; ribbon by bow, by paper, by box, by tissue and there it is. Not a lot changes. SAT scores inch up or down slightly, hair color darkens or lightens and the ability to laugh at oneself becomes apparent. Qualities flicker before they take hold, but the adult is plainly visible in the teenager. It’s not a finished product, but it’s lurking there.
I can already see that she is easily amused, kind to animals, disinterested in gossip, curious about relationships, weak in math, strong in language and absolutely awesome in shop, where she can take apart an engine and put it back together again.
Her cartwheel is perfect and her back handspring suitable enough to win a spot on the coveted squad. None of which, I ought to mention, comes naturally. I have sat in the waiting room of gymnastic workshops for years as she has willed her splits and handsprings through rigorous training and determination without an ounce of natural ability. I am in awe of such determination to change the course of nature.
But this is not the daughter I had in mind. A daughter of mine ought to be gawky, bookish and unable to clap to the beat of the music. I just don’t understand how the gene blender produced her. She’s a beloved alien. Her perfect posture, quick smile and glossy black hair, combined with her ability to do things easily, would never qualify for daughter of mine. There’s just not a recognizable trait that could link her to me. She doesn’t possess the paralyzing shyness, awkward gait, discordant drummer that led me through my adolescence.
Lessons from a high-school reunion
And now she’s the anti-me. The daughter who will make geeks like I was twist with envy as she flips her way down high school hallways, effortlessly swirling her pleated skirt in their wake. They will work harder, diet more relentlessly and hope, by the night of their 20-year reunion, that she has gotten fat, sluggish, divorced and depressed so they can gloat and reclaim their belief that they were something in spite of her.
I went to my 20-year high school reunion really hoping the aged cheerleaders would be fat, boring, black-rooted, multi-married frumps who never quite got over being popular in high school. The cheerleaders looked 20 years older and, unfortunately, most of them looked pretty darn good. Some had traded their cheerleader skirt for a tennis skirt, but others were lawyers, doctors and Indian chiefs. There was no revenge of the nerds. Everyone was still the same, just older, more gray, thicker and less anxious to fit in. I asked most of my classmates the same question. Did you like your high school years? The answers were surprising. Almost everyone said they felt insecure, left out and unnoticed. I was expecting to hear strains of Springteen’s Glory Days, but instead, it was Janis Ian, At Seventeen. It seemed that everyone thought everyone else was having a blast — especially the cheerleaders.
I left wanting to share my new-found wisdom with the miserable, unnoticed teenagers I know. I want to prove to them that it all works out, gets better and that nobody is as happy as you think they are in high school. But they wouldn’t believe me, would they?
While driving to practice, I urge my daughter to be kind to others, to think of her little pleated skirt as a privilege, something that comes with a price tag she doesn’t even know about yet. And she turns those black-fringed eyes upon me and says that she is nice to everyone.
I believe her. At the reunion I can honestly say that all the cheerleaders were nice to me. It was a shocking revelation when I finally realized it. Even that night of hugs and do-you-remembers, nobody was not nice. After all, acts of malice are rare and isolated; it is the brutality of indifference that leaves its mark.
So I figure I’ve given the wrong message after all. I haven’t imprinted my cheerleader with the right legacy she ought to leave.
Next carpool, I will tell her to forget about being nice to everyone and to notice them instead.