When I was a freshman in high school, I was suitably awkward; I still wore the remains of my sun-in bleached hair, to the extent that quite literally, my grow-out reached my ears and I didn’t seem to notice or care. I was on the overweight side and hadn’t quite mastered the art of makeup. Suffice to say that glitter purchased for $12.50 at Sephora figured heavily into my routine, long before I figured out that I could purchase similar at Michael’s for a buck or two.
But when I stood in my high school’s library a few days before classes started, clutching a backpack and sleeping bag in preparation for the annual freshman overnight, I was nervous but not afraid. I’d spent the previous ten years with a group of friends I could be 100% myself with, in a school that celebrated and nurtured my gifts and talents. I stood in that library filled with confidence…so much so that later that night, I ended up belting out Christina Aguilera’s “I Turn to You” in front of my entire incoming class. When my mom picked me up the next morning I was beaming, because overnight I was known as The Girl Who Can SING.
Of course, as the months of that first year wore on, I began to feel that while I was the girl who could sing, I was not the prettiest girl or the smartest girl. I was definitely not the most popular girl. The answer to overcoming these perceived shortcomings seemed so crystal clear: I would become a CHEERLEADER!
So I tried out…a week of learning cheers and dances for two hours after school. I didn’t love it. It wasn’t fun, but I couldn’t shake the belief that this was a status I simply had to claim for myself.
But I didn’t make the squad. I was crushed, I cried, etc. But that same spring, I joined an A Capella group and had a complete blast singing with other girls with two of the coolest teachers I’ve ever known. We were called the Sirens, and in our first official meeting we determined that we simply must order sweatpants with our name emblazoned across the butt.
We did order them, and I wore them proudly for the majority of my sophomore year. I was wearing them on September 11, 2001, come to think of it. That group was fantastic—comprised of talented, quirky, unique young women. It was an absolute joy for me to sing with them. In the spring, I tried out for cheer, again. And didn’t make it. Again. But I have a crystal clear memory of the spring musical- A Broadway medley of sorts, performing a song from Godspell. Each of us wore a different color, and decked out in blue fishnets and eyeliner, waving my boa like a crazy person, I stood on that stage and belted out my solo line like a freakin’ boss.
(By the way, I never say crap like that, so you know it must have been awesome)
My English teacher would later describe that moment as TRIUMPHANT. Fourteen years later, I can tell you: That’s exactly what it was.
And then junior year. I was deep in the throes of rehearsals for the spring musical (a stage adaptation of Sister Act 2—I got to wear a habit, so that was a huge win) when cheer tryouts came along. This time, likely out of sheer admiration for my persistence, the coach gave me a spot on the squad. I was ELATED over this, but if you were to ask me what I remember most about that spring, that moment wouldn’t make the list. In reality, I remember eating my Quizno’s sandwich and rehearsing in the gym every night for weeks. I remember laughing with my castmates and the dedication and creativity of our director. I remember winning a local award for my performance (with two others), giving an acceptance speech and feeling prouder of myself than I’d ever felt before. Maybe ever, period.
That summer, I went to cheer camp and spent every morning at cheer practice. Every Friday afternoon and evening were occupied by football games, then basketball games, etc. I spent way too much of my free time with girls who didn’t like me and weren’t afraid to show it. They had the perfect glossy hair and flawless makeup, but they were certainly not my people. A couple of them were nice enough, and I’m sure they’re all lovely women now, but from where I stood, they were mean and I was miserable in this activity that had held so much value to me.
When auditions came around for the spring musical, I was offered a lead role in Godspell. I was SO excited to get cheer the hell over with and get back with my people. I had missed several rehearsals due to cheerleading obligations and was just ready to be done. I got a call from one of the teachers involved with the play during our end-of-season cheer banquet (better known as the last time I’d be forced to spend time with those girls who hated me) because I was missing from rehearsal, again.
The next day, I was told I’d missed one too many. I could no longer stay on as a lead. Our director told me that I was welcome to participate in the ensemble, but it wouldn’t be fair to the others who’d worked so hard if I kept my lead role. I protested, tearfully, telling her that cheer had sucked but it was over and I was ready now. Fairly, she stuck to her guns.
Two things I wish I could tell my 18-year-old self in that moment:
- She’s right.
- Join the ensemble. Swallow your pride and spend these last days of high school doing what you LOVE.
Two things I wish I could tell my 14-year-old self:
- Cheer is for the birds. Okay, fine, it’s not for the birds, but it’s definitely not for you. Don’t waste your energy, and certainly don’t waste your tears on something so unworthy.
- Do what you love. Do it NOW, do it often. Pour your very soul into it, because someday you’ll be THIRTY, and married, with a beautiful baby. And you’ll love your life but you will wish you hadn’t wasted so much energy on the things that didn’t matter.
One thing I’m telling my 30-year-old self:
It’s not too late.
Yes, responsibilities and blah blah blah. But there is time to pursue what moves you. There is time to write and create and sing and make a ruckus. I wish my younger self would have known in high school to sing her ass off because she was GOOD at it and she LOVED it. I wish she’d known to prioritize it over boys who’d break her heart and girls who’d break her spirit. Hell, I wish my college self would have known that. Don’t waste your life prioritizing glossy hair and what matters to everyone else when you could be doing what matters to YOU. The memories you will hold onto the tightest won’t be of the many ways you tried to fit in; they’ll be of the times you stood out.
She didn’t know that, but I do.
Here’s to a new year…let’s make it count.