Yell With Me
My eighth grade English teacher told me I should tryout to be a cheerleader in high school and I laughed in her face. I am far from bubbly and spirited, but that wasn't the reason why I found it so ridiculous. For my entire life, I have had a deep-seeded disdain for cheerleading, and sometimes, by proxy, cheerleaders.
Please understand. As most people with implicit biases, I was not willing to recognize it for what it is. After all, my role model growing up decided to become a cheerleader when she got to high school, and I couldn't hold that against her. I never would have said anything disparaging about her, but as whole... I have said some harsh things. I think it goes without saying I avoided it like the plague once I got to high school. I did sports, theatre, marching band, jazz band, youth group. But not cheer. Never cheer, I would say to myself.
It was only a matter of time before I had to confront it and deal with it. You can run from your implicit biases, but you can't hide from them-- especially at college. In a new environment with a clean slate, most of us found freedom in the relationships we created with our new identities. Through similar courses of study, I found my kindred spirit. We were partnered together for a project by one of our professors, and over the course of our last two years at the university, she became a irreplaceable piece of my support system. However, if we had met in high school, we would have hated each other. She was a cheerleader captain at a small school outside city limits. I was a drum major and theatre geek inside the city. Our social circles would not have crossed, minus glaring at each other from the sidelines at sporting events. Nevertheless, with our newfound college freedom and without the labels and "concrete" identities of high school, we bonded over our faith, our love for literature, and our similar senses of humor. This friendship remained serendipitous when we both accepted jobs at the same high school (a rare happening in our school district). To this day, we talk to each other daily and continue to weep and laugh together regularly.
We've continued to work at the same school for four years, and our involvement with extracurriculars has ebbed and flowed, but remained separate. While I was drawn to the performing arts, she engaged more with the athletic department, and in the last two years, took over the cheerleading program. I've learned so much about cheer culture and her job as a coach just from our phone conversations and nights out, as she would confide in me. This exposure has been key into warming me up to cheerleading, and addressing the stigma I've attached to it.
This past year, as the new cheer season approached, she expressed a need for someone to help her with the administrative tasks. And I surprised everyone when I jumped at the opportunity. She looked at me with trepidation. "I don't want you to do this just because I need someone. I can find someone else. I want you to do it because you truly want to."
I insisted. Not because of cheer. Definitely not because of cheer. But because of her. I wanted to support her decision to stay on as coach and raise up these girls. I could tell by the way she had spoken about these girls the last four years that they meant the world to her. She has spent so much time and energy helping them train and perform, but she has also spent countless hours investing in them as human beings. Additionally, I could tell by the way they flock to her during the school day and at sporting events that they treasure her, not only as a coach, but as a role model. If anything, me taking on this administrative role would allow her to spend more time thriving and doing what she loves as a coach.
It wasn't until this last week, as I experienced my first cheer camp ever, that I realized the weight and the importance of this decision. Even amongst all of the screaming and tumbling, it provided me with time to ponder and reflect on my evolution in my new role. I've noticed two things.
Over the last four months, as people have found out about my new role, I have been met with a variety of responses, usually befuddlement or confusion. You? A cheerleading coach? It just doesn't make sense.
I know. I get it doesn't make sense. I understand that I don't fit the stereotype, and some of you have probably heard me say some harsh things about cheerleading. Regardless of what you're insinuating or thinking, here's what I have to say to you: My best friend is running an impeccable program. Her goal is not to teach the girls to be obsessive about their appearance or entitled. It's not about performance and the spotlight or objectifying women (and trust me, she is incredibly intentional about choreography to avoid this). Her goal is to teach girls confidence, stamina, and character. Character is key here. If you spent just a week with us at practice, you would see the types of activities and practice we do to make it more than pompoms and jumps. She has created a culture of ladies helping ladies, which we need a lot more of in this world. The environment supports anyone from the most confident to the most insecure, and makes sure there is a spot for everyone at the table. She's been intentional about every choice she makes as a coach because she understands the gravity of creating a great program. As it is with any organization (like the local church, school districts, non-profits, etc.), if it's run by great people, it will be great. If it's run by crappy people, it will be crappy. Leaders steer and dictate the vision and direction of any program. And the vision and direction of this program is a bigger deal than any cheer stereotype can address.
The next thing to recognize is that any cheer program is made up of individuals. Our program cannot be defined by a stereotype; by doing so, you will miss out on much of what makes our girls special. Our girls are wonderful and I adore them. They are each unique young women, who deserve to be celebrated for their specific strengths and giftings. As a feminist, how can I not be drawn to our program of 39 girls? Girls who need role models, wisdom, guiding voices. Girls who are awkward and goofy and should be allowed to be, instead of giving into societal pressure to be perfect and vapid.
They are funny, they are smart, they are hard workers, they are talented.
They are anxious, they are insecure, they are young. They need strong, empowered women so they can be strong, empowered women.
I'm sure there are cheerleading programs out there that would just enforce all of my past beliefs about that culture. But within each of those programs, maybe there's someone wanting and waiting to break the mold. I need to respect that. I need to respect the individuals. So even though I still do not understand all that cheer camp brings to the table, and all of the shrill screaming voices will inevitably result in a headache for me, I'm willing to accept that there is a place for me in the cheer community. It might not look like what my eighth grade English teacher imagined, but if she told me that again, I would thank her. It is an honor to be a part of the sisterhood, to watch these sisters grow and become the women of tomorrow.