During my sophomore or junior year of high school, someone decided to turn cheerleading tryouts into a hazing ritual. The decision maker must have been either the principal or the athletic director because I doubt the cheerleading coach volunteered her future charges for solo performances in front of the entire student body. Staging mass social suicide didn’t seem like her cup of tea.
I was happy to leave seventh period early, go to the main gymnasium, and goof off while everyone found a seat in the bleachers.
At my private Christian school no boy would have dared to try out and risked being labeled “gay” for the remainder of his scholastic career, so girls made up the pool of candidates. The idea was to have “auditions” for spots on the three cheerleading squads and to somehow make them more a democracy than a popularity contest.
Some people fear public speaking more than death, but this was far worse. Just imagine yelling “Let’s go!” and “Defense!” and “ and “Mustangs are #1!” and flapping your arms and shaking your rump and mustering impossible enthusiasm in front of five hundred people who will notice your every mistake and who have the power to turn your high school experience into a sequel of Mean Girls. Imagine a horde of Simon Cowells, but without his credentials. Imagine his wisecracks, insults, and bluntness made even more potent with adolescent energy, creativity, and cruelty.
When the teachers had finally gotten everybody quiet and the moment arrived, one of the teachers, maybe Mrs. McDowell who taught Economics, gave the signal, and the first girl cantered to the half court line wearing her biggest, peppiest smile. She had learned a cheer and choreography in advance. A terrible sequence of events unfolded in the gym that day.
Our next contestant opened her routine with a series of back handsprings, which were impressive until she ran out of spring on the last rotation. Her body weight and momentum brought her head into contact with the wooden floor. The thud echoed around the gym. She lay still for a moment, and everyone inhaled.
But she popped up like one of those bottom-heavy punching dummies with her arms ramrod straight and her fists balled and scampered back to the half court line. Her face was twisted in pain and wet from crying. For twenty seconds, I watched with a mixture of horror, sadness, and awe as she finished her routine.
As if her fall wasn’t humiliating enough, some senior boys jumped to their feet and held up poster board signs with 9s and 10s drawn in Sharpie. The irony wasn’t lost on her. She burst into a fresh rain of tears and sprinted out of the gym.
Several teachers with stern faces parted the crowd and confiscated the signs, but the damage was done. More painful moments followed: girls looked up into that sea of faces and forgot the words to the cheer. They messed up the dance moves or tried to improve upon them with some ill-advised flourishes. Some of their bodies disagreed with the cheerleading outfits, and nothing draws an ugly crowd like belly fat escaping over a pleated skirt.
The supposed genius behind these social suicides was rewarding anyone who tried out a spot on one of the squads. The girls ranked their choices in order from the most desired squad to the least. Basketball and football competed for the number one spot, and wrestling was at the bottom. High scores from student ballots and teacher votes determined who got what.
A girl in my grade wanted to cheer only for the football team and chose to not to put a second or third choice. Without enough votes to land in the top tier, she didn’t get her first choice and thus made none of the squads.
That night, she visited Hillsboro Church of Christ for the first time.
My high school youth minister Tim also taught Bible and Psychology classes at David Lipscomb High School and coached the linebackers on the football team, so he’d been present at the day’s festivities.
As I mentioned in my last post, “Bless His Heart,” he sometimes lacked what we call “intuition,” that deftness at understanding people’s feelings and reading body language, that gift for picking the locks of people’s hearts, taking a peek into their emotional medicine cabinets, and steering the conversation away from a painful memory.
He tried to start out our bible class with a joke: “Did your hear about that one cheerleader who didn’t make any of the squads?”
The girl raised her hand and said, “Yeah, that was me.”
She never came to Hillsboro again.