Nobody who has met me since I graduated high school believes it, but I was a cheerleader. I know for a fact that some people couldn’t believe it even when I was in high school. I’ll get to them in a minute.

First, I’ll show you proof in the form of pictures. I was actually a cheerleader for one year in junior high and one year in high school.

Picture of a girl sitting on the ground wearing a red, white, and blue cheerleading uniform

Junior High, 9th grade

Picture of a girl sitting on the ground in a cheerleading uniform with orange and blue pompoms.

High School, 11th grade

See? That’s me. No photoshopping, obviously, or they’d look much better.

One of my defense mechanisms, probably the most effective and definitely the hardest to dispense with, is my smile. I smile through everything, no matter how hard. My first ever therapist commented that I said these really emotionally difficult things with a smile on my face and a wistful tone in my voice. I’d never thought about it in terms of the incongruence before, but it was absolutely true. Still is – as my current therapist called me out for it in our last session.

I was also sort of uninhibited with my energy as a girl and young woman. Not exactly hyperactive, just sort of…ebullient. I would do cartwheels down the hall when I was happy…and they weren’t filled with students. I was enthusiastic, not reckless. And I was loud. In musicals, my voice carried to the back of the auditorium just fine on it’s own, no microphone needed.

The combination of smile and enthusiasm can look like pep. Pep plus loud equals cheerleader; or it did for me, even though my body is hopelessly inflexible and I got kicked out of gymnastics as a kid because I couldn’t do a forward roll. What I could do was memorize. I could memorize moves and stances and words. As a college student in ROTC, pretty much the only thing I excelled at was marching.

The final thing that got me on to the squad was that my junior high and high school did not have a popularity contest to choose the cheerleaders. It was done by committee and that committee had teachers on it. And most teachers, if they noticed I was in their class, liked me. I was smart and quiet and pleasant, so what’s not for a teacher to like? And auditions consisted mostly of doing a memorized routine and/or cheer. The only part I had difficulty with was making up an original cheer. Enter my brother’s girlfriend who happened to be a cheerleader. She taught me how to properly do a cheer and she helped me make up one of my own. Okay, she made one up and taught it to me. Potato, potahto. Whatever, it got me in.

But, why would I want to be a cheerleader, you may ask, when it seems so contrary to my apparent proclivities? Wouldn’t I have been more at home in the library or the chemistry club? Probably. But my mom was a cheerleader and popular. My family was full of sports fans. Except for me. And I wanted to belong.

Cheerleaders are popular, right? Turns out, not so much. I wore the same skirts and sweaters. Carried the same pompoms. Cheered the same cheers. But, with very few exceptions, I walked in a different world.

In ninth grade, I had Spanish with two other cheerleaders. Our teacher, let’s call him Mr. Jones, would assign busy work to the class and then sit up front with the other two gabbing about makeup and looking through fashion magazines. Occasionally, Mr. Jones would turn to my friend and I to say, “And then we have the…natural beauties.” You can’t hear the tone of voice, but trust me, this was not a compliment.

I don’t remember many other negative things about cheerleading in junior high. One of the girls on the squad was really good at making up intricate cheers. I loved learning them, but most of the squad thought they were too hard, so we never did them in public. I loved cheering for wrestling matches, too, because the cheers involved lots of rhythmic hand slapping on the mats. I can still remember a few of them and sometimes do them when I’m bored or agitated to calm myself. I find cheering soothing, so there’s another reason I did it.

Still, I left the squad to sit on the bench for the volleyball team in the spring and decided not to try out for the squad my first year in high school. But that year, my sophomore year, I found myself sitting in the stands watching the cheerleaders rather than the game. And missing it.

Girls dancing on a basketball court  wearing shorts and leis.

Performing to Wipe Out during an assembly.

So I tried out at the end of the year and made the varsity squad as a junior. But cheering in high school was different. We were the pom squad, too, so we got to dance as well as cheer. That was the good part. On the not so good side, the students would sometimes boo us and throw ice at us from the stands during football games. We were required to attend two sporting events per week. After football season, I did my best to choose the under-represented sports. Soccer. Volleyball. Cross-country running was my favorite.

I stuck out from the squad even more than I had in junior high. There were two other girls from my choir who were also on the squad, so I fit in with them and with one or two other girls, but most of the other cheerleaders kind of pretended I didn’t exist. There’s this picture of us practicing in the cafeteria one day. It’s actually two pictures because they couldn’t fit the whole line in one. I know I was there that day, but I’m not in either of the pictures. I’m on the fold between that got cut out.

I quit that squad in the spring, too. I think I said something about needing to focus on the musical and still manage my classes, but that wasn’t the real reason. See, there were a couple of popular girls who tried out, but didn’t make it on to the squad that year. They were pretty pissed about it. Pissed at me in particular because it was so obvious I didn’t belong. How do I know this? They weren’t shy about pointing it out. Especially at basketball games, where they would position themselves in front of me and mock me with exaggerated movements and facial expressions.

They had both been on the squad with me in junior high. One of them, in fact, was in my ninth grade Spanish class with Mr. Jones. We weren’t strangers, though they never would have acknowledged knowing my name if they met me in the halls. We weren’t strangers and I thought they knew what they were talking about. I knew I didn’t belong, but it was quite a jolt to see that I hadn’t fooled them. That they knew this was all playing out in some alternate universe that somehow needed to be set right.

I wish I’d known then that they were full of shit.