When I was in high school, I wanted to be a cheerleader. That is, of course, an understatement. I did not merely want to be a cheerleader, the way a good person wants to spend Eternity in Heaven, or the way a pregnant mother of five daughters wants a son. I mean, I really wanted to be a cheerleader. And I never made it.
Clearly it wasn't for lack of trying. Today, almost 30 years later, I still remember untold hours spent trying, practicing the arm motions, and the jumps, and my Ann-Margret smile. What eluded me, it seems now, was a kind of careless grace with which those who Made It must have been born.
In the early '50s girls wore sweaters and skirts to school, usually full skirts, with hems that stopped at midcalf. But cheerleaders, in my school, anyway, got to wear their uniforms, with skirts that fell to a daring three inches above the knee.
Cheerleaders somehow always knew what to do with their hair. They knew how high their socks should be. They knew which year to buy camel-hair coats and which to buy pea jackets. Or perhaps they decided those things for the rest of us. In that case, why did they always hold off on these decisions until after my mother and I had returned from shopping for the wrong things?
Cheerleaders wore class rings around their necks on chains. These rings were given to them by quarterbacks named Buzzy or forwards named Stan. The chain was just long enough to insure that the ring would nestle in the valley between two perfectly pointed, Maidenform-covered bosoms, size 34B. Smaller would have been unthinkable -- cheerleaders weren't supposed to be flat-chested -- and larger would have been ungainly. Cheerleaders did not do anything to excess.
I started thinking about cheerleaders again, and their exalted place in the high-school hierarchy, when we moved to the suburbs eight years ago. As soon as the football season started, they were everywhere; in the line just ahead of us at McDonalds, browsing through cosmetics at the drug store, waiting in a group (gaggle? flock?) to cross the street, wearing their uniforms, tossing their hair. When I looked at them, suddenly I wasn't a wife, mother or writer. I became for the moment just another kid in that vast army of kids I remembered who look at cheerleaders and wonder: How did you do it?
I'm working on a theory that goes something like this: Maybe some of the things we want the most for ourselves are saved and given to our children instead. Which is not such a bad idea. This theory was born when, after weeks of constant practice, my ninth-grade daughter made the JV cheerleading squad.
She knew, of course, about my cheerleading history, and she knew that my first choice for her would have been for her not to want it. After all, I would have had a much happier time as a kid if I hadn't wanted it. But my second choice was for her to make it if she wanted it, so we were all delighted. (I spent the day of the tryouts unable to write a word, reduced to pacing from the pretzel box to the telephone, staring out of the window and mumbling. It was not Maturity's finest hour.)
And now it is another football season. I will be taking my turn carpooling the girls in the short skirts to the games. And you can bet I'll be in the stands sometimes, listening to the band, oddly nostalgic for a time I honestly wouldn't have back again for money and a book contract, and watching the girls cheer. No longer women of mystery, no longer symbols of something I lost a long time ago, they are, finally, properly, just Liz and her friends, out there in the sun, doing their thing.