Just the other day someone innocently asked what always has been an extremely senstive question for me: "Were you ever a cheerleader?" The answer, in case you're wondering, is no, although it is easy to see why someone would assume that I spent my early years fluffing pompoms. After all, I dated and then married a football player, and in my adult life I was a sportswriter. What more obvious beginning to a sporting life than to have apprenticed as a cheerleader?
Just a simple "no" to the query would suffice. But my Pavlovian response, developed over years and years of surpressing that ultimate rejection -- "No, I didn't get elected" -- hovers somewhere between paranoia and pathos. I usually laugh derisively, "Are you kidding? Me, waste my time?"
I lie. I would have killed to have been a cheerleader, and so would alot of other women in America who, like me, didn't make the grade.
Back in the 1950s, when I was in my formative years, being a cheerleader was the ultimate endorsement that meant you were popular. And being "popular" was infinitely better than being anything else; girls who made good grades were dismissed as "brains" and girls who tried too hard were "insincere." Girls who were too tall, too fat or too thin were pitied.
Generally speaking, the chosen fell into two distinct, but related, types: those with the sexy allure of Lana Turner, Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe, and those with the peppy personalities of Debbie Reynolds, Doris Day or June Allyson. Invariably thse girls looked terrific in the pleated skirts and oversized wool letter sweaters that were the prized uniforms of the cheerleading group. (I am purposefully neglecting the boys who were the backdrop of the cheerleading corps because, to tell you the truth, they were only there to lift and display the girls whose practice smiles could dazzle a Fourth of July sparkler.)
Before you think I am overemphasizing the importance of the cheerleading corps, let me set the stage for my high school days in the '50s. We were between wars, but patriotic to the core. We were the last of the sexually restrained teenagers, the last group of youngters who stood up when elders came into the room, said "Yes m'am" and "No sir", pledged allegiance, wore white gloves and hats in church and romaticized our futures. In Texas, where I grew up, cheerleading was so crucial to the fabric of teenage life that a small college was created to encourage the flagwaving halftime shenanigans of the Kilgore Rangerettes, a cheerleading version of the New York Radio City Rockettes.
In this placid Eisenhower era, cheerleaders symbolized what every young girl wanted: the movie star's splotlight, the political clout of popularity, the sanctimonious piety of promoting "good sportsmanship," which meant pretending you loved the enemy while secretly praying for his downfall. There, on the sidelines in the stadium, and in the high school hallways, the cheerleaders kept our spirits up and led us through a variety of tears and triumphs.
It was a position I wanted above all others. Alas, when my turn came to audition with a chorus line of young girls in gym class for the elimination trials, everything that could have gone wrong did. We had few illusions that we would be compared favorably to the prototypes Liz, Marily, Debbie and June. But there was always that chance that the gym teacher would single one of us out, and we'd achieve that magical halo of recognition.
We had practiced our carefully rehearsed cheer in backyards and living rooms throughout the neighborhood, and we thought we were ready. As I got up to perform, my legs trembled, and I felt my lip catch on a front tooh suddenly dried with desire. Like the other auditioning girls, we were dressed in dowdy gym suits of starched cotton, shapeless shifts with ballon-shapred shorts. Since we were midway through a compulsory tap dance segment of the gym program, our tennis shoes had chrome furniture slides hammered into toe and heel, and the unfortunate result was that while our leaps were enthusiastic, some of our landings were less than graceful.
I always thought we did all right, considering that the furniture slides made our shoes a little like roller skates, but those who voted did not agree. We were eliminated in the first round. Stung by the rejection, I vowed on the spot never again to attempt, even in the privacy of my own home, that most difficult of cheerleading tricks -- the inverted comma. That's where you leap into the air with your back painfully arched. You've tucked your legs up behind you (toes pointed, of course), and thrown your arms (holding the pompoms) back over your shoulders. It is the sort of movement that comes naturally to gymnast Cathy Rigby, but few others.
Looking back, I can almost convince myself that the only things that stood between me and cheerleading fame were four furniture slides, a stiff smile and a baggy white gym outfit. I must confess that I still have days when that early disappointment lies heavy on my heart. That's when you can find me in my bedroom with the door closed, standing in front of the mirror and whispering in my peppiest voice, "Give me an R, Give me an R...Lamar Redskins, Go!"
Joan Ryan, director of publications of the Yale School of Organization and Management, is a former sports columnist for The Washington Post