The Reason I Am Writing This Blog Post
Three years ago, I was making small talk with this kid whom we are going to leave physically ambiguous and call Dude for the purpose of identity protection:
Dude: What’re you doing Wednesday B-Block?
Me: The concussion baseline test thing. I’ve been putting it off for weeks now.
Dude: Oh, you’re in cheer, right?
Me: Yeah man.
Dude: Why do you even need concussion testing for cheer? What’re you gonna do, get hit in the head by a stray pom-pom or something? Hahahahahahahaha.
Just wondering, is it possible for me to arrange for you to accidentally get run over by some sort of large vehicle?
Me: [Never speaks to Dude again.]
Three years later, I still scowl whenever I think about this conversation.
I am hoping that this blog post will educate the Dudes of the world.
Maybe then I will scowl a little less. It is giving me wrinkles.
Part I: Junior Varsity
Succumbing to the TJ Standard
Fall of 2011, my freshman year, I decided to try out for TJ’s junior varsity cheer squad. Sure, I’d read once in some rando article on the Internet that cheerleading is one of the most dangerous sports in the United States. But when I decided to try out, I glazed right over this fact. Why? At the time, popular opinion held that TJ cheer met the TJ Standard.
TJ (noun): Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a title that is as pretentious as its students are dorky. It is widely recognized by newspapers and magazines as one of the nation’s top high schools. Additionally, it is widely recognized by nearby high schools and their students as one of the nation’s scrawniest, nerdiest, easiest-to-defeat-at-any-varsity-sport-other-than-varsity-math high schools.
TJ Standard (noun): The level of nerd-school-ness at which all sports must be knocked down ten notches in intensity to make up for the fact that, presumably, the entire student population consists of nerd-school children who scurry around hunchbacked under the weight of their future aspirations and monster backpacks.
Examples of Usage: “It’s super chill.” “They barely ever stunt.” “You’ll make new friends.” “Oh, it’s TJ cheer. It can’t be dangerous at all.”
Which would be why I decided to try out.
On my way in, I tripped on the mat and nearly broke my face. The coaches sent me back out so I could take a breather and relearn how body parts work. And I still made the team.
Yeah, I know, right? I STILL made the team.
So, yeah. TJ Standard.
That first year, cheer was just as super-chill and non-dangerous and a-fabulous-friend-making-opportunity as I expected. We ran a bit, did some push-ups, and learned a variety of chants and cheers that we poisoned with our nerd-school-ness by replacing things like “B, L, O C K! Block! That kick!” with things like “H, 2, C O 3! Carbonic! Acid!” On chilly Friday nights, we’d drag ourselves to football games and shout at empty bleachers, our bellies full of Tropical Smoothie and halftime snacks. Occasionally, we’d throw a stunt or two, which always made us excessively proud. I remember the first time we put up a simple prep-to-extension at a game. I kind of glooped into my bases’ hands, wobbled around a bit, somehow emerged from this human mess into the air, and stood there confusedly waving my poms for 10 seconds before dismounting with the grace of a potato falling down the stairs.
And then I’d be all like, Yeah, I’m a flyer for the cheer squad. Yeah, we do stunts all the time. Mhm. Mhm. Oh no, it’s not scary at all.
I think back to these days sometimes, back when I got all conceited and worked up about a simple prep-to-extension. It is extremely cringeworthy. In fact, I am cringing now. Cringe.
Meanwhile, as junior varsity pranced and smiled through the empty-bleachered football season, varsity was preparing for the Liberty District Semifinals. From what I overheard in the locker room, we took it seriously enough, but not serious enough, if you know what I mean. Like, we performed every year, and impressively enough, our flyers never hit the mat during a routine. Except we also got 8th out of 8 every year. And our flyers never hit the mat because our routines were easy peasy.
Once again: TJ Standard met.
And on a deeper level, we were succumbing not only to TJ Standard, but also to Cheer Standard.
Cheer Standard (noun): [see aforementioned conversation with Dude]
Examples of Usage: “Cheerleaders are just supposed to stand there and look hot.” “Cheerleaders are clueless and bimbo-esque.” “All cheerleaders do is prance around and be smiley.”
I’m going to be honest here. Freshman year, even I didn’t think cheer was very intense. I mean, aside from an unexpected amount of running and discipline that resulted from having a former drill sergeant for a coach, it seemed like all cheer involved was prancing around and being smiley.
Then, October of 2011, I got my first glimpse of what cheer really is.
As junior varsity, we were required to attend all of varsity’s competitions. So October of 2011, my squadmates and I groaned about unfinished biology homework, packed our bags with our laptops and TI-84s, and rode the bus to watch varsity compete for the first time.
When our team was called, I yelled and clapped along with my squad, sneaking glances towards my math homework at intervals. Even with all these sneaky math glances, I could see that while our routine was clean and well-executed, it was overly and obviously simple. It was like we were performing at a consistently 1+1 level, while the other schools were operating at 46×8 or even (9.38×82)^e. So yes. We were very much adhering to the TJ Standard.
Anyway, varsity finished their routine, junior varsity finished yelling and clapping, and I returned to my math homework. It wasn’t until varsity tramped in to join us on the bleachers that I looked up and saw Ariana’s face.
It was red and covered in blotches, spliced with triple tear tracks.
Further down, her ankle was swollen to twice its normal size. You see, she’d sprained it during the first minute of the routine, but continued jumping, dancing, and stunting with an I-am-so-peppy-and-enthusiastic-and-just-all-around-so-hashtag-blessed-to-be-here smile on her face. She’d powered through the pain, the image of happy and spirited, for two whole minutes before the routine ended and she finally broke down in the hallway outside.
Here marks the line in this blog, my friend.
Here is where you go from being a clueless Dude to an educated Person Who Understands.
Part II: Varsity
Rising Above the TJ Standard
Fall of 2012, my sophomore year, I made TJ’s varsity cheer squad.
That year, something changed. All of a sudden, our coaches were no longer satisfied with last place. All of a sudden, we were no longer satisfied with last place.
The first sign? Daniel, Fonte, and David. That fall, we became a co-ed squad. Now, before I go any further, I have an important public service announcement. Boys of the world, hear me out: there is no further proof that you are comfortable with your masculinity than becoming a stuntman. Boys of the world, hear me out: you can lift weights like any other insecure guy, or you can lift girls like a real man. Alternatively, you can throw girls. Alternatively, you can even throw other guys.
Boys of the world, hear me out: there are few guys on this planet I appreciate more than my stuntmen. Do not make fun of them. Do not call them gay. Do not poke and prod and giggle at a sport you clearly do not understand. Are you reading me right now? I’ve crash-landed on Daniel’s chest, falling 6 feet from the sky, and he took it like a man. I’ve elbowed Fonte in the eye, spinning 360° while falling 6 feet from the sky, and he took it like a man. I’ve never stunted with David, but I am sure he got sat on / fallen on / generally beat up at some point. I am also sure that he took it like a man. And when Kenny and Tony joined the next year, guess who also took things like a man?
The second sign? Choreography week. Our infant squad held a bundle of potential and latent energy that the coaches recognized was greater than that of previous years: we had some boys, we had some tumbling, and we had some individuals with prior experience. Because of this potential, this year’s routine was different. Chock full of advanced stunts and fast-paced movement, it was levels up from anything our squad had competed with in the past several years. Those 10 notches we got knocked down to make room for our nerd-school-ness? Notches no more. This year’s routine launched us right up there with the other schools. With this year’s routine, we were determined to move up from 8th place.
We weren’t going to play it safe anymore. Flyers were going to hit the mat. Bases were going to get kicked in the face. Backspots were going to dive to the ground to prevent falling bodies from breaking in two.
I’m not sure how to fully un-clueless-ify you in a way that you’ll really, truly understand what cheerleading became for me. For all of us. So I’m just going to run you through one practice. One practice of six a week—two hours long on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday; three hours long on early Saturday mornings. During the season, I spent more time at school than I did at home. Wake up at 6:00 AM, get home at 8:30 PM, bulldoze through stacks of nerd-school homework. Rinse & repeat. Sleep in and take a walk on Sunday. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Right, so, one practice.
4:15 PM: You drag yourself into the gym after taking a 30-minute nap spread-eagled in the hallway outside. You heard a shutter click sometime during this period, which means someone snapped a photo, captioned it “lol tj lyfe” and texted it to a dozen buddies. Also, you fell asleep on your precalc homework, so there are hyperboloids and trigonometric functions printed faintly on one cheek. Also, you are starved, so you rummage around in your lunchbox and emerge with a bag of prunes. Thanks Mom.4:20 PM: After stumbling to the locker room to struggle into spanx and a tee, you go to unroll mats with the rest of your squad, who occupy varying stages of tired and starved. But you are together, so the conversation begins, crawling and sleepy at first, a buzz in the background. You circle up and do stretches. When you count—“fifteen. fourteen. thirteen. twelve. […]”—it sounds like a bunch of prisoners chanting hymns as they shuffle out to work on the railroad. You do some curl-ups. You do some push-ups. You do some toe touches, hurdlers, and herkies. You do more curl-ups and more push-ups. You look down at the mat, which is gross and probably carries at least 8 diseases, and wonder exactly how pissed Coach would be if you kind of just fell over sideways and passed out with your cheek against the blue fuzz.4:30 PM: When you go out to run your mile, the only thing that keeps you from falling flat on your face is your ponytail. With each step, it bobs back and forth, and with your pink bow, you know that at least on the outside, you look just like a preppy, enthusiastic cheerleader. You look that way, so you feel that way—what I call ponytail adrenaline. Of all the athletes, cheerleaders are the best at masking what’s really going on behind the smiles and pink hair bows. Anyway, when you run a mile for cheer practice, you do not run it quietly. You run whilst yelling your competition routine at the top of your lungs, like you are shooting cannons from your diaphragm. THOMAS. JEFFERSON. WE’RE HERE TO MAKE IT THROUGH. Except halfway through the mile it becomes more like: THOmas. JEFFson. WE’RE. here. to. MAKE. it. THRRRuuuhghhhhh. And so on. But don’t stop running. If you stop running, that’s another lap for your entire squad.4:45 PM: By the time you make it back to the gym, you consider it a miracle your squad hasn’t been picked off by a sniper already. No, not because the cheer squad is actually a clandestine training camp for budding superspies (even though sometimes, with all the running and push-ups and curl-ups, it feels that way). It’s because, three quarters of the way through, your shouts became grunts. Your eyes grew glazed and your cheeks turned an unpleasant shade of tomato. Essentially, you and your squad look like the zombie apocalypse. Plus pink bow ties. But it is okay. You are only sixteen minutes into practice, so technically, practice has not even started yet. And if you think about it too much, you’ll screw up your jumps (toe touches, hurdlers, herkies galore)!4:50 PM: You break off into stunt groups. You’re a flyer, so you trust your two bases and backspot with your life. (Or you don’t. But if you don’t, you will freak out midair and then die. Just saying.) Today, your job is to figure out how to 360° down from an arabesque (in cheer lingo, this is called a fulldown; in Angela lingo, this is called self-inflicted harm). You fulldowned perfectly fine last year, but for some reason, you have developed a gruesome mental block. Now, whenever it is time to fulldown, you panic and do something that looks like a demon-possessed jumping jack, and then fall down and generally cause mass destruction. So every time you put the stunt up, you think to yourself, I’m going to stay calm. I’m going to do something that looks like a stunt and not a demon-possessed jumping jack. Except all of a sudden you’re standing 6 feet in the sky, your line of sight 11 feet in the sky. You hear “fulldown, one two!” and your heart drops into your bladder and you panic all over again and everything goes out of control. Which is why you keep practicing. And once you’re done practicing the fulldown, you’ve got your scale, bow and arrow, fullup, and basket toss to work out. The atmosphere is hushed. The air is tense with concentration. The only noises that perpetrate the stillness are the whispered comments of stunt groups trying to figure out what went wrong, the concerned back-and-forths of the spectating coaches, and the whoosh of flyers doing their job, with the occasional thump and “ARE YOU OKAY?” At any given point in time, someone is in pain. Someone is walking it off. Someone is taking a deep breath, counting to ten, and returning to their stunt group.6:00 PM: You take a short break. You drink some water, gossip about the guy who’s totally hitting on Gwen, and nurse your wounds. People run to the bathroom to wipe off blood and sweat, people run to the clinic to grab bags of ice and ankle braces. At some point, you regroup, and Coach gives you a rundown of exactly how shitty your stunts look at the current point in time. None of you want to move, so you’re instructed to lie down in a circle with your feet touching and close your eyes. Coach plays the music. You visualize the routine (dance + cheer + dance, with stunts interspersed throughout), and when the time comes, you yell the words as loud as you possibly can muster. THOMAS. JEFFERSON. WE’RE HERE TO MAKE IT THROUGH. The echoes bounce around the gym. You have to practice yelling, because by the time you get to the cheer part of the routine, you’re going to be so winded you can barely whisper.6:15 PM: Run through the routine. Coach stops the music after fifteen seconds because someone’s already dropped a stunt. Practice that stunt. Run through the routine. Coach stops the music after five seconds because your formation isn’t precisely perpendicular to the edges of the mat. Go through the entire routine, marking out your positions. Every time someone is half an inch out of line, Coach says, “Push-ups!” And they do push-ups. Run through the routine. Stunts drop left and right, but you pull through, and Coach lets you run until the end, when she stops the music and crosses her arms. You look sheepishly at your toes because you fell out of your bow and arrow. Meanwhile, with her arms still crossed, Coach gives you a rundown of exactly how shitty your routine looks at the current point in time. GET. IT. TOGETHER.7:15 PM: At this point, all you want is a hot shower. But that would probably be a safety hazard, because you will probably fall asleep during your hot shower and drown in your own filth. But it is okay, because in the last fifteen minutes of practice, you have to put aside your competition practice to figure out what you’re going to do at the football game on Friday. Honestly, though, football games are the least of your concerns. You’ve got a precalc unit test coming up tomorrow, and when you check your phone, the other group members of your history project have been texting you for the past hour wondering where you are. You push aside these thoughts, head to the locker room with your friends, and pull on a hoodie. Outside, it’s warm. There’s a slight breeze going. A football soars over your head, and you turn to see some Dude grinning at you as he catches it in his arms. You sigh and stop by the clinic to do your last follow-up concussion test, since you fell from a stunt and hit your head two weeks ago, and they seem to think you broke your brain. You’re pretty sure you haven’t, though. Or at least you hope so. Otherwise you’d have to quit studying for a week, which means you’ll have fallen behind on your nerd-school studies for a month.7:30 PM: On the car ride home, you sleep. And you dream. Thomas! Jefferson! We’re here to make it through!
Part III: Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust
This Is Why We Need Concussion Testing
It was the morning of my junior homecoming, and our squad shared the gym with small tables of chips, drinks, and sparkly confetti. SGA members drifted in and out, delivering clusters of balloons and watching us stunt out of the corners of their eyes.
Coach called me over. “We’re going to run that fulldown now, okay?”
I glanced towards the tables. The SGA people had left behind a string of colorful balloons. “Yes Coach.”
Soon enough, I was surrounded by the encouraging faces of my squad as they raised their hands for spotting. My bases were ready. My backspot put his hands on my hips. “Arabesque, one two!” The wind exhaled past my ears and, before I could fully grasp my whereabouts, I was already all the way up, my muscles shivering with the heat of pulling the stunt together.
“Don’t jump out of it,” said Coach. “Just don’t jump out of it.”
I think I mumbled something indecipherable that was supposed to be reassuring.
I jumped out of it.
If I close my eyes now, I can still see the basketball hoop as I spun past it, slightly crooked and almost blurry, like my brain whipped out a low-quality digital camera and took a Hallmark photo. Click! Here’s your postcard!
That day, I arrived at homecoming dinner ten minutes late, combing out my half-curled hair with one hand as I stumbled out into the safety of my date’s umbrella. He smiled and told me I looked pretty. I smiled and told him, Thanks, you too. My brain was not working properly. I’d spent all afternoon trying to escape from a small army of emergency room people, who clearly did not understand the utter significance of arriving to junior year homecoming on time. If you look at the pictures, you can see how flushed I was. You can see how my hair looked like the inside of a barn.
What you can’t see is the shivers still racing up and down my spine from the impact of penciling straight into the floor. What you can’t see is the shivers gnawing at the pit of my stomach at the thought of doing the same stunt again in two weeks, when Coach would decide I was recovered enough to get over that mental block once and for all. What you can’t see is the next two months, during which I continued cheering, stunting, and competing with a secret ruptured spinal disk. What you can’t see is the look on my face when, two years later, my doctor told me I had dislocated the two disks in my jaw, and wanted to know if I’d been in a car accident or some similarly jarring incident. What you can’t see is me grimacing in class because my lower back does not know how to be a proper lower back anymore.
You know what else you can’t see, though?
You can’t see the blood pouring from Zoe’s nose after Allison fell on her face during an extension. She kept stunting until Coach noticed, at which point she was told to go clean herself up, and then to clean up the mat. It’s disgusting, Zoe. If you’re bleeding, get off the mat. Ten minutes later, Zoe and the mat were clean. Ten minutes after that, she was gushing blood again. She never cried. She never complained. She never made a single squeak.
You can’t see the sheen of sweat on Emma’s face as we finished our routine for the last time at regionals, because she’d just done it flawlessly with a broken hand. In fact, she’d broken her hand doing a back handspring three days ago, but held off on going to a doctor because she didn’t want to desert her stunt group last-second. She based me with a broken hand, which means that she let an entire human being step on her broken hand, and then lifted that entire human being into the air. With a broken hand.
You can’t see Daniel curled up in a fetal position on the mat. You can’t see Fonte’s eyes watering silently as a purple welt grew above his left eyebrow. You can’t see the look in Coach’s eyes when she says, “Go grab some ice, sit out for ten minutes, and come back in.”
Guys, you can’t. You cannot see the pure, raw, undiluted endurance and determination my squad held. You cannot feel Gwen trembling as you link arms before skipping out onto the mat. You cannot feel Coach’s dismay when she reads out the scores from the biased judges. You cannot hear the tinny buzz of the timer marking the end of warm-up in the auxiliary gym pre-competition. You cannot taste the cool, icicle flavor of blood pooling inside your mouth.
I am not the only one who still feels the ghost of those varsity years in my limbs and my heart. I remember finishing our routine for the last time, hitting that final pyramid, blowing kisses to the crowd and the judges, and blurting as we made our exit, “I have no words for how I feel right now.” Yana turned to me and said, “Coming from the writer.” That’s right. To this day, I still have no words for how I felt then.
Fall of 2012, we made 6th out of 8. The next year, fall of 2013, we made 2nd out of 8 and moved on to regionals for the first time in a decade. At regionals, we scored 7th out of 12, missing the cutoff for the second round by only one place.
The next time you ask me why I need concussion testing, I will tell you this:
Cheerleading is pom-poms. Cheerleading is cute pink bows and false eyelashes and bright red lipstick. Cheerleading is smiles, spirit, and skipping into the sunset.
And cheerleading is blood, sweat, and tears.
A TJ Cheerleader