The moment had come. I held my breath and then searched the posted list for my name. It wasn’t there. How could that be? I read the list again. Seven names in all. All the other names were there, but not mine. And there was a new one on the list, one who hadn’t been there last year.
Time stood still. I looked around, trying to make sense of the scene around me. The other girls were jumping up and down, squealing with excitement, but I turned, stunned, and looked again at the list. Still, my name failed to appear. I felt numb all over.
A small group of girls nearby noticed that I stood silently, and they paused from their celebration to console me with a pat on the back or a hug. “I’m sorry you didn’t make the cheerleading squad again this year,” one of them said. Then I faded from their minds as they returned to their own excited talk. I forced a smile and turned toward the waiting car.I ignored the sting at the back of my eyes as I fought the tears that wanted so desperately to come.
I heard my name, and I turned back toward the red-painted double doors that led back into the school. The cheerleading sponsor looked straight at me as she stepped closer. My heart skipped a beat. For a moment, hope welled up. Could there be an error on the list? Then one look at her face told me she had words of sympathy, not correction. She approached me and wrapped her arm around my shoulder. “I want you to know that this year’s decision was a difficult one. You were so close to being on the squad again. You were only out by one point.” She paused, watching me. “You are the first alternate. If anyone leaves the squad, we will need you in her spot. And you’ll try out again next year, won’t you?” she said.
Nodding my head, I kept my smile pasted on as I pulled away. That was one thing I learned as a cheerleader: Smile, at all costs. I felt like I had been slapped.
I had to get to the car before I fell apart. And fall apart I did. I sobbed the whole way home, and all that night. My heart was broken, and I was beyond consoling. I couldn't understand how life could be perfect one moment, and the next be a total disaster. My world, it seemed, along with my identity, had been stripped away with the casual decision of a group of unfeeling adults. They had no idea of what this would do to me. Life, as I knew it, was over.
At the time I didn’t know it, but not making the freshman cheerleading squad that day would have a huge impact on the person God needed me to be. At the time, all I knew was the devastation of not having something I wanted very badly. At the time, I did not know that God had a plan for my life, and this was part of it. The perfect loving parent, he knew I was in need of a lesson if I was to become the person He wanted me to be.
From where I stand now, as a middle school teacher, I realize that God was preparing me for who I would need to be later in my life, and enduring that huge disappointment was necessary for my maturity. The moment that I stood in front of the list of names that didn't include me was a turning point in the shape of my future. It seemed like an enormous failure at the time, but looking back, I wouldn’t change it now. I learned lessons I would not have learned any other way.
My eighth grade year as a cheerleader had been a surprise in itself since I had been so self-conscious and shy before that. Maybe God gave me the courage to try out in the first place since I would need to be a stronger person in order to do His work later in life. I had a great year, making new friends who were in the “right” crowd, and going to movies, parties, and ballgames on Friday nights with the “popular” guys in my grade. I had a date to all the dances, and attended slumber parties every weekend. I was in my element. I had “found” myself. Life was good.
Cheerleading met with all my expectations. Our squad got along well and we became very close. We were the popular, the elite, the ones everyone wanted to be. We existed in a world of our own, and paid little attention to the others. I don’t recall our “group” being mean to others, but we simply did not include anyone outside of our circle. I am sure now, in hindsight, that we hurt many people through our exclusion. I am also sure, however, that it was no less painful for those people, just because we didn’t hurt them purposely.
I clearly remember one afternoon on the school bus when a girl I had been friends with for years handed me a note angrily scrawled in red ink. She asked why I no longer would say hello to her in the halls at school, why I failed to return her phone calls, and why I chose not to sit by her on the bus anymore. I knew why. She wasn’t “cool.” She was “beneath” me. My friends had asked me why I wanted to hang out with her anyway. I had assured them I didn’t want to. I ignored her note, refusing to meet her eyes that day and for the rest of the year.
Cheerleading itself did not totally ruin me. I gained some valuable skills during my time as a cheerleader in addition to the courage I found to try out in the first place. I was no longer shy, and far less self-conscious. I learned to smile despite the way I felt and work hard when I wanted to improve my skills. I thought I had learned what it took to become popular. That was very important to me. Some of the skills are things I believe God wanted me to gain. They remain a part of me even now. But some of the traits I picked up I am not particularly proud of. I had become too self-centered, proud, and condescending. It took not making the squad in my ninth grade year to rid me of those traits.
After learning that I hadn’t made the squad, things changed immediately. I didn’t need to attend practices or camp, so I had to find new things to do with my time. I spent most of my summer practicing my cheerleading skills and even returned to tumbling classes to keep up my tumbling skills. I was alone much of the time, but that wasn’t too bad. But then school started.
My freshman year was the loneliest year of my life. It was clear from the first day of school that I had been replaced. The girl who took my place on the squad took my place in the group. My friends no longer had anything in common with me, so they rarely spoke to me anymore. The guys in the “popular” group apparently only hung out with the girls in the group I was no longer a part of. They wouldn’t speak to me either. In fact, one guy I “went out” with, who seemed different, ended up breaking off our relationship suddenly one night, with no explanation. In the background, I could hear the voices of his friends. It didn’t take much to figure out what had really happened. I was now on the outside looking in.
Now I could see how it felt when other kids were cruel. I can’t recall just how many times I heard, “Aren’t you the girl who used to be on the cheerleading squad?” and other similar remarks. They all hurt. I know my parents hurt for me too, but it was something they could not fix. The ones who I had “stepped on” in my climb to the top, like the girl on the bus, gave me a taste of my own medicine. They didn’t want me back. Some of those hurts take a long time to heal.It was in the loneliness of that year I found who I really was, deep down. I see now that I needed to be alone to find my strength and my determination.
Over time I learned what true friendship really is. Those girls in eighth grade hadn’t really been my friends, at least not most of them. If they had been, my absence from the squad wouldn’t have mattered. True friends like you for who you are, not what you do. Now that we are adults, I still see them from time to time, and we don’t mention the hurts we caused each other so many years ago. I guess they probably had their own private hurts, and they grew up too.
Over time I found new friends and found a place in a new circle. They were not the pretty people, and there were times I resented that still. I guess my transformation was not yet complete. I had the advantage though, I can see now, of seeing the world from both places.
Now when a student is hurting from some social slight, whether imagined or real, I can see that her pain is more important to her than any knowledge of the subject matter I am paid to teach. I can listen, and chances are, I have felt her pain. I can listen, and offer a perspective that would not be heard if I was that girl’s parent. And I can speak from the knowledge that God does put us through things we find difficult to shape us into the people he needs us to be. It know it is true that He doesn’t cause us any more pain than we can handle, and He is there to walk with us through even the worst times in our lives. I feel honored now to work in a position where I can make a positive difference in the lives of the students who I reach out to every day. I want very much to let my light shine, and I thank God for the challenges I face now. I don’t know what my future brings, but I can trust that the Lord is in control. And He seems to know what He is doing.
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