When I was twelve, I wanted to make cheerleader more than anything. Make was the verb we used and also how I imagined my transformation: being remade.
The guest list for my birthday slumber party that year was aspirational; I invited girls whose parents allowed them to shave their legs. It was 1989, and we were all side ponytails and Who will make cheerleader? The competition was decided half by popular vote among the student body and half by expert judges, with spots for only twelve or so girls. We analyzed our relative popularity, our back handsprings, the curve of our calves. We compared our lists of who might come out on top.
Later, after pizza and “light as a feather, stiff as a board,” a redhead named Karen with waterfall bangs and fluorescent rubber bands on her braces informed us that the apocalypse was coming, and soon. My family lived in the suburbs of Dallas, where if you threw a rock, you’d hit an evangelical, but somehow this was the first I’d heard of the Rapture. After that party I stayed in bed for two days. I told my mom I was sick, but really I was in the grip of a waking nightmare about people falling into fiery pits. I believed I could smell burning flesh. I wondered how much it would hurt and whether I should tell my little brother or let him live out the rest of his short life unaware. I thought of the cousins and aunties I might never see again. But mostly I was disconsolate about the world ending before I tried out for cheerleader.
My family and I were transplants from a multiethnic community — Azorean Portuguese and Lebanese — in Massachusetts, and even though my family had been in the U.S. for three generations, my upbringing had immigrant vibes. That I was having a slumber party at all, and that the other girls and I turned up Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” and gave it our full-throated best, felt like I was getting away with something. I wanted to be like (and be liked by) the other girls, so I wore long sleeves when I could to hide my thick arm hair and ate hummus only at home, since it wasn’t cool yet. Once in a while, however, I did bring my peanut-butter-and-jelly to school on Syrian bread, which was how I liked it best.
My whole family worked to rein in our accents. Turns out it’s easier to buy a four-bedroom ranch in the suburbs than it is to whitewash the sound of your mother dialect. My dad would forget to pronounce his r’s when he lost his temper at my brother and me on lawn-mowing Sundays, when we were slow to bag the clipped brown grass under the rising sun. Get out he-ah! he would yell, and we knew better than to make fun. In more self-conscious moments he would enunciate like a newscaster, with a pacing so dull and diction so unlike his otherwise-colorful language that I would stop paying attention before he could finish his thought.
It must have been before I was born that my parents had stopped saying youse guys, a term my aunties back East sometimes used and that made me feel seen in a way that y’all didn’t. Y’all included me only by accident — the girl with the dark hair who wasn’t from here. Sure, I guess she can come.
I eventually shook off Karen’s apocalyptic predictions and never spent the night with her again, though I continued to admire her bangs. At that age it was hard to tell what was admiration and what was lust. I sufficed with “practice kissing” another friend, Diane, through a sheet during our sleepovers until we tired of it and turned instead to rehearsing flute-and-trumpet duets on our band instruments.
Diane was the kind of friend who lined my eyelids with Maybelline in the school bathroom; who threw a pad across the lunchroom to start a food fight; who pretended to pinch the ass of Coach Holmes, our history teacher, as soon as he turned his back; and who, forever congested, coined the term “booger worms” to describe the long strings of snot she would pull from her nose, their lopsided parabolas a veritable performance-art critique of pre-algebra. I thought she was a genius.
Flute and trumpet are not the most auspicious musical pairing, but we had heart. Diane’s lips would purse with an intensity her flute’s airy soprano belied, and I would belt out my deepest twelve-year-old longings with the alpha energy of my trumpet. We meant every note.
What was a girl to do with her desires, anyway? I knew without having it explained to me that it was inconsiderate to excel, and even more embarrassing to want to excel as nakedly as I did. How would everyone else feel to see me striving? It was already weird that I was the only girl trumpet player in the band — and, worse, often first chair. Those poor boys, people liked to say.
My trumpet teacher was an exception. He told my parents I could make it as a musician, in part because I played expressively — I could make myself cry with my rendition of “Santa Lucia” for beginners — and in part because I was good-looking, like Gloria Estefan. Maybe he thought I was Cuban? I didn’t correct him. Explaining my family’s background required a map, and we didn’t study world geography in school, only Texas history. In that context Azorean could have been a skin disease, and Lebanese sounded too much like lesbian (we were decades away from widespread LGBTQ allyship), so I just let people think what they wanted. I admired that trumpet teacher: his smooth legato, his shoulder-length silver hair, his torn jeans, the way he extended the word man, as in Maaaan, that guy could blow. You could tell he imagined himself younger. I understood this. I also often imagined myself as less me.
Looking back, I see a beautiful girl who glowed with a life force that insistently, if inconveniently, demanded expression. But in the blond, weight-obsessed suburbs of Dallas, I was so often judged for my frizzy hair and the ring of pudge around my middle that my trumpet teacher’s comment about my looks seemed to me the height of adult inscrutability. The day we studied images of dimpled Greek statues in art class, the boys on the bus compared them to me, and not in a way I found complimentary. I am grateful for the body God gave me, but in that time and place, you really couldn’t say I was a looker.
No matter. My perceived faults would be erased the day I donned the letter jacket that bore my last name across the back, all my inconvenient vowels blazing, with CHEERLEADER in a semicircle underneath. I would wear it to the mall, where Diane and I would shoot the paper off our straws over Arby’s cheese fries and maybe catch the attention of a boy. Just one. Boys in the plural tended toward teasing that could quickly turn cruel.
It was clear that my only option for making cheerleader was not popularity but a perfect score with the judges, so I set up a rigorous workout schedule. I contributed my paper-route money to semiprivate lessons with a petite retired cheer coach with a smoker’s hack whose good opinion of my form I lived for. I learned that cheer shouts should be deep like a man’s voice and that I liked vocalizing from that place. I learned to bear the weight of a girl on my back as I sat spread-eagled, forcing me into center splits. I learned that when the hands were fisted, the wrists should form a continuous clean line with the arm, that the thumb should be out, not in. Oh, the fists! How they gripped my humming adolescent passion!
Most important, I practiced my jumps: the pike and the Herkie and the toe-touch. This last one involved doing a center split in the air, toes at ear level, arms outstretched. At the zenith of my jump my skirt would float up, the bloomers underneath (we called them bloomers) visible for one provocative moment before I snapped my legs shut, hit the ground, and jumped high on the rebound. I learned to make it look easy, like I wasn’t even trying, even though trying was all I ever did.
I practiced on the sidewalk, in the driveway, in my room, with Diane and without Diane. I wanted to wear the skirt that barely covered my ass and flex my thigh muscles in the blue plastic chairs in history class. I wanted to be thrown in the air and have cameras snap my picture. I wanted to stand on someone’s shoulders with my arms to heaven in a perfect, straight V. I wanted to shout and not take back what I said.
I neither cared about nor understood football, and no one ever bothered to explain it to me — or, if they did, I didn’t listen. Cheerleading was never about those boring boys and their grunting, animal obsession with a ball that wasn’t even a ball. It was about me. If living in Texas meant I had to give up certain experiences that were holy to me — Lebanese meat pies on Sundays, the sound of my mother laughing with her sisters, that rocky stretch of beach where I used to swim with my cousins — then I’d have to create new kinds of meaning. If we were to stay here in the scorched-earth Dallas suburbs, with the Rapture yawning on every street corner, I had to find a way to thrive. And if cheerleading was what was on offer, I would take it. Watch me.
The day of tryouts the school gym thundered with the stomps and whistles of the entire student body, all vibrating with their release from class to participate in this ritual judging of certain hopeful females of their species. The judges sat at a fold-out table, ready to zero in on imperfectly pointed toes or to award extra credit for a daring back tuck. When my tryout group was up, I hollered and hopped and round-offed my way to the center of the court, where I came to stand, breathless, under the gaze of all my terrifying peers.
My limbs thrummed as the crowd hushed. The gym smelled, as perhaps all middle-school gyms do, of stale sneakers and rubber and want. A lone voice called out, Get it, y’all! I decided then that the y’all included me, and we began our cheer. What happened next was proof to me of God. I went to perform my first jump — my Reeboks squeaking, a fan whirring, someone whooping like Arsenio Hall — and all of a sudden I was Super Mario on a magic mushroom. I got so much air, so unexpectedly, that I stumbled on the rebound. Realizing I was onto a good thing, I graced the crowd with a magic-mushroom double toe touch, toes pointed, chest up, ponytail intact.
You’re-so-going-to-make-its and I-voted-for-yous and even You’re-so-prettys circulated through the halls afterward, some of them directed at me. At hearing the pretty comment, I would make what Diane and I called a constipated-duck face. It involved flaring your nostrils as you pushed your lips out and widened your eyes in panic and finally gave a diaphragmatic quack. This was my way of saying that “pretty” was for suckers. I’d had a taste of power and wanted more.
I made cheerleader that year. And then I made cheerleader the next year and the next, jumping and stunting and dancing alongside girls whose parents, unlike mine, bought them karaoke machines and lingerie. I don’t remember them as snobbish or cruel, nor were we particularly close. As I got more deeply involved in the sport, I began to care less about its social trappings. I lived for the moments when the adrenaline hit and the practice paid off and I watched my body fly.
When our squad entered national competitions, we performed a routine that was professionally choreographed to C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat” and Marky Mark’s “Good Vibrations.” Our opening moves were crisp and cute, and then we transitioned to our “stunt,” where I stood on another girl’s leg and she catapulted me to a standing position on her shoulders. Each time we performed, I would wobble, then clench my abs until I steadied, careful to look out, not down. My palms still sweat just thinking about it.
Then, with me still in the air, we would transition again — I forget exactly how — until I was balancing on one foot, which was secured by two teammates, while I reached for my other ankle with my right hand. I kept my chest up and my knee straight but not locked, because fainting up there would be bad. When my teammates flicked my foot out from under me for the descent, I spread my arms in a perfect T so that I could be caught under the armpits and behind the thighs. Once on firm ground I popped my ponytail and flashed a smile. This was years before prominent asses were cool in majority-white communities, or I would have popped that, too.
To be clear, we were junior-high cheerleaders in the early nineties. Our routines would not have held the dimmest of candles to the community-college champions featured in the Netflix docuseries Cheer, with their shocking trilevel stunts, their bad-bitch choreography, and their circus of flips and layouts, the names for which I do not even know. I watched the series with my daughter, who is the same age now that I was when I made cheerleader. We willed the stunts to hit and the tumbles to be clean, with me mumbling and then shouting, Get it, y’all, GET IT! the y’all feeling natural, until by the end of their routine I was panting and sweating in solidarity with them. It almost made me understand the mania of football fans.
The story Cheer tells is of athletes from often impoverished or traumatic backgrounds, for whom competitive cheerleading provides a “way out,” as one cheerleader says in season two. In this sense I am not like them. My story, whatever ethnic flavor it has, is a middle-class one. And yet I identify with them in a different way. At the top of their stunts the flyers often extend one arm to the audience and curl their hands in a come-hither gesture. It’s ironic and sexy and a little bit gloating. It’s the gesture of a girl who has worked hard, who has won, and who is not sorry.
In high school my technique was enough to earn me a spot as an All-American cheerleader, which won me the privilege of cheering in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. My parents had to pay for my trip to New York City. I didn’t think they would, but being All-American was not nothing. I could not believe my luck.
In New York my roommates and I ate at Sbarro (pizza in the Big Apple!) and practiced the choreo with instructors from the National Cheerleaders Association (all that talent in the flesh!). But the routine was — I’ll just say it — boring. The instructors, who also would be in the parade, got to showboat, and the rest of us, who had strived so hard to be All-American, were made to perform the most basic of moves. Given the limited time we had to rehearse for an event that would be on live TV, it made sense not to include high schoolers in the advanced stunts. But it also made us question the effort we had put into begging our parents to foot the bill. The engine of my cheerleader soul was revving. Even as I vibed with the energy and prestige of the event, I wanted more.
Back at the hotel after rehearsal, we proceeded to drink the liquor from the bottles in the minibar, refill them with water, and stumble our way to a shop where we had pictures taken for fake IDs that made us all twenty-one. (I would successfully wield mine well into my college years.) What could be more All-American, after all, than a brand-new identity — or, in keeping with the Thanksgiving holiday, a wholesale rewriting of the past?
On the day of the parade I fussed with my ponytail and wished away my widow’s peak, my baby hair, my baby fat — all of me except the part that was a cheerleader — until we were there, rustling our red-and-white pom-poms in the thrilling cold air of Fifth Avenue, chanting, Macy’s! Macy’s! Thanksgiving Day Parade! My mother still has the VHS recording, in which I am almost imperceptible, bouncing up and down in the exact same outfit and with the exact same pom-poms as every other girl. Maybe I lacked some Team USA spirit, but when I viewed the video later, it hit me that the prize for our athleticism was conformity.
For me the highlight of the parade, aside from losing my shit when I saw teen rappers Kris Kross on a nearby float, was yelling hello to Willard Scott (may he rest in peace) as we passed the NBC commentator booth. He had appeared on our TV delivering the weather each morning for years and therefore felt like family. In fact, just being on the East Coast felt familiar, almost like home. It was comforting to be a little closer to my people, even if, as I nursed a slight hangover inside an itchy All-American uniform, I was much further away from who I had been all those years ago when we’d left.
One day not long after, back in Texas, a bunch of us were practicing after practice — that’s how much we loved this sport — and I did the catapult stunt up to a squad member’s shoulders, giving us a combined height of almost eleven feet. The gym was being used for boys’ basketball, so we were in the school’s entryway, which looked out over the parking lot and rows of small brick houses skirted by brown grass. I wondered if the people in those houses could see me, so high up that I could barely detect the school smells of chocolate milk, Exclamation perfume, and teenage funk. Another song was playing from someone’s boom box, but pulsing through my head was “Straight Up” by Paula Abdul, the only famous Arab American I knew, who gave me hope that maybe one day, if I could lose a little weight, I might also be “fine,” which is the word we used back then for “hot.” Do, do you love me, do, do you love me, baby? The questions she asked had also become mine. Tell me, baby.
On our squad we had a firm rule: there was always a spotter to catch the flyer. If a flyer fell and the spotter didn’t catch her, everyone had to drop for push-ups or run laps, a reminder that we shared one body and were all responsible for it. As a flyer I had to learn to trust the spotter I couldn’t see behind me. If I panicked and fell feetfirst, I risked kicking her in the face, breaking her nose, knocking out teeth, causing a concussion.
That day, as I simultaneously obsessed over Paula Abdul and berated myself for said obsession — why did I care so much about my background, anyway? I didn’t even speak the language, though my mother once upon a time had regularly been put to sleep by fairy tales in Arabic, and, God, how I drank up her stories of that kind of love — I faltered.
Paula Abdul was a cheerleader.
I recovered my balance.
She probably lives in New York near Willard Scott.
I lost it again and felt myself fall.
Having been trained to overcome the instinct to flail, I let myself tip backward, my arms out so I could be caught by the girl behind me, as we had practiced so many times. But the spotter — was it Diane? — was distracted. I felt the first shock of betrayal when my ass hit concrete, and the second when my arm broke clean at the shoulder. Thunk-thunk was the sound I made.
I can’t handle this, my mother said several hours later in the ER. My arm hung limp, but I didn’t really feel the pain. Mostly I felt bad for upsetting my mom. The thin line of her mouth was so engrossing I forgot to tell the doctor about the injury to my ass. (I would notice the bone had healed crookedly when I saw a chiropractic X-ray two decades later.) I understood my mother’s distress: my father had left us that year for a job on the West Coast, and then hadn’t sent for us, and then hadn’t returned. A divorce was in the offing, and we were stranded in Texas, where we’d never belonged in the first place. Do, do you love me? The Magic 8 Ball in my fifteen-year-old psyche kept coming up NO.
For the rest of the season my left arm was wrapped in a navy-blue sling. I cheered with one arm, faux-clapping soundlessly, my ponytail bobbing at a weird angle, because have you ever tried to make a cheerleader-strength ponytail with one hand? Eventually I quit the squad.
At some point I started smoking pot with friends in the back of the Catfish King restaurant, until one night, as I assessed my red eyes in the bathroom mirror, I was blessed with one of those rare epiphanies that outlasted my high: It is possible to spend one’s entire life smoking pot in the back of the Catfish King. As I returned to my fellow stoners, I locked eyes with the thirty-something manager who had been hooking us up — all black eyeliner and Jim Morrison quotes and the smell of old grease. She blinked once. “What’s her problem?” she said of me to the others, and everyone laughed so hard they couldn’t stop.
My problem was the problem of teenagers everywhere: I could not make myself belong. I had things to say but had no one to listen, which I experienced as a persistent, low-level nausea that the exuberance of cheerleading had, for a few years before my family fell apart, kept at bay. That night in the Catfish King I knew, from someplace deeper and more certain than my broken heart, that I had to get out of there. So I fast-tracked my high-school graduation via correspondence classes and arrived at a state college at the age of seventeen with a new identity — an intellectual one this time, which I hoped would suit me better.
I didn’t tell anyone at college about cheerleading. I’d discovered women’s studies and had come to believe that I had let myself be played by the patriarchy by participating in a sport whose purpose was to look cute and cheer on the boys. I also kept quiet about cheerleading in grad school. I couldn’t have anyone imagining me under the Friday-night lights, blissed out from stretching a leg into a perfect split in front of a crowd hopped up on cheese dogs and school colors. I couldn’t have anyone knowing how diligently I’d perfected the sexy ponytail nod, whose whole appeal was that it looked like it wasn’t trying to be sexy. I didn’t let on how I’d lived for those magic-mushroom jumps, how the wild energy of my teenage body had found its perfect expression atop the shoulders of another girl, how, when you were up there, you understood that you were born to shine. How could I possibly explain all that? I wanted to be seen as a serious person.
But the truth is you can’t leave behind the inconvenient parts of who you are. Part of me will always be that adolescent with hairy forearms who recognized her own spirit and lent it for a time to a problematic, glorious sport in which I was thrown — thrilled with my velocity, delirious with my luck, and in love, momentarily, with myself — into the air. As if it were a normal thing for a girl like me to touch the sky.