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Bench Warmer

When I was in junior high school, I tried out for the cheerleading squad. Looking back on that time in my life, I can admit that it was a reach for me, physically. Sure, I had taken dance and gymnastics classes right along with all the other girls who showed up for tryouts that first day. I never really got comfortable with back walkovers or handsprings though, and I was too tall to be tossed in the air. As for the cheering part, well, at 13, I hadn’t yet found my voice. But ALL my friends were trying out, and I was aware that those who made the squad would be assuming a new social status. I had been popular enough in elementary school, but I knew that my tenuous “cool kid status” was hanging in the balance as we made our way into 7th grade. I’m cringing as I type this. Junior High is hard, kids!

As I remember it, tryouts took place after school during the week, and those who were selected would be notified on Friday, via a list posted in the school lobby at the end of the day. (Do they still do that, post things like sports teams and honor rolls and school play cast lists taped to the wall for everyone to see?) We learned cheers and chants, and were taught the accompanying claps, stomps, and punches. We practiced the proper leg position for a herkie. (I wonder if I can still do a herkie?) Those who could tumble handspringed down the grass outside the gym where we were practicing. I showed up every afternoon to practice, and I did my best. It seemed that many of my friends might have been jumping a little higher or getting a little extra coaching from the senior high cheer captains. But still I felt like there was room for my name on the list. I just had to make it to the end of the school day on Friday.

Is there anything tougher than sitting through a day of classes, knowing that your junior high fate is about to be sealed by a list posted in the school lobby? Thirteen year old me would tell you, “No. No, there is nothing tougher.” But thirteen year old me didn’t have to wait for that list to be posted after school, because she never saw the list.

About an hour before the final bell of the day, I was in science class. A student came to the door to summon someone to the principal’s office (a common occurrence). I was the person being summoned to the principal’s office (not a common occurrence. Unheard of, actually. Impossible!) I was an A student, a rule follower, and, some would say, a teacher’s pet. There was simply no reason for me to be called into the office. But there I was, reluctantly putting one foot in front of the other in the walk of shame to see the principal. This was unchartered territory for me. My mind raced and my heart was pounding, and I assure you, all thoughts of the cheerleader list had flown out the window.

And then, I was there, sitting across from the principal who looked, quite frankly, just as uncomfortable as I felt. Somehow, I immediately knew that I wasn’t there because I was in trouble. But that didn’t make me feel any better. And it only got worse when he started talking.

“You didn’t make the cheerleading squad,” he told me. His words stung, and I immediately felt embarrassed and sad. I got called to the office for THIS? Would it have been any easier to get this news by reading it on the list in the lobby? Who can say? But being told by the principal that you’re not good enough to be a cheerleader is something I wouldn’t wish on any thirteen year old. I wanted to (NEEDED to) be anywhere other than sitting in this room hearing these words.

And, kids, it got worse. He said, “How would you feel about starting a pep squad?” I don’t remember what I said in that moment, although I remember him trying to sell me on the pep squad idea: wearing school colors, making posterboard signs, chanting along with the cheers. I remember that he said the pep squad would sit in the bleachers. In that moment, my social status shifted. I would not carry my tentative “cool kid” status into junior high and high school. I was benched.

Starting a pep squad felt like consolation prize. At the tender age of thirteen, I felt awkward and embarrassed. Would it have been any less awful had I learned my cheerleading fate among a gaggle of girls surrounding the list? It would have been a huge disappointment when I didn’t see my name, of course. But I could have gone straight home, thrown myself on my bed and cried my eyes out. Instead, I was sitting across from the principal, fighting back tears of humiliation while making small talk, wishing the floor would open and swallow me whole.

He said I wasn’t good enough to be a cheerleader.

What I heard was I wasn’t good enough.

After that meeting, I had to go back to science class, where it seemed everyone had questions about why I had been called to the principal’s office. I don’t remember how I answered them, because to admit that I had been called to the office to be told I wasn’t good enough to be a cheerleader would have been humiliating. I avoided the gaggle of girls around the list in the lobby when the bell rang. And yes, when I was finally home, I threw myself on my bed and cried my eyes out.

This memory, this awkward, awful memory, came flooding back to me recently. It's been a long time since I was called to the principal’s office, yet part of me still sits there. I’m doing some work around identifying things that might be roadblocks to my personal and professional success. I struggle with undervaluing my experiences and my expertise. As an adult, I still find myself standing outside the group of “cool kids.” I hold myself back from being a smashing success because I don’t think I’m good enough.

I passed on the pep squad. I’m going to stop passing on ME. It’s time for me to get off the bench and herkie with the best of ‘em. (I hope I don’t pull muscle!)

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