Requiem of a Mississippi cheerleader
By Donna Tartt
Saddle shoes, 1943, by Esther Bubley. Courtesy Library of Congress
T he year I was a freshman cheerleader, I was reading 1984. I was fourteen years old then and failing algebra and the fact that I was failing it worried me as I would worry now if the Mafia was after me, or if I had shot somebody and the police were coming to get me. But I did not have an awful lot of time to brood about this. It was basketball season then, and there was a game nearly every night. In Mississippi the schools are far apart, and sometimes we would have to drive two hundred miles to get to Panola Academy, Sharkey-Issaquena, funny how those old names come back to me; we’d leave sometimes before school was out, not get home till twelve or one in the morning. I was not an energetic teenager and this was hard on me. Too much exposure to the high-decibel whorl of teen sports—shrieking buzzers; roaring stomping mob; thunderous feet of players charging up the court—kept me in a kind of perpetual stunned condition; the tin roof echo of rural gymnasiums rang through all my silences, and frequently at night I woke in a panic, because I thought a player was crashing through my bedroom window or a basketball was flying at me and about to knock my teeth out.
I read 1984 in the back seats of Cadillacs, Buicks, Lincoln Town Cars, riding through the flat wintry Delta with my saddle oxfords off and my schoolbooks piled beneath my feet. Our fathers—professional men, mostly, lawyers and optometrists, prosperous local plumbers—took turns driving us back and forth from the games; the other cheerleaders griped about this but though I griped along with then, I was secretly appalled at the rowdy team bus, full of boys who shouted things when you walked by their table in the cafeteria and always wanted to copy your homework. The cars, on the other hand, were wide, spacious, quiet. Somebody’s mother would usually have made cookies; there were always potato chips and old issues of Seventeen. The girls punched listless at the radio; applied Bonne Bell lip gloss; did their homework or their hair. Sometimes a paperback book would make the rounds. I remember reading one book about a girl whose orphaned cousin came to live with her, gradually usurping the girl’s own position in the household and becoming homecoming queen and family favorite. (“‘Why can’t you be more like Stephanie?’ yelled Mom, exasperated.”) It turned out that Stephanie was not the girl’s real cousin at all, but a witch: a total surprise to the nincompoop parents, who had not noticed such key signs as Stephanie failing to show up in photographs, or the family dog (“Lady”) and the girl’s horse (“Wildfire”) going crazy every time Stephanie came within fifty feet.
Now that I think about it, I believe I read Animal Farm before 1984. I read it in the car, too, riding through monotonous cottonfields in the weak winter afternoon, on the way to a tournament at Yalobusha Academy. It upset me a little, especially the end, but the statement “All Animals are Equal, but Some Animals are more Equal than Others” echoed sentiments which I recognized as prevalent in the upper echelons of the cheerleading squad. Our captain was a mean senior girl named Cindy Clark. She talked a lot about spirit and pep, and how important it was we work as a team, but she and her cronies ostracized the younger girls and were horrible to us off the court. Cindy was approximately my height and was forced to be my partner in some of the cheers, a circumstance which displeased her as much as it did myself. I remember a song that was popular around that time—it had lyrics that went:
We are family
I’ve got all my sisters with me
This had for some reason been incorporated into one of the chants and Cindy and I were frequently forced to sing it together: arms around each other, leaning on each other like drunks, beaming with joy and behaving in every way like the sisters which we, in fact, were most certainly not.
Illustration by Lynn Green Root
Though there was a sharp distinction between the older girls and the younger ones, we were also divided, throughout our ranks and regardless of age, into two distinct categories: those of snob and slut. The snobs had flat chests, pretty clothes, and were skittish and shrill. Though they were always sugar-sweet to one’s face, in reality they were a nasty, back-biting lot, always doing things like stealing each other's boyfriends and trying to rig the elections for the Beauty Revue. The sluts were from poorer families, and much better liked in general. They drank beer, made out with boys in the hallways, and had horrible black hickeys all over their necks. Our squad was divided pretty much half and half. Physically and economically, I fell into the category of Snob, but I did poorly in school and was not gung-ho or clubbish enough to fit in very well with the rest of them. (To be a proper Snob, one had always to be making floats for some damn parade or other, or organizing pot-luck dinners for the Booster Club.) The sluts, I thought, took a more sensible view of such foolishness; they smoked and drank; I found them, as a rule, much nicer. Being big girls generally, they were the backbones of the stances, the foundations from which the pyramids rose and, occasionally, fell; I, being the smallest on the squad, had to work with them rather closely, in special sessions after the regular cheerleading practices, since they were the ones who lifted me into the air, who spotted me in gymnastics, upon whose shoulders I had to stand to form the obligatory pyramid. They all had pet names for me, and—though vigorously heterosexual—babied me in what I am sure none of them realized was a faintly lecherous way: tickles and pinches, slaps on the rump, pulling me into their laps in crowded cars and crooning stupid songs from the radio into my ear. Most of this went on in the after-school practices. At the games they completely ignored me, as every fiber of their attention was devoted to flirting with—and contriving to make out with—various boys. As I was both too young to be much interested in boys, and lacking in the fullness of bosom and broadness of beam which would have made them much interested in me, I was excluded from this activity. But still they felt sorry for me, and gave me tips on how to make myself attractive (pierced ears, longer hair, tissue paper in the bra)—and, when we were loitering around after practices, often regaled me with worldly tales of various sexual, obstetric, and gynecological horrors, some of which still make my eyes pop to think about.
The gymnasiums were high-ceilinged, barnlike, drafty, usually in the middle of some desolate field. We were always freezing in our skimpy plaid skirts, our legs all goose-pimples as we clapped and stamped on the yellowed wooden floor. (Our legs, being so much exposed, were frequently chapped from cold, yet we were forbidden to put lotion on them, Cindy and the older girls having derived a pathological horror of “grease” from—as best as I could figure—the Clearasil ads in Tiger Beat and Seventeen—this despite the fact that grease was the primary element of all our diets.) Referee’s whistle, sneakers squealing on the varnish. “Knees together,” Cindy would hiss down the line, or “Spit out that gum,” before she hollered “Ready!” and we clapped our hands down to our sides in unison and yelled the response: “O-Kay!” At halftime there were the detested stances, out in the middle of the court, which involved perilous leaps, and complex timing, and—more likely than not—tears and remonstrations in the changing rooms. These were a source of unremitting dread, and as soon as they were over and the buzzer went off for third quarter the younger girls rushed in a greedy flock to the snack bar for Cokes and French fries, Hershey bars, scattering to devour them in privacy while Cindy and her crew slunk out to the parking lot to rendezvous with their boyfriends. We were all of us, all the time, constantly sick—coughing, blowing our noses, bad food, cramped conditions, exhaustion, and yelling ourselves hoarse every night. Hoarseness was, in fact, a matter of pride: we were accused of shirking if our voices weren’t cracked by the end of the evening, the state to which we aspired being a rasping, laryngitic croak. I remember the only time the basketball coach—a gigantic, stone-faced, terrifying man who was also the principal of the school and who, to my way of thinking, held powers virtually of life or death (there were stories of his punching kids out, beating them till they had bruises, stories which perhaps were not apocryphal in a private school like my own, which prided itself on what it called “old-fashioned discipline” and where corporal punishment was a matter of routine); the only time this coach ever spoke to me was to compliment me on my burnt-out voice, which he overheard in the hall the morning after a game. “Good job,” he said. My companions and I were instantly dumbfounded with terror. After he was gone they stared at me with awe-struck apprehension and then, one by one, drifted gently away, not wishing to be seen in the company of anyone who had attracted the attention—even momentarily—of this dangerous lunatic.
There were pep squads, of a sort, in George Orwell’s Oceania. I read about them with interest. Banners, procession, slogans, games, were as popular there as they were at Kirk Academy. Realizing that there were certain correspondences between this totalitarian nightmare and my own high school gave me at first a feeling of smug superiority but after a time I began to have an acute sense of the meaninglessness of my words and gestures. Did I really care if we won or lost? No matter how enthusiastically I jumped and shouted, the answer to this was unquestionably No. This epiphany both confused and depressed me. And yet I continued—outwardly at least—to display as much pep as ever. “I always look cheerful and I never shirk anything,” says Winston Smith’s girlfriend, Julia. “Always yell with the crowd, that’s what I say. It’s the only way to be safe.” Our rival team was called the Patriots. I remember one rally, the night before a big game, when a dummy Patriot was hanged from the gymnasium rafters, then taken outside and burned amid the frenzied screams and stomps of the mob. I yelled as loud as anybody even though I was suffused by an airy, perilous sense of unreality, a conviction that—despite the apparently desperate nature of this occasion—that none of it meant anything at all. In my diary that night—a document which was as secretive and, to my mind at least, as subversive as Winston’s own—I noted tersely: “Hell’s own Pep Rally. Freshmen won the spirit stick. Rah, rah.”
It was on the rides home—especially on the nights we’d won—that the inequity of not being allowed on the team bus was most keenly felt by the cheerleaders. Moodily, they stared out the windows, dreaming of back seats, and letter jackets, and smooching with their repulsive boyfriends. The cars smelled like talcum powder, and Tickle deodorant, and—if we were with one of the nicer dads, who had allowed us to stop at a drive-in—cheeseburgers and French fries. It was too dark to read. Everyone was tired, but for some reason we were all too paranoid to go to sleep in front of each other; afraid we might drool, perhaps, or inadvertently scratch an armpit.
Whispers, giggles, sighs. We rode four to a car and all four of us would be crammed in the back seat; bare arms touching, goosebumped knees, pressed together, our silences punctuated by long ardent slurps of Tab. The console lights of the Cadillac dashboards were phosphorescent, eerie. The radio was mostly static that time of night but sometimes you could get a late-night station coming out of Greenwood or Memphis: slow songs, that’s what everyone wanted, sloppy stuff by Olivia Newton-John or Dan Fogelberg. (The cheerleaders had a virtual cult of Olivia Newton-John; they tried to do their hair like her, emulate her in every possible way, and were fond of speculating what Olivia would or would not do in certain situations. She was like the ninth, ghost member of the squad. I was secretly gratified when she plummeted—with alarming swiftness—from favor because someone heard a rumor that she was gay.)
Olivia or not, the favorite song that winter hands-down was “You Light Up My Life” by Debby Boone. It must have been number one for months; at least, it seemed to come on the radio just about every other song, which was fine with everybody. When it came on the girls would all start singing it quietly to themselves, staring out the window, each in their own little world; touching the fogged window-glass gently with their fingertips and each thinking no one could hear them, but all their voices combined in a kind of low, humming harmony that blended with the radio:
So many nights
I sit by my window
Waiting for someone
To sing me his song...
Full moon; hard frost on the stubbled cottonfields. They opened up on either side of the car in long, grey spokes, like a fan.