“When a young person…grows up without proximate living examples of what she may aspire to become…her goal remains abstract. Such models as appear in books or on the news, however inspiring or revered, are ultimately too remote to be real, let alone influential. But a role model in the flesh provides more than inspiration; his or her very existence is confirmation of possibilities one may have every reason to doubt, saying, ‘Yes, someone like me can do this.” ― Sonia Sotomayor
I’ve drawn a lot from my formative years, partly because I’m a sentimentalist with an elephant memory, but mostly because I’m a teacher, and so I try to put myself in my students’ shoes (when I’m not bending their brains). I’ve also been a coach, and although my whistle is stuffed in a drawer enjoying an uncharacteristic bout of silence, I think about the kids I’ve taught and coached through the years, and the people who have taught and coached me. One of those women has been, without a doubt, my mentor. Time and miles have grown between us, but I haven’t forgotten her or the lessons she’s taught me, starting from when I was just a teensy freshman.
This one’s for you, Carol.
I was a cheerleader all through junior and senior high. By the time I reached high school, I was helping out with the juniors while cheering for my senior team. If you think I’m not acutely aware that people still believe the widespread misconception that cheer isn’t a sport, then you definitely don’t know me. I even ran into one of these blokes the other day. Yes, he was an honest-to-God UK bloke. Enough said. What’s the current perception in the USA ? How about Canada? It changes so fast, yet stays the same. I’d be interested to read some of your comments, as would Carol I’m sure.
For the record, it is indeed a (highly competitive) sport, and although I don’t have time to elaborate on that, an ode to Carol should shed some light on it. Like many of my role models and peers, she has fought hard to promote and advocate a sport that gives young women (and men – YES, men), confidence, a sense of belonging, and a unique platform to work their talents and athletic abilities. Besides, I think she enjoys being a sort of outlaw, and cheerleaders, when pitted against their athletic counterparts, are often that (the real ones, not the paper dolls on the big screen, although I do love me some Bring it On – a hilariously fun nod to the subculture). If you don’t get it, fine. But if you do, thank you. Sports that continue to bear the weight of discriminating stereotypes need that positivity. If you don’t know a lot about cheer, check it out, especially if it’s a thing in your community. Hopefully it is.
High school cheerleading was a fast-growing scene on Cape Breton Island in the 90s. It’s much more established now, but it’s always evolving. Yet, it was (and perhaps still is) bullied by communal ignorance. You know, the chauvinists, athletic elitists and general naysayers about town. Maybe that was part of its appeal: it had something to prove. We can’t fully blame discrimination on the general public. Pop culture’s caricature of ‘the cheerleader’ perpetuates these attitudes that continue to be championed today. So, what else do folks have to go on besides these stereotypes, and what references did they have back then? Us: our team and our growing sport.
It was a gritty battle, but we kept on. By continuously asserting ourselves and gaining respect through hard work, the sport gained momentum, and by the late 90s, teams across Nova Scotia were competing for regional and provincial titles in a legitimately athletic domain. The stunts were exciting, the routines laborious and the competitions tense. A lot of injuries, upsets and rivalries, never without major fun (and high drama). That’s still very much the case, only now the routines are shorter, even more difficult (explosive, really), and FINALLY, there are boys! And man, do they add to it. I know they’ve been part of the sport for a long time, especially in the USA. They’ve been joining in larger numbers over the past decade in Canada, which is great to see. I was fortunate enough to coach a boy. He was fantastic. Great attitude, totally respectful and an extremely hard worker. Amazing toe-touches. Guess what? He was a star player on my husband’s hockey team, too. He was bullied quite a bit by some of his hockey mates, but again – ignorance. Unfortunately it’s part of the experience, especially for boys.
Back to the 90s: I’ll never forget that time in my life. I was involved in something challenging and exciting – something that pushed the norm for young girls. And I could fly. You know, literally: out of my teammate’s arms and into the air. And that was an incredible feeling.
When I met her, Carol was the teacher-in-charge and assistant coach of our high school team, the Redettes (What? It’s vintage). She had coached a rival team back in the 80s, but since then, the sport’s athletic component had grown exponentially, and she was back learning the ropes. By ’97, she’d gotten a good grasp on what cheer had become, and was starting to garner a more prominent role in the gym. By the time I was on the roster, our team had big love and respect for her, and that year, we would build the foundations of a local legacy in high school cheer.
Carol is, without question, fierce. She was a popular French Immersion teacher who always encouraged big laughs in class and in the gym, but that didn’t mean her kids had free reign (except maybe sometimes). We had a ton of fun, but when it came time to work, shenanigans didn’t fly. The first time she freaked on me, I had missed a crucial practice for a stupid reason. I waltzed into the gym (like an idiot), and all I could see was a pair of long black leggings making strides toward me, blonde strands of hair flying, and Carol’s eyes blazing. The next thing I knew, she was screeching something about responsibility (or was it stupidity?), but I’d gone into shock. I was so embarrassed I’d messed up that bad I was facing one of her renowned tongue-lashings, especially when I was proving to be a less-than-stellar rookie that season. What was worse, my teammates were visibly pissed at me. She was clearly speaking for them.
After that moment, I realized I had a real role to play, and so I endured the shade my team threw at me. But as soon as it was over, it was over. After a few shoves, wedgie threats and smacks on the ass I was tying up my laces and being pushed to my spot on the floor. At the end of the practice, Carol gathered me into a hug and laughed, assuring me I would be just fine. That was the year we won provincials (something none of us will ever forget), but it’s that particular tongue-lashing I often look back on with a big grin.
Carol has often fought for the underdog; whether it was the sport itself, supporting another team through their struggles, or buoying an athlete who was going through hard times, she was there fighting. She worked hard to change defunct regulations and fight for transparency and fairness in a judged sport. Through her advocacy, us girls learned what it was to truly fight for something. It often meant being unpopular, seeming and feeling like a nuisance to others, and saying something that a lot of people – sometimes an entire room full of people (who you worked with) – didn’t agree with. And let’s face it: it was largely a female issue. Come to think of it, Carol was one of the first feminists I ever knew. Through all of it, she held her head high – even if she made a misstep or lost her cool, and that did happen. But, she apologized when (and only) if that was the case and admitted when she was wrong, encouraging us to do the same. But she never backed down. Intimidation was not a tactic that worked on her, and she did everything to instill that attitude in us. Yet, there was a kindness behind everything she did. In her battles she was stoic (or extremely passionate), but softhearted and open with her team. Many times, she opened her home to us, drove us all around town, and told countless stories about her life. It was Carol who taught me the difference between ‘getting personal’, yet never ‘making it personal’ in the gym, and I still draw upon her ability to balance duty and relationships to this day.
When the year 2000 rolled around, I was reluctant to say goodbye to the team even though I was ready to graduate. In three short years, we had risen among the ranks and secured one provincial gold and two silver. We had a few regional banners in there, as well as our fair share of trophies and medals. But, we’d lost a significant amount as well. We felt, as a group, that we’d been on a proper journey. Our team survived a six-day-a-week practice regimen, ill-fated and amazing team trips, and countless bouts of teen drama. It didn’t matter what it was: family crises, broken hearts, soured friendships or those tried-and-true adversities: we’d gone through it all and always came out strong, together, and Carol was our matriarch.
That was just the beginning of my relationship with Carol. In Part II (yes, there’s more) we’ll hear from some of my fellow cheerleaders and you’ll get a glimpse into my coaching years with Carol, in which her mentorship came full circle.
Have any of you had a mentor, past or present? How has he or she impacted your life?