Eighth-grade Heroine

Apr 11, 2022

How a Cheerleader Changed My Life 

Mrs. Kendall glanced down again at her new seating chart.

“Jill, behind Debbie,” she called.

I groaned silently to myself as I got up as inconspicuous as I could, which probably made me more noticeable. I picked up my backpack and social studies book, and moved to the indicated seat with my head down. I could feel the eyes of the whole class on me as I walked to my new assignment.

I sat down, placed my backpack on the floor and studied my desk. Not too many gouge marks.

Debbie turned around in her chair and said, “Hi, Jill.” She smiled warmly. “Are you ashamed of yourself?”

I looked up in surprise that Debbie would speak to me. Startled at the unexpected question, I searched for a response. “Yeah, I guess so.”

“Why?” she asked. “You walked over here like you’re afraid of being seen, but you’re really pretty, and I know you’re smart. Why are you ashamed?”

“I’m too skinny, and my clothes don’t fit. I know I'm ugly. This skirt used to be Katie Mathew’s, and her mom gave it to me, but it’s too big. I’m a little worried it might fall off.”

Debbie’s light laugh was kind and her long, blond curls bounced. “It won’t fall off,” she said, “I can tell your hips will keep it up. You have a tiny waist, so it’s a little baggy, but I think you’re safe. And really, you should hold your head up when you walk. You have a nice smile.

I was shocked and embarrassed to hear her compliment me, and hardly knew what to do. I think I squirmed and rejected each one she offered, but as I walked home from school that day, I reflected over and over.

My self-esteem was so low, I wondered what she could have meant. She was a popular cheerleader and so pretty! Why would she talk to me like that?

Over the semester, Debbie often greeted me and asked how my day was going. We also had PE together and she looked amazing in her gym uniform (we called them monkey suits). They were one-piece knitted maroon shorts and striped maroon and white shirt that zipped up the front. The uniform hung loosely on me, and I was self-conscious. Debbie made a point to hang out with me anyway, and included me in her group.

 It took me years of concentrated effort to ditch the embarrassment of being me, continually surrounded by people who put me down, but occasionally buoyed up by people like Debbie. By graduation from high school, I was confident, unashamed, and dating.

 I never forgot my junior high friend who reached out to me and made all the difference.

 Who’s your hero?

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