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  • Bella Dancer

TAKE THE SHOT - A Tomboy Cheerleader's First Crush & Burn

Updated: Oct 6



Spring 1986

Seventh Grade


I’ve done it!


This is the 80s, man. Girls no longer have to wait for a boy to make the first move. Forget waiting around for Prince Charming to knock on my door with a glass slipper. We can walk right up to him at the ball and ask him to dance ourselves. When we’re old enough, we can even ask him out on a date. I’m not allowed to go out on dates yet, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t tell Steven Carlson that I think he’s the cutest boy in the whole school.

He’s a ninth grader. Perfect sandy hair that blows in the breeze. Dreamy blue eyes. He’s a percussionist. Band has become my favorite class of the week. Any excuse I can make to turn around and look at him, I do.


I’ve been moved up to the front row this year. I’m third-chair, even though I’m only a seventh-grader. Ms. Mandeville just put me on third-part for the flute trio that my cheerleader-flute idols, Meg and Ursula, played last year. Now that they’ve graduated, Leslie is first-chair and captain of the cheerleaders. She was their third, so I hope that means this is a lucky part and someday I'll be first-chair and cheer captain.


In the meanwhile, being on the far right end of the front row, where the seats curve around the most, means that it’s easy for me to make excuses to glance back at the percussion section.


Oh, the way Steve’s arms and shoulders flex under his t-shirt when he plays the snare. That look of concentration he gets during a really hard phrase. The way his smile lights up his whole face when everybody laughs at his jokes and his antics.


And everybody always laughs.


He’s so funny and cute and smart and athletic. He’s not the biggest guy in his class, but he can walk down a stair railing and swing around on a flag pole. I love to watch him do daredevil tricks on his skateboard. I pretty much love to watch him do anything, even sleep on the bus when we head to away games.

He’s so darling when he’s asleep. He looks younger with his face relaxed instead of his usual mischievous grin or fierce concentration. Don’t get me wrong, I love those, too. But when he’s asleep, I imagine what it would be like to brush his long bangs off his eyelids. I imagine how soft his hair must be to get that feathered look. I imagine what it must smell like…


I’ve never stood close enough to him to know.


On the ride to away games, we cheerleaders have to ride in front, so we don’t distract the boys beforehand (or do naughty things behind those tall seats in the dark on the way home). That’s why I linger before getting on the bus so I can sit in the front there, too. It gives me the excuse to fold my elbows on my seat back and talk to the girls behind me, which gives me the excuse to stare at Steven.


He never stares back, and I know. I’m just a little seventh-grader. In my class, I’m considered a nerd. The class reject. The Dog.


But I’m also a cheerleader now—the only one from my grade who made either squad—and that has the power to change everything. Who cares about the stupid boys in my class? They’ve called me ugly since kindergarten and they're still horrible to me. The couple boys who have ever tried talking to me got pounced by Queenie’s Court and reminded what would happen to them if they even think about looking my way. The new boy who started this year was definitely interested in me, and he is super cute, but those girls got ahold of him, too. Now he’ll barely talk to me.


Well, fine. In band, I’m seated up there with the kids from senior high, and I mostly hang out with the cheerleaders from that same age group when I’m not with Mari and our collection of dancers—nerds and rejects, every one of us. But we can move!


I taught them a dance to Cruel Summer, and now we’re on to Walk Like An Egyptian.


I keep wishing Steven would see us dancing after lunch, because cheer practice takes place down in the lunch room after school when he has his own practices. After eating, he always goes off somewhere with his friends while I dance with mine in that out-of-the-way lobby between the gym’s back doors and the stairs to the pool where we're hardly ever bothered.


But I'm not dancing today.


Today I lean against my locker, making an uncharacteristically obvious target of myself as I wait to find out what happened after Reynold Collins gave Steven my note.

Ren is Steve’s best friend, and I finally mustered up the guts this morning to ask for the favor. I’ve only been stutter-stepping in the hall for the last three weeks, every time Ren passes by. You’d never guess that I’m a dancer by how awkward my feet get over the mere thought of communicating with the boy I like.

But I finally asked.


And Ren agreed.



The bell rings to signal the end of lunch hour. I wait a little longer.


And wait.


And wait.


I finally have to give up and slip into the English room before I’m marked tardy. The rest of the afternoon, I can’t concentrate. I do some of my assignments and only half-listen to the lectures. I ignore the usual flutters and mutters behind my back. They’re all laughing at me today, instead of snarling. They must have seen my new dance because their hands are waving about and they’re making dramatic gestures, falling all over each other.


I could not care less. I have bigger things on my mind today. Really, I’m just counting the minutes until every bell when Ren and I might pass each other in the hall.


Or maybe even Steve himself. No band today.


No cheer practice either, so when classes let out I head home, dejected, and count more minutes until I can get back to school. Now that’s a first. Me actually wanting to enter that building for something other than learning or practicing.

Hallelujah, the next morning I find Ren before the second bell rings. My eyes go huge with questioning.


His go huge, too. Then he cringes, glances around, and beelines across the hall to me.

Oh, no. What now? My heart sinks, because I’m absolutely sure that Ren is going to tell me that Steven doesn’t like me back. Maybe he even likes somebody else or has gotten a girlfriend. I suddenly don’t want to know, but I have to know, so I do my own cringe and ask, “Well?”

“Well…” Ren’s teeth clamp together in a tense attempt to smile. His eyes are shifty and he can’t quite meet mine. “I gave it to him.”


“Yes…? And…?”

“Annnnd…he read it.”


“Okay…?” I gesture for him to spit it out. You’re killing me here, pal!


“Out loud.”


My heart stops. It literally comes to a screeching halt and peers out over the Cliffs of Doom, knowing it’s about to be booted over the edge, never to be seen or heard from again.

“What do you mean ‘out loud’?” My breath is sort of airy as I ask that.

Ren’s wince could slice heads clean off. I wish he would lop mine off and be done with it. Put me out of my misery. But he keeps scraping his feet, which I want to stomp, forcing him to talk. But am I sure I really want to hear this?


“So…he read it. Then he started laughing. Then he read it out loud for everybody that was there in Mr. Z’s room and…”


And everybody else started laughing. Like they do.


I nod absently. I’m having a little trouble hearing now. Probably because, in reality, I’m busy digging a hole in which to place my decapitated head before my inevitable plummet into the Lava Sea of Doom. At least no one will hear the screams, because my mouth will be filled with dirt.

“After that...um...he gave it to Kris and Suze.”

All the milling bodies in the hallway freeze.


That spitball Dan just shot at Mitch crawls through the air at the speed of a bored tortoise. Its globs of saliva ooze and eventually form a loose droplet.


Then another.


I am finally able to shutter my eyelids over everything I don’t want to see, don’t want to know. Alas, they open back up and the spitball lodges in Mitch’s hair. He swats at it and swears. A chase ensues. Bodies careen away amidst the crashing. Metallic locker-thuds resound. More laughter.


I am still trying to blink again.


“Wh-what do you mean, he gave it...” I can’t form the rest of those horrific words. “You mean…you mean Kristina and Suzy were in Mr. Z’s room when you gave my note to Steve?”


Ren nods.


Ohhhhhhhh, no-no-no-no-no… Anybody but them.


The Lava Sea of Doom threatens to spew up my throat from my suddenly queasy stomach. I force it back down with a pitchfork so I can say, “So…that means…”


That means Queenie and Princess have the full-page, swooning, gushing, heart-puking sentimental sap letter that I wrote to Steven Carlson in their Flying Monkey clutches.


Ren nods. He gulps hard. When his gaze shifts away this time, so does his body. His face screws up as though he’s kinda yearning for decapitation himself.

My arms cross. My hands grip my bicep and my ribcage hard. My face goes as stony as the boulder now blocking the lava still roiling in my guts. I wield my tongue like the executioner’s sword as I demand, “What did they do with it?”


He glances back at me. Then his eyes close, but not before he hits me with a look of deepest apology. “They…passed it around in the hall and then pinned it to the board outside the counselor’s office.”


For another second, the film of my life’s movie glitches. Everything goes slightly skewed, rattles, and then continues on.


I give another silent nod. I’m not really occupying my body. Can’t fully feel the ground under my feet.


That board sits in the main hallway which slices a swath down the entire length of the high school’s mid-level floor. Everybody passes by it. Hour after hour. All. Day. Long. It’s how we get to the cafeteria, the gym, the pool, the library, the lobby, the main office, the nurse’s room, and the band room. It’s where all important notices are posted.


I’m surprised they didn’t hijack the office and read it aloud over the intercom.


My hand gives two smart pats on Ren’s shoulder. “Thank you.”


“Um…sure.”


A thought makes me spin back around. Before he’s lost down the hall for the day, I bound after him and call him back. “Will you give Steve another note for me?” I growl.

Ren’s eyes fly open. Upon seeing the look in my eyes, he flashes the sort of smirk guys get when they look forward to seeing one of their own take it in the teeth. “Yeah. Sure thing.”

“Thanks,” I fire off my sharp tongue, then storm up the stairs, across the creaky wooden floor of the main hall, and up to the bulletin board. Yup. There is my girlie-round, too-legible handwriting in my distinctive purple ink on my wide-rule lined paper with its scallop-torn edges.


My heart and all the intimate details of its first true swoon have been pinned onto a bullseye target with a two plastic-headed tacks, one green, one blue.


I yank out the tacks, stab them back into the bulletin board, and reclaim the evidence of my stupidity. Folding it up, I shove it into my bag and gallop down the stairs to Mr. Douglas’ classroom three seconds before the bell rings.

His sharp eye flicks at me as I slide into my seat like a batter into first base.


Queenie and her Court sit behind me. Their sniggers and whispers are loud enough to hear over the introduction of today’s topic: Metamorphosis.


I keep waiting for mine. How long do I have to keep inching along on my belly before I’m allowed to grow wings and fly? How long before I can soar away from this place forever? I keep trying to spin my cocoon, but every time I get it started, something always unravels it. Snips it off the tree. Squashes it flat. Or just when I think it’s my turn to launch into the air, there come the cruel hands, fingers sticky with jelly to snatch me from the branch and pull my wings off.


Today, I blast through my homework, fueled by fury and determination to get it out of the way because I have better things to do. Bigger things.

Astronomical things to be delivered in minuscule fashion.


In my tiniest but neatest handwriting, I set my pen onto the tippy-topmost corner of a notebook page:


“Dear Steven, I heard that you read my letter yesterday and that you found it very entertaining. Allow me to bring some more laughter into your day by telling you how much I love watching you play snare. You are so talented and so awesome with your…”

In all, the letter occupies the space of about three-inches-by-two, front and back. When I am finished, I carefully rip it out of the page, making sure that not a single microscopic letter is lost. I roll it up into a mini-scroll and tuck it into my jeans pocket for the next time I encounter Ren in the hallway. We almost always pass each other between second and third period.


I hope Steven does read my words aloud and that everybody listening gets a good ole laugh from it. Because the only thing I care about anymore is that they don’t get to win.

I will not duck my head.


I will not snivel and cower and shrink and cry.


I will not stop expressing what I think and feel just because they want me to be embarrassed about it. Besides, it’s the complete truth—I really do love watching Steven play drums and I love how he looks in that Pepsi t-shirt and I love the fact that I wore my Coke t-shirt on the same day.


I did not sign the letter this time. He knows exactly who it’s from, and if my nasty classmates decide to pin this one on the board, it can be anonymous to anybody who isn’t already in on the big joke. And good luck to anybody noticing a note this small as they pass by between classes.

I will not be silenced.


I will not be made afraid.


I will not be humiliated into slinking around with my eyes on the ground, crawling on my belly like a worm.

And I will never, ever stop.


CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE

--UP NEXT: Why this choice ranks among the biggest regrets of my life.

--If you don't know who Queenie, Princess & the Court are, you can find the beginning of those tales HERE.

--OR if you didn't want to deviate from Dance, there's more on that topic here:

--THE NAVIGATION TABLE OF CONTENTS



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