As soon as the school bell rang, marking the end of my 7th period English class, I calmly rose from my seat, gathered my books, and headed down the bustling hall towards my locker. I could feel the frenetic movement and hear the excited voices of my schoolmates as they rambunctiously celebrated the official arrival of the weekend, but I couldn’t partake in any of it.
Quiet as a mouse, I robotically spun the dial of a combination lock, swung open my locker, and grabbed the hanger that hung from an aged, corroded rod.
Entering the main stairwell on a Friday afternoon was like being sucked into a black hole. Students of all ages stampeded down the knobbed wooded stairs before dispersing into different directions once they hit the ground floor.
On this particular afternoon, I floated along with the tide of students, completely blind to who stood on either side of me.
Round and round we went; descending one staircase, then the other.
Once I lowered myself from the final step, I did not head towards the auditorium to wait for my bus to arrive as I normally did. Instead, the wave of students carried me past the principal’s office and the gym before spitting me out into the main hall, where I was forced to then go against the current of 8th graders that rushed from the “old wing”.
The walk that was normally frightening and stressful for me was no more than a basic necessity on this occasion, so I didn’t so much as flinch as big, burly 8th grade boys and heavily perfumed 8th grade girls pushed and shoved their way past me.
I thought nothing. I felt nothing.
Though I frequently entered the old wing for my classes, I was headed for a place I’d never ventured before. It was only by word of mouth that I knew where the office was located, so I had no idea what to expect once I found it.
By the time I had passed the auto shop room, the workshop room, and an unmarked utility closet, I suddenly found myself alone in the hallway.
Finally looking up, I saw that I was standing in front of a small room, about the size of my bathroom at home. A warm gust of heat emanated from its doorway, causing a disruption in the otherwise wintry air of the hallway. Tightening my grasp on the cold metal hanger in my hand, I entered the room.
Her back was turned to me when I walked in. She was talking to two of the 8th grade basketball cheerleaders, so she didn’t notice me at first.
Uninterested in announcing my arrival, I stood rigidly against the block wall nearest the door, staring wide-eyed at all of the cheerleading knickknacks that had been crammed into the narrow, but cozy office. The walls were littered with cheer competition ribbons, trophies, photographs, and banners; I’d never seen so much purple and gold kitsch in all of my life.
Big, smiling, stupid faces.
Our mascot, a hideous bald bird, seemingly screeched at me from a flag across the room. All the feigned spirit and camaraderie made me feel ill.
Eventually, the two girls decided to end their visit, bringing all attention to me and the hanger that hung frozen in my hand. They started for the door, and they gawked at me as I looked straight through them.
Our coach approached me, wearing a smile that wouldn’t last.
“Well, I don’t see you in here very often,” she chirped. “That was a great game on Tuesday, wasn’t it? I swear, you girls are getting better every game.”
I clenched my teeth and looked through her.
“Yeah, uhm-hmm. Absolutely. I need to talk to you though.”
Her smile continued to creep up the sides of her suntanned face as she plopped down at her desk. I squinted in her direction. How could she be so dimly casual?
“Of course! I love when you girls come to visit me. They have me tucked away all by myself out here. I’m lucky that anyone can actually find me.”
Maybe she thought I was there to chat her up about our new personalized hair bows, or maybe she thought I wanted to share my ideas for a set of new chants we could use at our next home game. Whatever she had thought, she was wrong.
“I’m not going to be able to be on the team anymore, but thank you anyway.”
Thrusting my uniforms towards her, I waited for her to take them from me, but she didn’t. Instead, she sat there slack jawed, gaping at me in complete shock. The silence went on so long that I grew weary and dropped the hanger onto a pile of cheer magazines on her desk.
Eventually, she spoke. Her voice was so meek I could scarcely hear her over the grumble of the wall heater.
“Mm-hmm, yes. I’m sorry.”
If I had been the woman I am today, I would have had to turn that question back on her. Surely, as the head cheerleading coach for both the middle school and the high school girls she had heard the rumor.
As the primary judge of the cheer auditions, she had undoubtedly heard the heinous lies that had casted a shadow of doubt over the integrity of my parents and myself. But let’s not forget that the rumor implicated her as well. After all, hadn’t she allegedly been the one who had “unethically skewed the audition scores” in my favor?
In many ways, I wish that I could go back to this very moment with the unwavering resolve and confident spirit that I have today, but so desperately lacked at the time. All of the pain and suffering I incurred could have easily been nipped in the bud as soon as I’d discovered what was being said about me, if only I’d gone straight to the coach and asked that she put an end to the lies.
It is hard to say whether or not her admission would have hushed the rumor mill, but at least people would have had to consider the legitimacy of their beliefs for a split second. It may have made the world of difference in my life at that moment in time.
However, this never happened.
All I could say was, “My parents don’t think I should cheer anymore. I need to focus on school. I’m sorry.”
As she opened her mouth to protest, I cut her off, mumbling something about needing to catch my bus. I then rushed to the auditorium as fast as my two trembling legs would carry me. My bus number was called just as I hit the door.
I rode home in complete silence. I entered the house in complete silence.
I thought nothing. I felt nothing.
I ate dinner. I had dessert.
Half an hour later, I snuck into the pantry and grabbed a handful of cookies. Another twenty minutes later, I grabbed a second handful, only leaving the sugary broken bits at the bottom of the bag. After eating the cookies, I knew I couldn’t finish the crumbs or else my parents would immediately notice that I had eaten the entire bag by myself.
A few minutes later, I tiptoed downstairs and brought the bag back up to my bedroom. I hid under my covers and mindlessly munched on what remained as I watched The Simpsons. Before I knew it, I was laughing at the show. I suddenly felt really happy.
The cookies had made me happy.
It had been so long since I had smiled and laughed that the warm sensation of genuine cheer felt extraordinarily good. Deciding that I wanted to continue being happy, I went into the pantry and grabbed several bags of Welch’s strawberry fruit snacks. Shoving them into my pajama pockets, I rushed back to my room to eat them.
One by one, I went through all of the bags.
Consuming the sugary snacks was strangely exhilarating, so I found it quite difficult to stop myself from returning to the pantry for another handful. But when I finally finished, my stomach hurt and I realized that my nightstand was covered with food wrappers. I knew I couldn’t throw them away or else my parents would see them.
Without a moment’s thought, I shoved all of the empty snack packets underneath my bed.
This was the first time I ever binged, but it was far from the last.
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