The Pep Rally

A celebration of self-loathing, past, present, and future.

Try to hold onto a little piece of reality: Focus on one object and imagine that there is no such thing as the passing of time. In my mother’s china cabinet, there was a glass swan that I used to pretend was a crystal ball. It was slippery smooth. Palm-sized yet deceptively heavy.

I remember holding it up, enjoying the weight of it in my hands. To whisk myself into the past and future, I would stare so hard into its translucent depths that my 5-year-old eyes would cross. There I saw … an unfamiliar, wavering, ghostwhite room; a sunlit window; an empty vase floating in place … magic.

My childhood memories overshadow those from my teen years, perhaps because they are prettier around the edges. Strange, parti-colored fragments, easy to pick apart and manipulate. They hold meaning because they helped me to create meaning. (Sentiency is this fusion of ends and means, see …)

It was only after I realized that I knew everything (or forgot everything that I didn’t know) that life became such day-to-day blah. Something was lost. The image went out of focus. I was older and sadder and supposedly wiser for it.

When I was in high school, I dyed my hair black, thinking that darker meant closer to real. I used to practice my hallway sneer in the bathroom at home: Slacken the jaw, furrow the brow, stare straight ahead like you’ve got searing X-ray vision. I wanted people to know that I understood the important things, that I myself was complex and important.

My grim countenance worked with varying degrees of effectiveness. In the words of two former classmates, I am remembered for being both “mysterious” and “mean.” Overall, I was a minor character in what turned out to be a great drama — necessary and somewhat interesting but ultimately powerless.

Outside of memories and John Hughes’ movies, there was no place where the histrionics of high school played out more conspicuously than the pep rally. This is one thing that does stand out in my mind from age 13 to 17. Or maybe it does because I’ve returned to this place … though I shouldn’t get ahead of myself.

At my tiny school, we had three pep assemblies per year — one for each sports season. On these days, our gymnasium was transformed from a dingy, basketball torture chamber (no, I never did learn how to do a lay-up) to a brightly-lit stage. The walls were covered with motivational posters (“Freshmen suck!”, “Die, Raiders!”, etc.), the bleachers were stretched out all accordion-like, and the rubber floors were mopped to an almost glossy state.

Overlooking the festivities, a brawny blue-and-gold Trojan gripped his short sword, ready to step down from his mural at any minute and start hacking up some rival mascots. (Actually, the painting really wasn’t that lifelike. Another thing about memories: They are flawed. Aren’t memoirs just clumsy truths neatly patched over with fibs?)

This two-dimensional warrior, however, was the focal point. He was our reason for gathering, no matter what our feelings were on the implicit social politics.

To me, this academic depiction was far less poetic than, say, a glass swan, but it was a symbol to center on, something concrete to shape the moment around. And momentous certainly was the word for each of those occasions. What would begin as a perfunctory march to the gym somehow evolved into a stomping, chanting frenzy. It had little to do with school spirit (whatever that was) and everything to do with finding a way to identify yourself among the crowd.

And, at our pep rallies, your actions determined your status in the hierarchy of cool. The jocks, of course, played along. They painted their faces in school colors, memorized the class cheer, and brought the Silly String. The less popular (to avoid a number of sterling epithets) imitated this good cheer but lacked the aplomb.

The rednecks hooted and hollered from the top rows of the bleachers. Sometimes they threw things. The stoners, making the most of the social time, bragged about recent hallucinations, made new hook-ups, and spread the word about upcoming parties.

My friends and I expressed our disgust with the proceedings by doing nothing. We sat there with our piercings and polyester and sulked, occasionally cracking on the people who we thought were making cracks about us. We fancied ourselves witty and somber and artistic. In reality, we were dorks undercover … and that’s okay. We were having fun.

What actually happened down on the floor during the pep rallies is kind of hazy. Teammates ran around giving each other high fives. Football players in cheerleading uniforms did choreographed high kicks for an easy laugh. The cheerleaders themselves strutted around to C+C Music Factory remixes and attempted cartwheels. They usually ended up falling down, which garnered more laughter than any of the stupid skits. These were all formalities. The point was that we were all there, being whoever our flaws had primed us to be. Trojans.

These days, it’s becoming easier to believe that there is no such thing as time. Flashing forward to the present is a simple step through a ghostwhite room. The light neutralizes old feelings, but everything else stays the same. Here and here again four years later … I’m a teacher.

Sure, there are a few differences. I don’t work at my alma mater. I’m a Cougar now. Instead of trying to catch some Z’s at my desk, I stand in front of the classroom and say things. I get paid for doing my homework. I bring a bag lunch every day, but I eat it in the English office. My hair is shorter and back to its natural brown hue.

These differences are details that help me to fill in the blanks. Objects. Illusions. The underlying story remains the same: I’m learning to live with the things about myself that I dislike. I’m growing older and wiser. The people around me are growing older and wiser.

And, from time to time, we all go to the pep rally.

Our first pep rally this year took place on Thursday during fall Spirit Week — Color Day. What this means is that each class had a color to wear: Red for seniors, yellow for juniors, green for sophomores, and orange for freshmen. The effect of this visual segmentation in the bleachers was pretty and surreal. Almost a parody of the event itself.

I watched from the floor on this occasion, because teachers are crowd control. This is kind of a scary job if you consider what 2,000 students could do if they put their minds to it. Nothing out of the ordinary occurred, though. The freshmen got booed. The seniors screamed the loudest. The cheerleaders fell down a few times, but at least their routines seemed moderately difficult. I got whipped cream on my shoe during a sneak cake attack the football players had planned for their female counterparts. That was it.

I spent most of the time looking over the crowd. I picked out a few people I could’ve been — the quiet and uncolorful, the deliberately sullen — all a requisite part of the beautiful, trembling mass. It made me smile.

Sometimes I still think of myself as bitter and antisocial. It’s getting harder. I like my kids too much. I suppose hovering here in the ghostwhite room — the space between the real and imagined, between memories and the present where we create them — can make a person sentimental.

Article © 2001 by Sarah David