The Alternate

Submitted into Contest #198 in response to: Write a story about an unconventional teacher.... view prompt

39 comments

Coming of Age High School Creative Nonfiction

The Alternate


I didn't make it... No, surely I made it... Didn't I??

Other girls in front of me were either squealing in delight or turning away with crest-fallen hopes. Four of my other sophomore squad mates were holding on to each others arms bouncing up and down full of giddiness. Of course they had made it.

Then one of the Patties met my eyes and had to look away. What had she seen on the single sheet posted outside the gymnasium that I hadn't been able to see yet for the cluster of swarming candidates surrounding the little typewritten square?

Carol, another one of the former squad members turned and said “Congratulations, Mary.” Then went to join the bouncing foursome. Okay, that must mean...maybe I did?

Finally, I was able to read it. Under “Varsity Cheerleaders”. Yes, the four names: Patti H., Patti T., Jackie F., Mary C.; then two juniors from this past years' varsity squad Mary S. and Miki S.; then, Alternate: Mary Y.

What? Alternate! Me? But... but I was a leader on our squad. I created the majority of the routines. Sure, having no adult overseeing us, (well, until 'she' came along) we collaborated a lot but still without me making suggestions all the cheers would have been boring! My sister was cheerleader in her first year of community college and had been one every year since she was in sixth grade, in all three high schools she had attended. She taught me everything. I taught them everything!

Alternate?! That is like a death sentence. A slow, agonizing death sentence. I thought of petite, perky, Paula, a dancing diva, our sophomore 'alternate'. What had this past season meant for her? Coming to a few practices. Halfheartedly learning the moves of a few routines. Maybe filling in for one of us once or twice at an actual game but having to hurriedly be reminded what to do exactly. Did she even have her own uniform? All that and she still didn't earn a spot on the next year's varsity squad.

My heart hurt but somehow I was still caught up in the exuberance of the other lucky chosen ones and was surprisingly included when they did a victory lap around town. I don't even remember how we all fit in a vehicle but we were dropping off Carol on the north side of town. I lived on the south side of the river and, being new to the city last year, wasn't familiar with this neighborhood.

In my misery fog I remember looking at a weepy, bluish-green shrub when we stopped at a corner. Being April there were cheery flowering trees everywhere that should have lifted my spirits. My spirit was deflated and the blue in the bush reflected that and I wanted to weep, too. Now decades later I live on the north side and that bush still survives, although gnarled and twisted, on my homeward way. It still can twist my insides a bit as it reminds me of that time long, long ago. And why have I let that time still weigh heavily on my heart?

Ah, High School. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times...

What I knew:

We were midway through the basketball season when 'she', being Mrs. T, was introduced to us sophomores as the new cheerleader advisor. She had expertise galore she would impart to us poor floundering newbies. The varsity squad was too far gone but there was still maybe hope for us younger rubes.

First on her agenda was getting us to add acrobatic tricks into our routines because that was the way things were done at the last school where she coached. That meant having to teach us how to do flips, splits, cartwheels, round-offs, front walk-overs, back walk-overs, back-flips and maybe even aerials. She also taught us pyramid building techniques and the mandatory three-step wind-up to every jump we jumped. Gone were the trendy sharp, snappy arm moves in favor of the old-fashioned floppy, flaying arms in every direction mode.

Now I was already self-taught in splits, could even do one in the air, back-bends and cartwheels to the right or the left. But I had no idea what a back-walk-over or round-off was and back-flips were only for fools off a diving board.

Despite my family's poor economic standing and frequent moves throughout my previous school years I still think I had confidence to try and conquer most challenges. I liked phys-ed and was competitive in most games we played. This was before Title 9 which made way for girl's sports programs. We had GAA, Girl's Athletic Association, in which we went on hikes or maybe swam at a local hotel or held dodge ball or volleyball tournaments. But otherwise you became a cheerleader or nothing if you wanted physical activities. Even jogging wasn't a thing back then.

I had been a cheerleader in seventh grade at my previous small-town school and had been selected again for eighth grade but moved when the basketball season was getting underway. The much larger school I moved to selected their squad the week before I arrived. There were no freshman cheerleaders but I made the sophomore squad. We didn't choose a captain, we worked together until Mrs. T came to take over.

At these tryouts for the next season I did everything perfect up until I attempted and failed to complete my back-walk-over. In practices I was proficient perhaps seventy percent of the time. I could do one but got nervous, I guess, under pressure. I know Mrs. T had seen me do one plenty of times.

Now, Miki, a junior who had been on the varsity squad that year, was at the same level of proficiency doing walk-overs and all the other tricks we were learning as I was. But she pulled a leg muscle before tryouts. To the judges Mrs. T vouched for all the tricks Miki couldn't perform as if she had them down perfectly. Miki only had to wave her spindly arms around during the try-outs. I believe she was 'grandfathered' in on Mrs. T word. It didn't hurt she also had the preferred twiggy appearance compared to my filled out, perfect pyramid-base form.

Throughout the following junior year I tried my hardest to make the most of the alternate position to which I was elected. I attended all practices trying to learn all positions of all the cheers. I was even tasked a new position of being advisor to the incoming sophomore squad. So I attended all their practices, too, and choreographed the majority of their routines. I continued practicing the acrobatics even though I was always short-changed on the time Mrs. T would afford for me because, after all, I was only the alternate.

On 'Spirit Day' when we were supposed to wear our cheerleader uniforms to school, Mary C came crying to me she had to commandeer my uniform because some unforeseen disaster had befallen hers. What difference did it make if I wasn't in uniform since I was only the alternate?

This was the football uniform which included hand-made corduroy shorts. I, being a sewer, had made my own as per my Grandmother always taught me leave a little extra give in the seams. Seemed wise advice especially considering all the jumps, cartwheels and other stress we may put on those seams. Therefore, the shorts were not tight on me.

So, of course, being the team player I was expected to be I handed over my shorts and did not get to participate in the 'Spirit' of the day. Imagine my surprise when those shorts were returned to me with large holes running up both sides of the leg seams.

“Well, naturally, they were so-o-o big on me I had to take up the seams.” Said a quite contrary Mary. She was also a base model and not nearly as skinny-legged as she professed. But what did it matter if my shorts were ruined? No permission necessary and no apology, huh, Mary. After all, I was only...

And so the year went. I maybe cheered two games the whole season. I started attending my out-of-town boyfriend's games when held on the same night as our school's.

"So, Mary. I didn't see you in the stands at Friday night's game. You understand you should be there supporting the team, right?" Mrs. T reminded me at the next practice. Evidently, no life permitted because, after all...

What I never knew that year:

Mrs. T had her varsity squad plus one other petite gymnast perform in our town's summer talent show.

Mrs. T had her varsity squad and the extra gymnast teaching gymnastic skills to grade-school classes-- for pay!.

Mrs. T threw parties at her house for the varsity squad inviting her favorite students from her previous school. They all became fast friends. The other girls had inside jokes they would share and laugh at behind my back during practices.

Professional pictures were taken of the varsity squad. I was not even invited to be in the yearbook pictures of cheerleaders that year. They were taken without my knowledge. Dispite all my extra hard work and time put in my name was not even mentioned anywhere in that book as varsity alternate or as sophomore advisor.

Despite poor treatment by the girls I thought were my friends the previous year and especially by the adult in the room who obviously had no regard for my well-being, I still had a passion for cheer-leading so I practiced and showed up for try-outs at the end of the year. The judges added a new question and answer segment as part of the process.

“If not selected as one of the six members of the squad, do you want to be the alternate?”

'Oh, sure, sign me up for more abuse,' was what I thought. I answered as honestly as I could. “Being an alternate as a junior makes sense because it may prepare the way for the following year. But as a senior, I can not imagine what could be gained. So no thank you.”

I saw the smirk on my nemesis' face. I was sure she held my future in her hands. She wasn't a judge but she swayed the judges. I was sure I had signed the death sentence on my beleaguered cheerleader career.

What? I made it! Now was that a good thing or not?

The two Patties, the two Marys and Jackie were together again along with a lone junior, Roxie. Except for us pyramid-base-models, the two Marys, all the rest were petite and spindly body types exactly like Mrs. T and what she valued.

We started practicing in earnest. Jackie had fallen on her head in a failed back-flip sometime last year (I never witnessed this so that meant they were having additional practices without me). Never again would she perform one on the gym floor although she was more than capable. Therefore, we had to work around her in every cheer. The two Patties could spell out our town name and our mascot name in back-flips. One letter for every flip. Total of ten. Even I could spell out our mascot name in back-flips. That was five flips one after the other. I never quite got the aerial but then again Mrs. T had little hope my big size-nine-rear-end would ever make it over my head so didn't give me much chance to try. (Everyone else except Jackie and Roxie could do an aerial so those extra practices last year paid off.)

My senior year she had no way out of including me in the talent show or her gymnastic school. The parties either stopped or I never got an invitation. I still don't know. Our alternate was included in all we did including professional and yearbook pictures.

I never would have guessed this about myself but I am capable of holding a grudge for a very looong time. Yeah, I know I am supposed to forgive and forget but...

At the end of the year the gymnastic school was to put on a recital for the parents. I taught a class of eight sixth-graders. We all had some polishing to put on the routines. The time frame already had extended far beyond what was expected on the dress rehearsal evening. I had a ride waiting for me outside I had sent away once and told to come back in an hour. (This was long, long before everyone was attached to a phone on their hip.) I innocently stated to one of the other squad member teachers that Mrs. T really shouldn't expect us to stay out this late. A fact, not a slam.

The next day before the performance I was surprised to get a phone call from Mrs. T demanding an apology. Evidently, a parent had overheard me 'complaining' and thought I was out of line. I was flabbergasted. How much abuse had I taken without complaint from this pillar of virtue, this molder of young minds? Never had I heard one word of apology for making me feel unworthy or less than her other prodigies. My crime was being larger than her ideal. I sort of snapped.

“I was merely stating a fact, you had kept us there too long. 11 PM! I am sure if any of the other girls observed the same you would not be demanding an apology from them. I am the only one who can't do anything right by your standards. I don't think I need to apologize.”

“Apologize or don't bother coming in tonight.”

Even though it hurt my heart not to be there helping my class I couldn't do it. I think the injustice I felt in the last two years boiled over into this moment in time. Where was her apology to me? She had robbed me of my confidence and my joy. Made me feel miserable about myself. Treated me like low life. But always with a smirk, er, smile.

“Then I guess I won't be there tonight.” I felt I was finally standing up for myself.

Of course, I never did get to see, let alone purchase, any of the professional pictures we had taken that spring of our varsity squad.

But there I am in the year book in a perfect split in the air. One of only two full action shots in the lot. And my legs in the still shot with us on one knee with the the other extended in a perfect rockette-style line do not look exceptionally over-sized, just more filled out than the other knobby-kneed toothpicks. My arms are in precise alignment, unbent, hands and fingers on point, not splayed-out. My smile is perfectly awesome, hiding the pain of the truth.

I had some good teachers so why does a poor one come to mind the most? I recognize these woes and the teenage angst I suffered are minor compared to experiences others have lived through.

I can hear you thinking, “Oh, poor little popular cheerleader. How did she ever get through it all?” All I can say is I wasn't your typical stereotype cheerleader. I talked to and tried to be friendly to everybody. I don't think I displayed an 'I'm better than you' attitude. My main circle of friends was far from the most popular.

I was pleased my alcoholic dad never came to any school events. I never expected my overworked mom to make the effort. Besides her full time job she was busy caring for her aging mother and six kids. We lost of one of my sisters in an auto accident six months prior to this starting. My family was still healing. Income was low, the struggle high.

We moved frequently so needed to re-adjust quickly. Other members of the group had been friends since kindergarten. I was an outlier. I worked hard for acceptance. Inside I was fragile.

Much later I learned I was the first in a long line of girls at our school on whom Mrs. T put her stamp of disapproval.

I have been blessed with many successes and survived many heartbreaks over the ensuing years but I believe what should have been some of my most cherished formative years were unfortunately tainted by this biased unconventional 'teacher'.



May 18, 2023 21:40

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39 comments

Amanda Lieser
03:27 Jun 06, 2023

Hi Mary, Wow! This piece was clearly incredibly personal for you. I thought you did a wonderful job of capturing high school-how quickly friendships dissolve and the world seemed to fall apart around you. I thought it was tragic the way this teacher imparted pain on you-it’s something I think we have the capacity to forget. We all have an amazing amount of power for other people. The small things can go a long way-good or bad. I’m glad you put this story down on paper. I hope it helped you along your healing journey.

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Mary Bendickson
05:47 Jun 06, 2023

Thanks for the support. Its been far too long to still hold sway so why does it sometimes? I'm sure I am a stronger person as a result of it all.

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Chris Campbell
06:55 May 26, 2023

Mary, A little recognition goes a long way. Even a thank you can make a world of difference. My experience in team-related activities is that the person in charge will always have their favourites. Skill, ability, and experience, sometimes finishes in second place behind popularity. I recently coached a women's soccer team that belonged to a social soccer club. It would have been safe to start the same players every game; however, they all paid a fee to join the league, so I made sure everyone got equal playing time. The season finished ...

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Mary Bendickson
08:21 May 26, 2023

I think you took way more abuse being beaten to impress their form of education upon you. I feel petty in comparison complaining about the bias this woman showed. Yes, I thought I deserved just as much consideration and recognition as the others. Life is unfair at times. How did we survive? Your style of coaching sounds like the right kind. Even little league coaches learn they need to let all play.

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Chris Campbell
08:43 May 26, 2023

Thanks. I learned that philosophy from many years as a National B coach for AYSO. "Everyone Plays," is their motto.

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Martin Ross
14:10 May 25, 2023

This prompt have generated some of the best, most personal stories I’ve read here. I was fortunate in having great teachers who inspired and guided me, but one bad one can really derail dreams. I encountered a few of these sadistic, insecure, narcissistic misfits along the way, and saw the damage they did to vulnerable classmates. Great and perceptive memory, Mary.

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Aeris Walker
00:15 May 24, 2023

I always enjoy reading writers' non-fiction on here, but man! This hurts the heart. You dredge up those icky feelings so many of us can probably relate to about the turbulent years of adolescence, and I learned a lot about how the cheerleading world works and all the inner drama that goes on. Thank you for sharing your story with us.

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Tommy Goround
17:47 May 22, 2023

Congratulations. Currently on the shortlist. The angst is well defined and the narrative has a nice pace.

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Mary Bendickson
18:01 May 22, 2023

😲🤸🤸🤸. That's so very encouraging. Thanks for sharing it.😃

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Tommy Goround
18:04 May 22, 2023

To find out....wait till after "story approved" then you click on your tag. Click on.... "American" or whatever your tag. Sometimes the 2nd and 3rd tags don't work because there are too many shortlisted in that space. You passed the fellow writers and are in the "recommended" section now. Next cut is Weds and then final is Friday. Good luck.

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Mary Bendickson
18:33 May 22, 2023

I understand it is not the final cut yet but still it is exciting to know it has potential.

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Joe Smallwood
13:15 May 22, 2023

This story is very authentic with a great deal of detail about cheerleading. I read all of the comments and I was surprised by the number of comments about negative experiences with high school teachers. I can't think of a single teacher that was anything less than supportive. There were a few lazy teachers, but I draw a blank on a teacher like the one in this story. The high school I went to was brand new and the principal was able to pick the best teachers from the entire city, because teaching at a brand new school is a very attractive pr...

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Mary Bendickson
14:00 May 22, 2023

Thanks for the comment. Thank goodness for the good ones. Unfortunately bad ones can 🤕 hurt for decades. I moved on but it made an impression.

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Chris Miller
19:47 May 21, 2023

The ability to do perfect air-bourne splits plus a powerful pyramid-base frame. That's the complete package. Mrs T was a fool.

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Mary Bendickson
22:00 May 21, 2023

Ah, thanks, Chris. Yes, I had my talents.🤸

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John Werner
18:58 May 21, 2023

Your writing brings back memories of my own school experiences. Unfortunately, the memories of those who did harm remain with us even when we wish they didn't. Thank you for sharing.

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Mary Bendickson
21:54 May 21, 2023

You are so right about that. I wish you well. Thanks for reading and commenting

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Tim Frater
15:15 May 21, 2023

All right, Mary, now listen to me. What you need to understand is that Mrs T was actually jealous of you, because, as that yearbook photo showed, your aerobatic prowess evidenced by your symmetry and athleticism was there for all to see, even many years later. If you ever see Mrs T again please tell her that Tim said she is a 'orrible, pathetic excuse for a human being. When she asks "Who is Tim?" you tell her, "It doesn't matter. If Tim said it then it must be true." Okay? Got that? Good. "I was pleased my alcoholic dad never came to any...

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Mary Bendickson
16:44 May 21, 2023

I'll accept that 🤗. Thanks. And be sure to pass along Tim's words of wisdom should I ever encounter her again.

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Zack Powell
01:04 May 21, 2023

What makes this story so upsetting is the "Creative Nonfiction" tag looming over the whole narrative. The fact that this actually happened somewhere in the world is pretty devastating. Great sense of conflict throughout, but man, I wouldn't ever want to be put in the same situation as the narrator. It's bad enough when you've got other kids who don't give you the time of day; even worse when it's a teacher. I anticipate we'll see a lot of stories this week for about good or helpful teachers, unconventional or otherwise, so I respect you for...

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Mary Bendickson
02:26 May 21, 2023

Thanks for reading and liking. I can understand it is hard to feel empathy for a poor mistreated cheerleader. After all. she is still a cheerleader, the epitome of popularity. My experience felt like I was always at the bottom of a cat fight with all the claws in me. Mrs. T was the alpha cat.

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08:07 May 20, 2023

This really hits hard as I could relate to a lot of it, always being overlooked or pushed around and made to feel like I wasn't good enough in School just because I wasn't very extrovert. The memories! Another great story Mary

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Suma Jayachandar
04:58 May 20, 2023

Mary, This piece is heartbreaking in its portrayal of how crushing the prejudices suffered at young age can be and the insidious way it can poison their world view. I found the paragraph beginning with “In my misery fog I remember looking at a weepy, bluish-green shrub when we stopped at a corner…. “ striking. Thanks for sharing!

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Ian James
23:53 May 19, 2023

This story hits hard, real hard. As the English department chair, I felt compelled to share it with our group. It's oddly soothing to read about less-than-stellar teachers, just as it is with the ones who inspire. It's a stark reminder of the teacher I aim to avoid becoming. It's a shame, but there's no shortage of Mrs. Ts in schools far and wide. I've got my own story about a lousy teacher. She belittled me in class for supposedly ignoring her instructions, and even hurled my book right at my face. I was certain I'd done it all right. Glan...

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Mary Bendickson
00:07 May 20, 2023

Thanks for reading and liking. It does seem like the bad teachers are sometimes the ones we remember the most. I know you are one of the good ones that will be remembered fondly.

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Jody S
23:08 May 19, 2023

What an emotional story. It kept me moving hoping that things would improve and justice would be served, but as we all know, it usually isn't. I really liked the descriptions of the cheering (behind the scenes look). I also think that this is an excellent take on the prompt since a bad teacher often has a deeper lasting impact than a good one. There were places I wanted to see more show than tell...like this could have been played out in dialogue: And so the year went. I maybe cheered two games the whole season. I started attending my ou...

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Mary Bendickson
23:17 May 19, 2023

Thanks for the input. Good points. Maybe I'll try a little editing. Would have to add more names and I know too many characters in a SS can be tricky to follow.

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Jody S
01:38 May 20, 2023

It is tricky in short stories. Hope we both can learn the balance together!! Looking forward to reading more of your stories!

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Mary Bendickson
01:57 May 20, 2023

I seem to spend all my time reading new ones from people I follow. Will try to get back to some of your earlier ones soon, too.

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Jody S
02:07 May 20, 2023

Thank you! Will comment on yours also!

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Michał Przywara
20:48 May 19, 2023

Quite an emotional ride, and I felt myself getting irritated at the smug injustice. When I saw the prompt I was put in mind of teachers with positive impacts, but this works excellently (and sadly) for those with negative impacts too. "She had robbed me of my confidence and my joy." Yes, this is the impression the whole story was giving. Mrs T seemed like she was more interested in the success of Mrs T, than of the students. The whole thing of throwing parties in her house and surrounding herself with her favourites - it sounds a bit lik...

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Mary Bendickson
22:22 May 19, 2023

Exactly. Thanks for commenting.

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00:39 May 19, 2023

Loved this tear jerker. Was with the character all the way. Awful things to cope with in her life. Learned heaps about cheerleading. Our girl is into Ballet, Contemporary dancing and gymnastics. Understood the lingo. She will never be a Prima Ballerina (She's a strong, solid girl with flat feet. 3yrs old when she started and we didn't know how different she'd become from her twiggy friends.) Thankfully her dance teacher can see what a great dancer she is and is channeling her into other dancing than a prima ballerina on points. Though she wa...

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Mary Bendickson
01:19 May 19, 2023

Thanks for the tips. Wishing all the best for your dancer.

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Lily Finch
00:28 May 19, 2023

Mary this piece of creative non-fiction is terrible if the teacher part of treating a student that way is the true part. Wow! It is also sad if the sister being killed and the father being an alcoholic while the mother works too much and yet the family remains poor is equally sad. Teachers need to realize how much they can affect kids and what the kids believe about themselves or how they idolize teachers rightfully or wrongfully so. LF6

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Mary Bendickson
01:13 May 19, 2023

This was my life as a cheerleader. Loved it and hated it all at same time. Something that should have been wonderful was made miserable.

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00:22 May 19, 2023

"Alternate?! That is like a death sentence. A slow, agonizing death sentence." A yes, a feeling anyone in high school knows all too well. That feeling of just not quite being enough, a feeling teenagers already are practically drowning themselves in. Being the "alternate" in anything can feel very much like a death sentence. Wonderful comparison! I love this story! Such vivid imagery, and heart-wrenching characterization. You are such a talented author, I love reading your works!

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Mary Bendickson
01:16 May 19, 2023

Why, thank you, Alexandra. You make me blush. This sounds rather petty compared to what others experience but it was impactful on me.

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01:31 May 19, 2023

Sometimes the most petty of experiences can be the ones that form us as people, especially during adolescence. Not getting the lead in a high school play seems trivial years down the line, but it's a time in my life I will never forget. This is a lovely piece of literature and very accurately represents the human condition!

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