I was a cheerleader in middle school. Sassy and athletic, my personality seemed to fill the bill when it came to rousing a crowd to chant encouraging words at basketball games (no football at our school in the ’70s).
Then I hit high school and something changed. I discovered I had a brain.
I knew I had a brain in middle school and I’m sure all the other girls in pleated skirts shaking pom poms had brains, too, but as a preteen I just connected more with the rowdy, bossy, athletic me. However, when I realized how much I liked letting others know just how smart I was, my potential as cheerleader material dropped drastically. And just as suddenly, I became shy.
The firstborn bossy girl whose playground nickname had been Hitler turned quiet, mousy and academic. I wore the label “nerd” with quiet pride and I found slipping into the shadows to be more comfortable than standing out front. But deep down, I still wanted to be a cheerleader. So, I tried out — for three years. The spring before my senior year of high school, I finally made it. I was officially a varsity cheerleader…..and a nerd.
The day the squad was announced, a fellow nerd — let’s call us “academic” — called me out. I’ll never forget her challenge: “You represent!”
I knew what she meant. I wasn’t popular or pretty or outgoing. I was bookish. But I loved leading others in cheering on our high school basketball team. I represented the academics who could also hang with the cool kids. It was a lot of pressure.
Mixing in with some “cool kids” at a writing conference last week, I felt many of the same old insecurities rise to the surface. I’ve been writing professionally all my adult life, but I still felt out of my league when surrounded by published authors, agents, acquisition editors, accomplished speakers. I wanted to “represent” well, to fit in, so I hung in there. I mixed and mingled and even approached a couple of publishers to talk about my book.
In the end, I slid into a role that felt safe and acceptable — cheerleader. I took opportunities to affirm and encourage other writers, asking what they were working on and applauding the release of their latest books. I offered to help others where needed and faithfully showed up to learn and to glean.
The thing is, if I’m honest, I didn’t show up. At least not the real, sassy/nerdy me. Instead, I sent an agreeable, acceptable, pleasing, incomplete version of me. And, because it was easier and because I wanted to slip into the shadows where it was more comfortable, I missed out. I didn’t have those deep conversations with people who might see the world through a different lens. I passed on risking embarrassment over what I don’t know or haven’t experienced. I let others lead while I cheered them on.
Author and speaker Jen Hatmaker, a keynote speaker at the conference, sometimes says things and takes positions on topics that run contrary to my own opinions, attitudes and beliefs. But, I appreciate her honesty and the fact that this woman has no doubt about who she is and what she stands for. It’s caused her some pain in recent years, but it’s also earned her some respect. And, the right to say this in an Instagram post following the conference:
“….the best offering you can give this world is your entire true faithful self. So give it all. Be whole. Include your weird humor & doubts & failures & questions & divergent ideas & don’t hold back & don’t puff up & don’t polish. Be more concerned about being honest than admired. Resist self-preservation & embrace revelation, because the world is looking for someone to tell the whole truth. No one needs another slick, prepackaged messenger designed for Instagram quotes. There is room for you, exactly how you are, & anything less isn’t good enough. You’re cheating everyone. Stop being afraid. Time to show up, as you are, all of you. Be you…faithfully. And let it stand.
We want to be seen and known, understood and appreciated. We want to represent with honesty, and we expect others to do the same. That can’t happen when we don’t show up, or when we send an incomplete version of ourselves.
In the vernacular of popular culture “You do you”. Faithfully. Lesson learned.