“What I think school spirit is?” asked Shireen. Miss Whent’s office had no windows nor posters nor pictures to break the monotony of the cream-colored walls. Not even a calendar or a clock. Her desk was bare but for a closed laptop computer. Miss Whent herself was at least 45 and wore a blouse from an indeterminate-but-certainly-bygone era. She had a slightly crooked nose and shoulder-length brown hair showing gray at the roots. She did not seem like a cheerleading coach.
“In your own words,” said Miss Whent. “School spirit.”
Shireen took a few more moments to consider, then said, “I think school spirit can mean different things to different people, but to me, it’s this feeling of-”
“Stop,” said Miss Whent. “Tell me about what happened with you and Coach Tavanaut.”
Shireen blushed and looked down at her hands. “It was in the newspaper. And I’m sure they showed you the letters she sent out.”
“I want to hear it from you,” said Miss Whent. Her voice was flat but her eyes almost glowed.
Shireen had hoped this wouldn’t come up. She’d hoped that the new coach would take more of a “the past is the past so let’s just move forward and pretend it never happened” approach. “We got along great for my first two years,” said Shireen. “Me and Janie – we all called her ‘Janie’ or ‘coach’ – we never had any problems until the beginning of this year. And then it all happened so fast. I can’t even believe it was just a few months ago. Janie started dating this guy named Magnus who was a couple years older than her so I guess maybe eight years older than me, and he came to the first home football game with Janie to be supportive, I guess, since she was our coach, and he saw me and he said he fell in love with me right away, but I don’t think so, but anyway, he got my contact information off of Janie’s computer and started texting me and at first he just said he was an admirer, but then I threatened to tell the cops I was getting harassed, so he told me who he was. And, yeah, the rest was pretty much in the newspaper.” Shireen stopped, hoping that would be enough.
“I want to hear it from you,” said Miss Whent.
Shireen was past crying over this. She’d explained it so many times. “So when Magnus told me it was him texting me, I don’t know, I should have stopped it right away, but I didn’t. But the texts I sent weren’t crazy, I never sent him any pictures or anything. He’d just text stuff like ‘I love you so much I can’t sleep’ and I’d just text back ‘No you don’t’ but then maybe end it with a smiley face, but that was the most encouragement I ever gave him and that was for, like, three days, and then Janie looked at his phone and saw the texts back and forth from me and him and the first thing she did was call Carly and Desiree.”
“They’re seniors,” said Miss Whent.
“Yeah,” said Shireen. “They’re the captains of the squad. Or, they were. They’re really close with Janie. They’d all hang out together on the weekends, go to the movies together, Janie even took them to some parties. So she called them up and told them what happened and then they came to my house at like 10 at night and said they had to take me somewhere for a secret cheer initiation ritual, I don’t know, they said they couldn’t explain it until we got there and they were acting weird and then right as I was about to leave, Magnus texted me that Janie had found out we’d been texting and gone crazy and I got nervous about leaving with Carly and Desiree and I wouldn’t go with them and they started screaming at me, calling me names and telling me they knew what I did and my parents threatened to call the cops and they finally left. And, yeah…” Shireen trailed off.
“Who attacked you?” asked Miss Whent.
“I don’t know,” said Shireen.
It was clear that Miss Whent didn’t believe that Shireen didn’t know who beat her up, but she didn’t press the question.
“But, so, then, the school fired Janie and she sent out those letters to the parents of all the cheerleaders saying how it was all my fault and telling lies about stuff I never did and then the school canceled cheer indefinitely. Until now, I guess, ‘cause you’re here.”
Miss Whent nodded. “I’m here, yes. What’s it like for you now, Shireen, going to school here? How do the other cheerleaders treat you? The students? The faculty?”
“Terrible,” said Shireen, her voice cracking.
“Why didn’t you transfer schools?”
“I don’t know,” said Shireen, steadfastly refusing to cry. “My parents tried to make me. But I wouldn’t do it.”
“You can go,” said Miss Whent. “I’ll see you at practice tonight.”
Shireen stopped in the bathroom on the way back to study hall. She stood looking at herself in the mirror over the sink and with nothing more than the force of her will, patched up the fine cracks in her stoicism.
After school, the Multioak High School varsity cheerleaders gathered in the locker room to change into shorts and their squad-issued “Multioak Marionette Pride” t-shirts for their first practice since Coach Janie’s dismissal. Shireen could feel the tension in the room, the hostility. Not one of the nine other girls spoke to her. When the girls had almost finished changing, redoing their ponytails and crouching to lace up their bright white tennis shoes, Miss Whent appeared in the locker room with no whistle, no clip board, and without having changed from her blouse and ash-colored, floor-length skirt. “Finish and get settled, girls. Everyone take a seat, please.” The last few locker doors slammed shut and the girls sat down on the benches, arranged in a rough u-shape with their backs against the lockers and their nervous, suspicious eyes on Miss Whent.
Shireen sat in the corner to Miss Whent’s left side and felt each finger of her left hand between the thumb and forefinger of her right hand. She knew the other girls didn’t like Miss Whent. She didn’t know how many of them had met with Miss Whent like she had — or if any of them had — but she could feel their resentment, their dislike. The squad didn’t want Miss Whent to be their coach. They wanted Janie back. Even Shireen wanted Janie back. Not as she’d been during and after the incident with Magnus, of course, but as she’d been before: young and energetic and funny and fun.
“I’m not going to ask you what you believe to be the role of the cheerleader,” said Miss Whent, standing straight and still with her eyes sweeping back and forth so as to include every girl in her remarks. “Instead, I will tell you the role of the cheerleader.” Shireen heard Desiree, who was sitting two girls to her right, sigh through her nose.
“Cheerleaders have one job,” said Miss Whent. “One purpose. To act as conduits for school spirit. To allow school spirit to flow through them and into others. That, girls, is what you are for. Being a cheerleader is not about your personal popularity, it isn’t about exercise, it isn’t about building friendships that will last a lifetime, it isn’t about self-improvement or learning anything, and it certainly isn’t about having fun. It is about maintaining one’s own personal connection to school spirit and transmitting that school spirit to as many other members of the community as possible. And that is not easy. That is not fun. That requires discipline, hard work, vigilance, resolve, and a single-minded focus. It is not for the faint of heart nor the partially-committed. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s almost impossible.” Miss Whent stopped speaking and looked at the Multioak varsity cheerleading squad girl by girl. She had a face that seemed perfectly content to go hours and hours between smiles. “But it isn’t impossible.”
No one said anything. It didn’t feel like Miss Whent’s speech had ended, but the pause was very long. Shireen was embarrassed. She could see how someone might blame her for the fact that Janie was no longer the cheerleading coach, but it was not her fault that Miss Whent was the new coach. Shireen had not hired Miss Whent. No one had consulted her. It wasn’t fair for the other girls to connect Shireen and Miss Whent, to lump the two of them together as some kind of fun-ruining duo. But why would things start being fair now? Every week, kids she didn’t know, underclassmen, girls and guys came up to her during her solitary lunches to ask her how Magnus was doing, if Magnus had proposed yet, if Magnus was sleeping better these days or if he still loved her too much to sleep. Two of Shireen’s favorite teachers from her sophomore year wouldn’t look at her when she greeted them in the hall. Someone kept slipping typed, unpunctuated, threatening notes into her locker, which Shireen crumpled up and threw away without reporting. One note had said, “Just leave no one likes you.” Another had said, “Why aren’t you gone yet go away.” A third one had just been an incomplete print-out of the state guidelines concerning students transferring schools in the middle of the academic year.
“And so,” said Miss Whent, abruptly speaking again as if no time had passed since she’d fallen silent, “we are going to hold a School Spirit Rally on Friday of this week.”
The Multioak High School Marionettes varsity cheerleading squad let out a collective gasp of dismay.
“I am aware,” said Miss Whent, “That School Spirit Rallies – or ‘pep rallies,’ as you used to call them – have historically not fared well at Multioak. It’s been three years since the school last held a pep rally and many people assumed that there would never be another. Some of you seniors maybe remember the last one. Students paying little to no attention, faculty putting forth no effort to control them, the chaos building, objects thrown at the cheerleaders, insults shouted at them, and then it all culminating in a derisive chant aimed at the cheerleaders who fled crying from the gym, leaving a trail of pop-poms behind them. I am aware of all of that. But I am also aware that those cheerleaders deserved everything they got. They were not cheerleaders. They were members of the cheerleading squad, but they were not true cheerleaders. They were not conduits for school spirit. Not a single one of them had rigorously maintained a connection with the intangible source of Multioak Marionette school spirit. But you, girls, don’t have to worry about that, at least, because you will not be participating in the School Spirit Rally unless you are a true cheerleader, unless you are filled with school spirit, a determination which only I will make in the days, hours, and seconds leading up to the School Spirit Rally on Friday.”
The varsity cheerleaders sat in stunned silence.
“Are we going to practice any routines?” asked Carly.
“I’ll leave that to you to decide,” said Miss Whent. “My job is to coach you in the importance of the receiving and transmitting of school spirit, a process which has nothing to do with any specific routine, a process that is in no way enhanced by the synchronization of your handclaps nor the precision of your back handsprings. It is only the presence of genuine school spirit within you which gives you any hope at all of instilling school spirit in an assembly of spectators, whether that be at a football game, a School Spirit Rally, or a charity event at a local nursing home. If you are filled with school spirit, the spectators will sense that, will want that, and will open themselves to it.”
“Are the Marionettettes going to perform at the rally too?” asked Lana, the only sophomore on the varsity squad.
“No,” said Miss Whent. “Dance teams have nothing to do with school spirit. A cheerleader is a means to an end, a conveyance, a vessel of school spirit. A Marionettette is an end in herself: hot, talented, and entertaining. An enjoyable but unimportant diversion who has no place at a School Spirit Rally.”
“What if the students yell at us and throw stuff?” asked Eva, her husky voice trembling, her greenish eyes wide and scared.
“If you are filled with school spirit,” said Miss Whent, “then no harm will befall you. And I will not let you out on that floor unless you are filled with school spirit. So what is there to be afraid of?”
“So tell us,” said Desiree, her expression bold and cold. “Coach us. How do we get school spirit?”
“That’s not my job,” said Miss Whent.
“You said your job was to coach us on how to get it and give it,” said Desiree.
“No, my job is to coach you on the importance of receiving it and transmitting it,” said Miss Whent. “And to act as a gatekeeper to prevent those without school spirit from disgracing the Multioak varsity cheerleading squad by leading cheers while in a state antithetical to their role.”
Lana started to cry. “This isn’t what I thought. This isn’t how it should be. Cheerleading can be fun, I know it can. I’ve seen it. I’ve done it.”
“What you saw was a sham and what you did was a sham,” said Miss Whent.
Shireen shuddered. She felt entirely drained. Of energy, of optimism, of comfort, of enthusiasm, and, perhaps most of all, she felt entirely drained of school spirit.
“Now,” said Miss Whent. “Spend the rest of the practice time preparing for the School Spirit Rally together in whatever way you deem necessary. And when you leave, continue to prepare alone. Spend every second between now and Friday afternoon preparing for the School Spirit Rally and you will experience, for the first time, what it is to be a cheerleader.”
Then Miss Whent turned and left the locker room, the door swung closed behind her, and the tenuous collective composure of the Multioak High School Marionettes varsity cheerleading squad shattered into tiny, jagged pieces.
That night, Shireen was in her room lying motionless on her bed with piles of incomplete homework surrounding her when her mom knocked on the door and told her that Carly and Desiree were there to see her. “Do you want me to send them away? Should I call the police?”
“No, I’ll talk to them,” said Shireen. She stood up and checked her appearance in the mirror on her closet door out of habit. She wasn’t thrilled with what she saw but did nothing to improve it. She went downstairs and found Carly and Desiree waiting for her in the front hall wearing matching coats of slightly different shades of brown and complementary scarves.
“We need to talk about Miss Whent,” said Carly. “Somewhere private.”
“You can come up to my room,” said Shireen. She turned to lead the way up the stairs and saw her mother keeping watch from the end of the front hall. “It’s fine, mom. We’re just talking.”
In her bedroom, Shireen closed the door firmly behind her, but made sure not to let Carly and Desiree position themselves in a way that would obstruct her path to the door if she needed to bolt.
“Miss Whent has to go,” said Desiree.
“ASAP,” said Carly.
“Listen,” said Shireen, keeping her voice low. “If you want to blame me for getting Janie fired, fine, but I had nothing to do with Miss Whent getting hired. They could have hired a million other fun cheerleading coaches and we’d all be happier, but they didn’t. I don’t like her either. I think she’s crazy. If I could hire someone else instead, I would, but no one asked me.”
“But if you hadn’t gotten Janie fired, there wouldn’t have even been the option to hire Miss Whent,” said Desiree. “So it’s still on you more than anyone else.”
“Well, yes,” said Shireen. “Yes, out of all the people who are readily available for you to try to intimidate, you’re right, yes, I guess I am the most at fault. Who’s going to beat me up this time? Same guys? Or have you found some new guys who are desperate enough for your attention that they’ll team up to attack a 17-year-old girl in the Diamond Foods parking lot in order to please you?”
Carly rolled her eyes. Desiree also rolled her eyes.
“Yeah, I know,” said Shireen. “I’m being such a baby. Two broken ribs and four teeth knocked out, sure, but it was only a mild concussion.”
“We didn’t even know those guys,” said Desiree. “We met them once at a party Janie took us to. I don’t even remember their names.”
“Will and Aiden,” said Carly.
“Right,” said Desiree, giving Carly an exasperated look. “Maybe, I don’t know. But that’s not the point. The point is, Shireen, that it’s up to you to get rid of Miss Whent before this School Spirit Rally goes down in flames and takes us all with it.”
“And how would you suggest I do that?” asked Shireen. “Do you have Will or Aiden’s number?”
“Yes, I still have their numbers,” said Carly. “But that’s not the plan. We have a better plan. We’re going to get Miss Whent fired, but you have to help. You have to be first.”
“First to do what?” asked Shireen.
“You have to tell your parents that Miss Whent told you not to eat,” said Desiree. “And then they’ll call Principal Urliss to complain and Principal Urliss will talk to you about it and she’ll believe you because if any of the rest of us do it, she’ll think we’re just lying to try to get Janie back. But if you do it, she’ll know you aren’t trying to get Janie back and she’ll believe you. And then when she questions the rest of us, we’ll all back you up and say that Miss Whent told us not to eat too. See? And your parents will probably tell our parents too, or we will, and it’ll turn into a huge thing and Miss Whent will either get fired or quit. We have one shot at this. If we try and fail, then they’ll be onto us and we’ll never get rid of her. But if you start it off, that gives us our best chance by far. See?”
Shireen wanted to tell them how stupid their plan was, how there was no way it would work, but she was pretty sure it would work. There had been two separate school assemblies about eating disorders in just the last month, one for just girls and then one for everyone when an outraged local therapist pointed out that guys get eating disorders too. Just a whiff of anorexia-encouragement from the new, bizarrely intense cheerleading coach and the whole community would explode into frenzied indignation, everyone tripping over each other to condemn her and drive her out of town as quickly as possible. The plan was basically foolproof.
“I...I don’t like her, either,” said Shireen. “I don’t like how she coaches, but she doesn’t deserve that. That’s horrible. What if we all just got together and told her we won’t buy into her system or philosophy or whatever it is?”
“You think that’ll work?” asked Desiree. “She’s a fanatic. You were there. You saw her. You heard her. She doesn’t care what we want. This school spirit thing is her thing. It’s her mission in life.”
Shireen knew Desiree was right. Even if they all threatened to quit the team, she could tell from what little time she’d spent with her that Miss Whent would rather have no team at all than back down even one inch from her position on the true role of the true cheerleader.
“Why should I care?” asked Shireen. “Why should I care who the coach is? Why shouldn’t I just quit? What would make me want to help the rest of you out after the last few months?”
Desiree smiled. “You’re not going to quit the squad. No one knows why you showed up to practice again, no one knows why you haven’t switched schools, or why you still live in this town. It’s a mystery to me, but if you haven’t given up on this part of your life yet, then you must be hoping that things can go back to how they were before. Getting invited to parties. Losers not feeling like it’s OK to taunt you in the halls. You know, actually being a cheerleader. And helping us get Miss Whent fired has to be your best chance for that, Shireen. Who knows in what surprising ways your life might improve if you help us out? Or how it might get worse if you don’t?”
“OK,” said Shireen. “OK, OK, OK.”
“Do it tonight,” said Carly. “Tell your parents.”
“Not tonight,” said Shireen. “They’ll be suspicious if I tell them right after you guys were here.”
“All right,” said Desiree. “But soon. Tomorrow.”
Carly and Desiree left Shireen’s room. Shireen did not escort them to the front door.
The next afternoon at cheerleading practice, Miss Whent told the squad that she’d said all she had to say to them the previous day and that they should again spend their time at practice attempting to help each other attain school spirit in whatever way seemed most beneficial because if they failed to do so, they would not be allowed to perform at the School Spirit Rally on Friday. Then she sat down on a folding chair at one end of the gym and watched as the girls tried to organize a routine without any coaching. After practice, Shireen found Desiree and Carly waiting for her by her car in the parking lot.
“Tonight,” said Desiree. “Right?”
“Probably,” said Shireen.
“It has to be,” said Carly. “Just get it over with.”
“You saw the routine, right?” asked Desiree. “I mean, you were there and you weren’t any better than the rest of us. There’s no way we’ll have something decent ready by Friday. Even if our crazy coach-who-never-coaches lets any of us perform. I almost hope she doesn’t. If we go out there as bad as we are now, it’s going to be a bloodbath.”
“I’ll try,” said Shireen. “I’ll try, I’ll try.”
“Don’t just try,” said Carly. “Do it. Don’t do it for us. Do it for yourself.”
When Shireen got home, her mom was setting the table for dinner.
“What are we having?” asked Shireen.
“Ham and cheese croissants,” said her mom. “Are you hungry? You haven’t been eating much recently.”
“Yeah,” said Shireen, knowing this was the perfect opportunity, knowing this was the moment, knowing that with just a few words, she could end Miss Whent’s career. She could even pretend it was too difficult to talk about after dropping the initial bombshell and just let her mom do the rest. “Yeah,” she said again, “I am hungry.”
“I’m glad they’ve got you practicing again,” said Shireen’s mom. “Maybe that’s what’s brought your appetite back?”
“Maybe,” said Shireen.
The next day when Shireen got to school, the first thing she saw when she walked in the door was a giant sign tacked to a bulletin board that read, “School Spirit Rally Today at 1 p.m. in the Spectator Gym!”
From the end of the hall, Shireen could see Desiree and Carly waiting for her at her locker. From a distance, they looked furious. But the closer Shireen got to them, the more that fury started to look like fear.
“I tried,” said Shireen before either of the other girls could speak. “But I just told her last night. She’s still processing it.”
“But the rally is today!” said Carly. “Miss Whent moved it up without telling us! You have to text your mom and tell her to call the principal now!”
“She’s at work!” said Shireen. “I can’t get in touch with her. And my dad’s at work too and I don’t even know if my mom told him or not.”
“You go to the principal,” said Desiree. “Right now, go to Principal Urliss and tell her Miss Whent told you not to eat anything for three days.”
“I can’t do that,” said Shireen.
“Why not?” asked Carly.
“I just can’t. It won’t work.”
Desiree put her hand on Carly’s shoulder and said, “She was never going to help us, Carly. She didn’t tell her mom anything. I don’t know what her weird problem is, but whatever it is, we’ll never understand it.” Then Desiree and Carly walked away without another word to Shireen, not even a parting threat or insult.
“The time has come,” said Miss Whent. “If you do not have school spirit now, today, on Wednesday, then why would you expect to have it on Friday? Would more days have made a difference? Does the day of the week matter? No and no. Does knowing the exact moment in which school spirit will be expected from you matter? No.”
The varsity cheerleading squad sat petrified on the benches in the locker room. They all wore their royal-blue-and-cream Multioak Marionette cheerleading uniforms. Miss Whent wore slim black pants and a pale green sweater. Her feet were rooted to the floor and her hands were empty.
Through the walls of the locker room, Shireen could hear the dull roar of students talking in raised voices, of feet shuffling on creaking bleachers and stamping up and down steps, of piercing shrieks as balance was lost and regained and the ensuing laughter of the stumblers and observers alike. The unexpected early arrival of the School Spirit Rally, along with its novelty, had infected the student body with heightened levels of gleeful unruliness. They were in no state to comply with a desperate cheerleading squad’s attempts to focus and organize their energy into school-appropriate chants.
“Let me end the suspense,” said Miss Whent. “None of you have school spirit. Except one of you. Shireen, you will be performing the School Spirit Rally by yourself. The rest of you may change out of your uniforms and join your classmates in the stands. Perhaps seeing Shireen’s performance will supply you with the jolt of school spirit you need to begin down the road to becoming a true cheerleader. But perhaps it won’t. Perhaps you’ll cut yourself off, perhaps you’ll let bitterness and distraction and petty concern forever stand between you and school spirit.”
Shireen stayed seated on the bench while the other girls stood up around her and began to silently change out of their uniforms. Miss Whent watched without appearing to see any of them. Desiree, buttoning her shirt, leaned close to Shireen’s ear and whispered, “I don’t know if you were just scared or if you were on her side all along or what, but you’re about to get what you deserve and I can tell just by looking at you that you know it. So congratulations, Shireen, you earned this.”
Then all of the cheerleaders except for Shireen took their bags and left the locker room. Miss Whent took two steps toward Shireen and stopped. “I know you want reassurance. I know you want instruction. I know you want guidance so if things go wrong you can blame me. But I have only one thing to tell you. You do have school spirit, Shireen. You may be the only person in this school who does have school spirit.”
“And that means they’ll like me?” asked Shireen. “The whole student body, I mean. You said before that they’ll be able to tell I have school spirit and they’ll want it too. Right?”
“Yes,” said Miss Whent. “Unless they also choose to let bitterness and distraction and petty concerns stand between them and school spirit.”
“That’s what they’re going to do!” said Shireen, a surge of anger bringing her to her feet. For the first time, she realized she was taller than Miss Whent. “They’re high school students! They let bitterness and distraction and petty concerns stand between them and everything!”
“Then show them another way,” said Miss Whent.
“I don’t think I can,” said Shireen, her anger evaporating all at once. “I don’t know what you think you see in me, but I don’t feel it. I feel like the ghost of myself.”
“A ghost?” said Miss Whent. “Maybe you are a ghost. Maybe you are a spirit. The School Spirit.” She gave no indication that she was trying to be funny.
“I can’t do it,” said Shireen.
“You can,” said Miss Whent. “Only you can. They already hate you. They already want you to leave. They already taunt you and harass you. What else can they do?”
“They can do it all together,” said Shireen. “At one time.”
“And you,” said Miss Whent, “can show them school spirit. You can show them that while it may stand between them and school spirit, all of their bitterness and distraction and petty concerns cannot stand between you school spirit. Your access to school spirit is not dependent upon the acceptance of your peers or the praise of your teachers or the success of the sports teams or the quality of the cafeteria food or the average standardized test scores or the teen pregnancy rate or the number of typos in the headlines of the school paper. You have school spirit only because you have school spirit, and while the students may or may not be willing to accept the school spirit that you offer them, they will see that you have it and they will know that they are powerless to deny you of it.”
“OK,” said Shireen. “I’ll try. What routine should I do? All by myself?”
“Probably something that doesn’t involve a lot of throws,” said Miss Whent. It was the first thing she’d ever said that Shireen could identify as a clear attempt at humor.
Shireen stood on the giant Marionette mascot painted on the hardwood at center court. She faced the entire student body, most of the faculty, most of the administrators, even a sprinkling of janitors, all arrayed before her in a mass of mostly-white humanity on the bleachers. They were hushed, baffled by the fact that only one cheerleader stood before them and that cheerleader widely disliked. Shireen did not want to see them. She closed her eyes and began to clap rhythmically, the claps echoing through the gymnasium and up among the exposed steel beams that prevented the roof from collapsing and killing everyone.
She began to chant.
“M! A! R-I-O-N-E! T-T! E! S!”
“M! A! R-I-O-N-E! T-T! E! S!”
“M! A! R-I-O-N-E! T-T! E! S!”
“M! A! R-I-O-N-E! T-T! E! S!”
And her voice was thin and high. It was weak and frail. It was frightened and vulnerable and exposed. And no one joined in, no one chanted along, no one clapped along. But no one laughed either. Nor did they throw school supplies or boo or shout “Magnus!” With her eyes closed, Shireen felt as if the spectators weren’t there at all.
“M! A! R-I-O-N-E! T-T! E! S!”
“M! A! R-I-O-N-E! T-T! E! S!”
Shireen’s voice grew louder, more forceful. More impossible to deny. They would never shake her off. They would never pry her loose. They were bitterness and distractions and petty concerns. But she was school spirit.