“We’ve got spirit, yes we do! We’ve got spirit, how about you?” the cheerleaders yell at one-third of our student body at a time. The children repeat the chant back to them: lower school’s high-pitched squeal as they indulge for a moment in sanctioned hyperactivity; middle school’s thick tenor as they toe the line between wanting to please their beautiful, smiling cheerleaders and practicing disaffection; the seismic grunting of the upper school whose voice is filled up mainly with the dark yell of the football teams.
I grew up and still live here in Texas, where some boys learn to play football before they learn to write sentences with punctuation. And after twenty years in education, most of it in a high school, there are three things I’ve done more of than most people I know: listen to commencement speeches, recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and attend pep rallies.
This weekend is homecoming. Yesterday morning’s rally was typical fare: excellent gymnastics from our athletic cheerleaders to some of the most bastardized pop music I’ve ever heard; hilarious relay races performed by selected students; questionably funny/unintentionally offensive banter from the student emcees; cheering from the entire student body, the youngest kids always the loudest. There’s a certain persistent tension between wanting to support my student athletes, whom I genuinely like and appreciate for how hard they work in my challenging English class, and being a little put off by the showy displays of ego, the occasional misogyny, and the weird association some within football culture make between their sport and fighting a war. I find it difficult, sometimes, to reconcile that machismo with the thoughtful, earnest attempts to understand Shakespeare at their tender age, their noble, generous struggle to write the most engaging personal essays and the most thoughtful literary analysis they can. On Fridays, I want to ask them, Who are you, really? Which you is most you? How much of that stuff do you believe? How much of it do they, like Tim O’Brien says, feel in their guts? Which part of them is the most real?
But of all the debatably outrageous things I’ve seen at pep rallies over the course of my life––including, once, seeing a boy rip the water balloon-soaked t-shirt from his body in front of everyone––nothing compares to what we were subjected to when I was in second grade, and every time I attend a pep rally, I cannot help but think about it.
It was 1981 in Houston. That year, Reagan had entered the White House and survived an assassination attempt, Pope John Paul II had survived an assassination attempt, and we had launched the Space Shuttle program and with it, the collective aspirations of every Star Wars fan I knew, myself included, that one day we would personally explore the heavens. On a more intimate scale, Han Solo had taken the job of Badass Archaeology Professor in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lady Diana had married Prince Charles in the most Cinderella dress I’d ever seen outside of a Disney movie, and I’d won my first spelling bee. Our teacher had shown us a picture in the newspaper of a unicorn born in California, cementing my passionate belief that these mythical creatures were real, and no amount of skeptics claiming it was just a one-horned goat could sway my fervor. The world lay at our feet, rich with possibility and promise. I planned to be an Egyptologist and had my father wake me up at 5:00 on a Saturday morning so I could watch the funeral of Anwar Sadat on television, because I wanted to see him entombed in a pyramid.
At my small, private elementary school, we gathered together in the gym on Fridays for prayer service in the morning and a pep rally in the afternoon, festooned in the blue-and-gold buttons and spirit ribbons we could buy for a quarter each week and pin to our clothes to show support for our team. Some of my cousins also attended this school, and one of them, Craig, was in the eighth grade. I loved Craig, who was kind and fun and always had a hug for me when I saw him around campus, even though I was a little kid. He also played football, a fact I hadn’t realized until one day, at a pep rally, he and a bunch of his classmates and teammates were brought up onstage, put onto metal folding chairs, and blindfolded. What was about to commence was a kissing contest.
Now, remember that this was the barely-post-1970s, pre-AIDS era of kissing booths. Every carnival and state fair, on television and in real life, had one. Even our little parish’s church bazaar did, replete with a Farrah Fawcett lookalike inside it.
So the idea that the boys were all going to be kissed at the pep rally was entertaining. They were blindfolded because they were going to judge the kissing on a scale from one to ten, with ten being the highest. They were instructed to keep their hands on the sides of their chairs. As the principal explained the rules, the boys grinned, huge bracey smiles stretching to the edges of the folded bandanas over their eyes. In their uniform navy trousers and white Oxford shirts, their pimpled faces largely obscured, it was hard to tell them apart.
Then came the kicker. The girls who were going to be kissing the boys, whose smooches would be evaluated by them, were our junior high teachers. That’s right, the middle-aged women who taught these kids grammar, theology, social studies, algebra were now going to plant their puckers on them, too. The one man on the academic faculty, the junior high science teacher, was exempt from this game.
The student body roared with laughter and glee. The boys, now trapped on their folding chairs by blindfolds and the cheering crowd, grinned or snickered or squirmed, but not a single one stood up or yanked off his blindfold or even held up his hand to halt the proceedings or ask a question. A few of them rapidly fidgeted their sneakers back and forth. Their chairs were spaced a few feet apart, so if they were talking to each other, I’m not sure much of it got through between the bandanas around their heads and the noise of the younger students, the children whom they, as eighth grade boys, were routinely told to man up in front of, to set a good example for as the leaders of the school.
The kissing started. One at a time, a teacher would go to her boy and smooch him on the lips. The crowd whooped and hollered. Then the boy would grin again, still blindfolded, and give his rating. Craig got the most laughs when he pronounced his religion teacher––a tall, stocky grandmother with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair––a fourteen. Soon the kissing was done. The teachers moved offstage, anonymous to the football players at least during the glistening moment of the pep rally. The boys were told they could remove their blindfolds, and their faces were red as they observed their fellow students cheering for them, laughter mingling with the yells. They were dismissed from the stage and left the daïs to be consumed by their classmates sitting criss-cross applesauce by grade level on the gym floor. It took a while for the noise to die down.
I don’t know who thought any of that was a good idea, but it never happened again, and frankly, by the time the next pep rally rolled around, no one was even talking about the kissing contest anymore. It joined the ranks of other inconvenient memories, pushed down out of the way like the fraying polyester ribbons we collected from one school year to the next, wore every Friday during football season. They were the things we believed we didn’t have to mention, the tattered flags we pinned to our sleeves next to the shiny new ones, entire outfits made of fluttering blue and gold strips to show that we, yes, we had the most spirit, we were the most dedicated fans, we would do whatever it took to support our team.