The Spell of Success

By Stephanie Wilbur Ash

Throughout my teen years I had a best friend named Shawna. We became besties when, the summer of sixth grade, she cooked a Tombstone pizza and instead of wheeling the pizza cutter around it pie-style, she made just one cut—right down the middle—so that our two pieces would be exactly equal.


Shawna was into gymnastics. She had multiple colorful leotards and multiple photos of herself flipping backwards in them and multiple trophies.

Unlike Shawna, I had no leotards, though sometimes I wore my swimsuit over my tights. The swimsuit was navy blue with white piping; the tights were itchy black polyester and cable-knit like a sweater, and the feet were very slippery. I wore this when I danced to “When Doves Cry” by Prince because it was the story of my life. I danced in front of my bedroom mirror until, in the midst of a semblance of a high kick, I slipped, shattered the mirror with my kneecap, and fell screaming onto my tailbone.

Also unlike Shawna, I could not do a backflip. I could not even do a cartwheel. I could barely do a backwards summersault, and even that I had to think about.

I did have a trophy, which I received in the second grade for a commemorative D-Day poster in which I’d drawn a soldier’s helmet with a black bullet hole through it, propped on a grave, and on the headstone, written in dripping cursive: “They died.”


Our differences were of no concern to Shawna and I. We were equally excellent at what really mattered—epic water balloon fights, calling boys, eating Tombstone pizza slices as big as our heads. We were as happy as two pre-teen girls whose parents let them shave their legs and ride their bikes to Taco John’s could be.


Then came middle school cheerleading tryouts.

Shawna was excited, so I was equally excited. “Tryouts are going to be so fun!” Shawna said over an order of Potato Olés. “Yeah!” I said back. And, “What does one do at cheerleading tryouts?”

Shawna casually licked salt off her fingers. “Oh, the coaches will ask you to do a cheer to see how loud your voice is and how you move. Then you’ll show them your gymnastics.”

A Potato Olé lodged in my throat. I coughed. “What if one has no gymnastics?”

Shawna shrugged. “Hell if I know,” she said.


That night, during a commercial break from M*A*S*H, I repeated to my father the assertion that cheerleading tryouts would be “so fun”. He lit a cigarette. His eyes narrowed, which indicated this conversation was getting serious. “They’re going to ask you to be cheerful,” he said.


I cocked my hip to one side and put my hand on it, which indicated sass. I scoffed, which indicated disbelief at this conversation’s lameness. I said, “What does being cheerful have to do with anything?”

My father breathed out a cloud of smoke, and as it blew away, I saw that there was a smug smile on his face, one of those gleefully smugly satisfied smiles only the parents of overly precocious children get to make. It is the smile of rakish bastards at the end of caper films who drive away with all the cash. Slowly and with great enunciation my father said, “Why do you think they call it cheerleading?”

A chill spread throughout my body, and I became acutely aware of the terrible ache in my tailbone.


Tryouts. School gym. Shawna wore a puffy-sleeved leotard that faded from light lavender to deep purple, plus athletic tape around her ankles. I wore jeans and my old green softball t-shirt from when our team was sponsored by John Deere, anarchy symbol drawn all over it to nullify the Deere logo. Terrified of slipping in the cable-knit tights (even doves have pride), I wore clear plastic jelly shoes. Perhaps the three cheerleading coaches might notice my cool black toenail polish.

A few classmates tried out ahead of us. One giggled through the whole thing and two fell down after their cartwheels. Shawna elbowed me. “None of them are loud enough,” she whispered.

When it was Shawna’s turn, she did the most complicated cheer we knew—the one where the cheerleader spells success while alternating rotational movements of her arms with precise timing so that she looks like a complicated and elegant wind chime that also knows how to spell. Shawna’s rendition was not only perfectly executed in the arms and the spelling, it was loud, with increasing volume on “That’s the way you spell SUCCESS!”  The three cheer coaches nodded in synch. Then Shawna performed her gymnastics: cartwheel, roundoff, backhandspring, backhandspring, fronthandspringintothesplits, goteam!.

The cheer coaches clapped.

It was expected that I would go next.

I stood before the coaches, and for the first time I could not ignore these differences between my best friend and I, how we were absolutely not equal at this thing that seemed to really matter.

I did not like it.

I abandoned my plan to do the easy cheer, the one where the cheerleader simply makes alligator-eating motions with her arms to indicate that her team plans to “eat up” the opposing team. I too would do the difficult “spelling wind chime” cheer.

I went with loud—people in the industrial arts lab behind the gym’s concrete wall said later that they could hear me spelling success through the sound of their table saw. I spelled it perfectly, of course, but my left arm went up on s-u-c-c instead of e-s-s, and that confused me, so I lifted my right arm up too, but I did not stop my left arm, so soon I was winding both of my arms around in their sockets simultaneously.


I was not physically demonstrating success. I was falling off a cliff.

“Thank you,” the coaches said.

“You’re welcome!” I shouted. “Did you note the loudness of my voice!?” I asked.

“We did,” they said.

“Is there a portion of this tryout where one may ask questions?!” I asked.

“No,” they said.

I asked anyway. “What purpose does the gymnastics serve?!” I asked.

“It serves the sport part of cheerleading. Cheerleading is a sport,” they said.

And then I made my gravest mistake of all—I laughed. I laughed at the notion that cheerleading was a sport. And I didn’t stop there. I went on to mock them for it. I shouted, “Oh! Sport!” using my fingers to indicate quotation marks around the word sport. Then I spelled it—I shouted, “S-p-o-r-t! I guess that’s the way you spell cheerleading!”

The cheer coaches blinked. They said, “We don’t need to see your gymnastics.”

“I can do a backwards summersault,” I said.

“That’s okay,” they said.



Shawna rightly earned a spot cheering for first-string all-school boys’ football and basketball, which would allow the whole town to bear witness to her electrifying gymnastics.

I was assigned to cheer for seventh grade second-string girls’ basketball, which was attended primarily by grandparents.

And moments before my first cheerleading duties—a home scrimmage between the girls’ B squad and the C squad that took place in the cafeteria with portable hoops because the varsity boys needed the gym—my father, beholding me in an itchy second-string cheerleading sweater that cut into my armpits and a cheerleading skirt that barely covered my ass crack, clicked his heels together and saluted me solemnly as if I were going to war and would certainly return wounded, if at all. “Godspeed,” he said. “Godspeed my loud-mouthed daughter. And good cheer.”


Stephanie Wilbur Ash is Goth Mom [], a teller of inappropriate stories about motherhood and lead singer of the a cappella cover band, Goth Mother. She is also a senior editor at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine. []