I attended one of the nerdiest schools in the United States, an academic magnet school with a 70% Asian/Pacific Islander student population. Our cheerleaders were Asian, our basketball team was Asian, the goth kids and the hip hop kids were Asian, our homecoming queen was Asian.
When I arrived at this school in seventh grade, I was a tangled mass of perms and bangs and glasses and braces and biker shorts. I was chubby and clumsy, utterly invisible to the in-crowd. Still, I had a strong support network, and I never felt like I couldn’t try something just because of my race.
What I really wanted to be was a cheerleader. In my mind, they represented all that was totally awesome, the epitome of teenage female perfection. I dreamed about one day wearing a uniform of my own, pulling my hair up into a beribboned high ponytail, and bouncing into that smiley sorority.
So I auditioned for the junior high cheer squad in seventh grade. It was my first time learning a choreographed routine, and my try-out was abysmal. My turns were slow, my kicks were stunted, and my leaps barely left the ground. Needless to say, I didn’t make it. Although I was disappointed, I wasn’t too discouraged. I knew I had a lot of specific skills I could work on, such as being able to smile and dance at the very same time. I knew it was just a matter of study and practice!
The next year, I discovered a sweet pep squad hack — it turned out that school mascots got a cheerleading uniform in addition to the fur suit! Plus, I figured the beauty and grace requirement would be less rigorous, and since I was the goofy one out of my friends, I would be a shoo-in! I tried out for mascot, and I didn’t even bother preparing a dance routine; I just lip-synced to “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid. From 10 seconds in, I could tell from the judges’ averted gazes that I had made a terrible mistake. They were dismayed by my utter lack of preparation, domain knowledge, general cluefulness — and charm. And to pour the hot fudge on my sundae of embarrassment: I was the only person to try out for mascot…yet rather than pick me, they chose to have no mascot at all that year.
Any normal person would perhaps have taken the hint at that point, but I simply retreated to my bunker to strategize my next move. The next year, I found a partner, someone with whom to share the load and scrutiny, and at least this time I knew we needed to prepare! Together, we concocted a dance routine based on Paula Abdul’s “Opposites Attract.” But when we actually auditioned, once again, the judges looked distinctly uncomfortable! Perhaps it was because we were both young girls and we were pantomiming our quirky love life, stealing the covers of the conjugal bed from each other? We were both shown the door. In our place, the coach appointed a couple of upperclassman b-boys to fill the mascot posts. These dudes were, in effect, professional breakdancers in fur suits, and every one of their routines was a jaw-dropping spectacle. Observing this, I was now thoroughly intimidated. Still, I thought to myself, “This is your year, Julie! There’s no way you’ll be rejected four times in a row!”
When audition season came around again, I made it a point to ingratiate myself with my predecessor mascots so they could hopefully give me an “in” with the judges. The b-boys were wonderfully supportive and worked hard to infuse me with the fluid spirit of hip hop. Unfortunately, the audition routine they designed was impossibly advanced. For example, among various other technical tricks, it involved a “Chinese get-up.” At the actual performance, I was flailing around like a Whirling Dervish with a potbelly. I didn’t even ask the coach if I made it that time, I just staggered away.
The next year was my junior year, and this was the last opportunity I had to land a spot on the pep squad. I decided to go out guns blazing, drawing from all my hard-won lessons: I again tried out with a partner, this time recruiting a boy who was well-known and well-liked, with excellent instincts on how to entertain a crowd. He chose a reggae song from the Dumb and Dumber soundtrack, and we put together a routine that was cute, funny, and charming – and most importantly, not super dance-heavy. Another key piece of the puzzle was that I was by then a 16-year-old in full bloom, with bona fide boobs, a boyfriend, and better coordination, so I was able to really tap into that flirty girl-next-door-wink-giggle vibe.
This time, the judges ate it up. And finally, after FIVE years of dreaming and trying, I became varsity mascot captain for my senior year of high school. Oh, the power and the glory!
It probably would seem incomprehensible to most people, the amount of heartache, overthinking, and effort I endured to practice an “art form” that is by nature silly and spontaneous. But as a naïve little nerdling-in-progress, observation, analysis, and extraneous effort were the only ways I knew to achieve my goal. And hey, it worked! In my own awkward and tone-deaf way, I earned every whisker of that damn fur suit. I reveled in that uniform all year long as if it were a royal vestment, and my clip-on cat ears were my crown.
And thus, in a school brimming with nerds, did I become Queen Nerd.