In the spring of my seventh-grade year at Calloway County Middle School, a new girl named Heidi came to town, and she was eyeing my spot on the cheerleading squad. You probably think that was cruel of her—to hope to steal such a precious position right out from under me—but you’ve probably also never seen my back handspring.
I was, without question, the worst cheerleader on our squad of eight and Heidi was no fool. To make the team, she needed only to be better than one of us when eighth-grade tryouts rolled around. Her bar was low. I was weak and unathletic; I was afraid of heights; I was timid; I often did not understand what was happening on the field or on the court. If you are wondering how I made the squad in the first place, sources tell me that it had something to do with my grade point average.
But no matter how I snuck in, it was a coveted position and I did not want to lose it. What a novelty for me to be able to walk into Dennison-Hunt, the locally owned athletic store in Murray, KY, to purchase a t-shirt screen printed with “Cheerleader” in a little golden megaphone, and to then wear that t-shirt to school the next day! I guess any person off the street could buy a shirt with “Cheerleader” screen printed on it—who could stop you, really—but I could do it with a clear conscience.
My fellow cheerleaders were all very sweet to me, but I know that I slowed everyone down. By nature of my being the smallest girl on the team, and with no account of my bravery, I was chosen as the flyer. This meant that Bridget and Laura would hoist me up to their chin’s height, one of my feet in each of their hands, while I held a sign that said “Go Lakers!” or wiggled spirit fingers in the air. But nearly every time we did this, the girls had to take time to convince me that I was not going to fall. (And if I did, that would have been, what—like four feet?) The first time we tried a build, my whole body rejected the notion and aborted the mission by doing a forward flip into Anne-Marie’s hands. That forward flip was the stuff of CMS cheerleading legends, and it was told and retold throughout the seventh-grade halls.
The seven other girls could do their standing back handsprings beautifully, and I couldn’t do one at all. Not even an ugly one. Not even with a running start. I watched them like I would watch dolphins burst up from the water and make arches in mid-air; I watched amazed and I watched convinced that this was other-creaturely activity. I was sure that I was not like them in the same way that I was sure that I was not a dolphin.
During football season, Janessa had an idea: What if, during halftime, we all stood in a row on the track and launched into back handsprings in succession—like a wave, she said. Well, that sounded like a wonderful idea for seven of us. But how to solve a problem like Elizabeth? I told them I didn’t mind standing off to the side during this display of athleticism, really I didn’t. I could gesture toward them and smile, as if to say, “Look at what my beautiful and talented friends can do.”
They wouldn’t accept my polite refusal. But to me, it was more a statement of fact than a refusal, like saying, “I’m so sorry but I don’t think I can grow tail fins and learn how to breach water today.”
At practice one day after school, we discovered that I could do something that resembled a back handspring If I stood on a grassy incline between the track and the football field. It turns out that jumping backward down a hill makes a person instinctively stick one’s hands out to protect one’s head, and then the sheer force of gravity pushes one back on their feet. And that looks something like a back handspring. The first time I tried this, the girls rushed toward me beaming with pride.
“You did it, Elizabeth!” They cried.
They made me believe that I had: that I had become the dolphin.
But video evidence from a Friday night football game, where we attempted “the wave,” shows otherwise. The girls had all moved themselves from the track, which was the original plan, to the grassy incline beside me. I went first, perhaps strategically— so that the audience would be quickly distracted by beauty after whatever I was about to show them. What I showed them was likened to a frightened frog who jumps straight up into the air and then immediately loses all sense of up and down. I was still brushing the grass off my knees when the last cheerleader popped up from her perfect landing, but I did it. Or something resembling it.
When eighth-grade tryouts were announced, the rumor mill started churning:
“Heidi is trying out for cheerleading, and Heidi can do a back handspring.”
“I heard she can even do a back tuck.”
”I heard that Heidi was the captain of her cheerleading squad in Illinois.”
”I heard she was cheerleader of the year.”
So Heidi was out to take my spot, and who could blame her? I thought she probably deserved it. My friends looked at me sympathetically—they all knew I was the weakest in the pack—but they weren’t going to let me go down without a fight. They made me stay after practice each week and work on my tumbling. And while I got better, I never could do a back handspring on my own without that grassy incline or one of those girls standing beside me, bracing my back.
At tryouts, I brushed shoulders with Heidi, walking in with her older sister, at the entrance into the middle school gym. Heidi smiled at me and then turned to her sister and said, “That’s the one I told you about.” So the rumors were true, I thought, and then I took my seat on the cold wooden bleachers.
Heidi’s tryout was something to behold. She was composed, graceful, and loud. She tumbled beautifully—arched through the air in an effortless acrobatic display. Anne-Marie looked at me nervously; I knew she wasn’t nervous for her own self.
I won’t keep you in suspense, dear Reader—I did end up making the eighth-grade squad, along with the seven other original girls. Of course, it makes sense to me now. The coaches would need a really compelling reason to break up a group of girls who had already been together for a year. But I was dumbfounded then, and even a little heartbroken for Heidi.
I’m often still dumbfounded by the roles I’ve been given: in motherhood, in friendship, in ministry, in writing—rarely do I feel like I’ve earned my place in any given room. People talk about the reality of imposter syndrome, and most want to talk you out of it. Most want to convince you that you are blind to your own talent and that you do belong in the room. But I know what my own back handsprings look like.
If being an imposter means that I don’t belong here, then yes, that is nearly always true in any of my roles. Do any of us? Can any of us say, unflinching and without any doubt, that we have arrived solely by merit to any of the positions that we hold dear, or does every good and perfect gift come from a generous Father?
I knew in seventh-grade that Heidi could have done a better job with my spot on the cheerleading squad. But it wasn’t Heidi who ended up in that spot; It was me. And what was I to do with that?
It would not have done much good to try to convince me that I deserved to be a Calloway County middle school cheerleader. I was quite sure that I didn’t. But as far as I can remember, that didn’t matter a whole lot to me. It felt like a gift, and gifts aren’t something you are supposed to earn. And what’s more, I felt like the other girls wanted me there with them, which is another kind of gift. That sort of givenness made me relax. It made me a receiver. If I wasn’t there by merit, then what did I have to prove? I was freed up to give whatever it was that I had to offer. Sometimes that was a really crummy back handspring, but sometimes that was the gift of friendship. Both years on that cheerleading squad, I won the award of “Most Cooperative.” My husband Andrew and I both laughed until we couldn’t breathe when I told him this.
“That’s an athletic award?” He wheezed through laughs.“It is.” I said, “And I won it.” I had been a peacemaker on the squad when things got tense, as they often do amongst middle school girls. Peacemaking was the gift that I had to offer when I couldn’t offer courage or a back handspring.
But for some reason, as an adult, it’s harder for me to relax into the roles in which I’ve been placed. Imposter syndrome asks the question: “Why are you here?” And when I can’t find a satisfactory answer to that question, I tend to think that I only have two options as a response: to either fake it or to step aside.
Faking it looks like believing that I arrived at a position by luck, but now I’ll have to convince everyone around me that I got here by merit. This is exhausting, but who wants to be found out as a fraud? My second option, stepping aside, means excusing myself from the room. It looks a lot like gesturing toward others and saying, “Look at what all my beautiful and talented friends can do,” while I hide on the sidelines.
But a third way is to acknowledge that perhaps it wasn’t luck that got me here, but generosity.
And since I find myself in the room, how can I be generous in return? Imposter syndrome begs me to navel-gaze: How can I prove that I belong? How do I measure up to everyone else here? How do I keep this position? How can I appear more clever than I actually am? But the real antidote to imposter syndrome is to turn my gaze outward: Who are the people who are glad that I’m here, and what do I have that I can give them?
In this third and better response, we are able to acknowledge the givenness of it all: that all of the best gifts come into empty hands. Freely I have received, and freely I will give this humble heap of talents and weaknesses alike. Even as I’m trying to finish up this essay this morning, I’m keenly aware of its faults—of its frog legs in the face of the beautiful dolphin arches that I read in others’ words. But I’m going to give it to you anyway. I’m going to pull myself over to this grassy incline and give you what I’ve got. Maybe that will keep the gift moving—maybe that will make you go do the same.
Elizabeth Harwell lives just north of Atlanta with her church-planting husband and her three kids. She’s the author of The Good Shepherd’s Pasture and The Good King’s Feast, two children’s books on the sacraments of baptism and communion. These days, you can find her telling stories on her biweekly Substack, The Things I Carry, where she writes about the sad and the beautiful things that have happened to her, and where she invites you to share your stories in return.