Judy Graham: Memories of a Majorette Mentor


It must have been Karen who convinced Ruthie and me to go out for the majorette squad.  I can’t remember.  But I do remember the captain, Judy, a very grown-up -looking 11th grader who asked whether we were serious. Mostly they messed with us in small ways that amused them—“Hey, what’re you looking at?” By the middle of 9th grade I stopped using the first floor bathroom and learned to curse and smoke to try to appear less vulnerable. Or be funny.  None of it worked so well.

After a few weeks, Judy nodded in the hallway. I’d never, ever had a cool, older girl notice me.

I studied her: her perfect, tiny, compact figure, no-nonsense little hands much smaller than mine, but all dexterity; a fine chocolate complexion. She had sharp little calves, and tight thighs that she made into perfect shelves for the baton to roll over.  Bright, black-coffee eyes crinkled at the ends and shone when she deigned to smile.  Mostly, at first, though, she was pretty serious.  We new recruits were awful.

“Look, see if you can relax. It’s a rhythm: Just like that, over and under.” Her matter-of-fact repetition comforted me. No exasperation, no sarcasm, no volume.  Sometimes she’d say:  “It takes a while.  It just takes a while. You’re getting it.”

No, we weren’t getting it. Our elbows were sore; just above the elbows, we had black-and-blue bruises where we’d hit ourselves twenty times during practice, and then at night in our bedrooms. I twirled at night in the dark to try “to get the feel of it,” as she said. We’d be marching in the cold, with the music behind us; You had to be sure of exactly where that baton was going to drop.  Girls dropped. They dropped out. Judy murmured one day that unlike cheer-leading, we  didn’t need try-outs; most girls couldn’t hack it. We stayed. Part of the allure was being with Judy, even if her concern was only precocious teenaged professionalism.

“Here, try to keep your head up,” she said, standing right next to me so that I could imitate the upright stance of her body. “Try not to look down.”

I threw my head back like hers, as if it were the most natural thing to look ahead proudly as a nerdy 10th grader with uneven hair and very few friends. The baton flew out of my hand, hit the cafeteria ceiling, and bounced and clattered along the lunch tables.

“That’s good, actually,” Judy said in her measured tone. “That means you’re twirling faster.  Now you’ve just got to figure out how to hang onto it.”

All summer I twirled at home to calm myself after work or to amuse my little sister. When school opened we got our uniforms and bought boots. Football season started, and we marched in front of the band onto the big fields in all weather. We blew on our fingers to keep them limber.  Moods passed through Judy like weather, but at eighteen, she’d figured out a cool clarity that allowed her to teach and mentor us anyway, with consistency. Because of her, and the skills she taught us, and the team she created among us, I cared less about who liked me or didn’t, or who made fun of me.

She was our captain. She helped me stop being afraid.

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