On Thanksgiving Day at about noon I stood at the Seventh Avenue station waiting for the D train. The parade had ended and many of the subway stations along the parade route were filled with people heading back home. The northbound train pulled in and I stepped on. As I did, the southbound train arrived just across the platform. The doors opened, and a swarm of cheerleaders in red and white uniforms rushed out, headed for the stairs. They obviously had just finished performing in the parade and were going somewhere en masse.
The funny thing, apart from the subway platform filled with cheerleaders in short skirts with sequins and batons, was that these girls were all about the same height with blonde hair and ponytails. I watched them ascend the steps in waves, and then our doors closed and we were off to Columbus Circle.
“Oh, they are so pretty!” a girl said to her parents as she sat watching them, her face pressed against the window. “I wish I could get their autographs.”
The parents, who stood next to me, smiled and nodded. The mother said something about autographs I didn’t quite get. Then the girl paused for a moment, thinking.
“I wish I could be a cheerleader,” she said.
“Well, maybe someday you will be,” the mother told her.
The girl paused, longer this time, and asked innocently, “But I don’t have blonde hair and ponytails. Do you have to have blonde hair and ponytails to be a cheerleader?”
It was true. This girl did not have blonde hair or ponytails. I would say her mother was Asian, maybe Filipina, and her father could have been Italian or Greek, not lightskinned. The girl had dark hair and dark eyes. Her mother assured her that cheerleaders could have dark hair or all kinds of hair and that she could be a cheerleader just like those other girls if she practiced hard.
I smiled, mainly because the girl had expressed what I, and probably others, were thinking. It was odd to see so many people looking alike. The blonde hair, ponytails, sequins, batons, streamers, hair ties, flags, banners, etc. were all part of the otherworldliness on display. You don’t see that kind of thing everyday, and you certainly don’t see that kind of uniformity on the subway. I’m sure, though, that that’s the idea behind cheerleading and marching bands: uniformity. After all, they’re participating in a synchronized athletic event involving dance, performance, and agility. Uniformity is a good thing.
But there can be diversity in uniformity. I guess that sounds like an oxymoron, so perhaps the thing to aim for is unity. I can recall a talk given by Robert Bellah, the author of Habits of the Heart, in which he spoke about the opposition he encountered as a Caucasian man teaching Chinese at UC Berkeley. It hadn’t bothered him that he was not Asian or that he might have been taking a teaching position away from a qualified Chinese or Chinese-American scholar (both questions raised in Q & A). He believed that his love for the field and his commitment to research and teaching met those concerns. He was more interested in the work he was doing and the quality of that work as evidenced in publications and teaching.
I don’t know if the mother on the train was thinking along those lines when she mentioned practicing hard. It’s possible. It’s also possible that the experience her daughter had, one that would probably remain with her for the rest of her life, only highlighted the need for promoting equality and diversity. It could be, too, that she simply felt for her daughter and would make every effort to make her feel valued and loved.
Parenting does that, but it does even more. It gives us our first experience of the good, the true, and the beautiful. This girl experienced beauty through the cheerleaders. But she also experienced beauty through her mother and the way her mother reflected her own beauty back to her. And maybe that’s what we all need to do to some degree every day, starting at home: reflect the beauty of the people we see back to them. We can do this without tearing each other down.
No doubt the cheerleaders were beautiful. So was the girl, her parents, and that moment of discovery when the girl realized that cheerleading is not a function of hair color. Neither is beauty or being human. In fact, being human is beauty itself.
This turned out to be a very good Thanksgiving. And I still had turkey and stuffing to eat.
Photos by Richard B. Levine, Nov. 23, 2014. Note to self: Don’t stay up late watching alien videos!