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On April 14, 2011, at the close of the business day, a handful of people gathered at the exit turnstiles of a Chicago subway station. Their sole aim was to cheer on commuters. The group held hand-drawn signs that read, “YAY YOU!” and “Life is a Marathon!” and “Hip Hip Hooray, Way to Conquer Today!” They handed out bottled waters, high-fived the “finishers,” and shouted words of encouragement. They jumped up and down, up and down in unbridled joy.
Some riders were bemused. Some skirted past, their grins belying their reserve. Some, clearly amused, met the raised hands with their own palms—high five!—never breaking the pace of the bustling rush hour.
But my absolute favorite responses are from the commuters who leapt immediately into the joy of assumed victory. As in, Thank you! It’s true! I crushed today!
Take the tall guy in black pants, black jacket, and royal blue ski cap with red pom-pom atop his head. Wires dangle from his ears and connect to his cellphone. Once he glimpses a sign, he throws his arms in a wide V and shouts, Woo! He looks toward the ceiling, or toward the whole wild world which, on this day, April 14, 2011, endured a fatal mudslide in Colombia, a tornado in Oklahoma, and the first attempt to recover bodies from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant meltdown. Like any day, it was full of difficulty.
We need to be cheered for. We need a chant, a high-five, a sign saying YAY YOU!
These Chicagoans most likely endured more subtle suffering. The pollution of cars. The microaggressions of bosses. Heartburn or a stuffed-up nose or the stress of making rent. And this tall man in the pom-pommed ski cap, he is utterly accepting of the surprise adoration. He did it!
What did he do? We don’t know. But we also do know: He lived. He completed another day.
Or take the guy in the navy hoodie, faded jeans, and well-worn chukkas. He doesn’t just walk past the cheerleaders, as most every other subway rider does. He runs to them. His black cross-body bag jiggles with his jog. He high-fives every single sign-holder, making a slight curve with his path to ensure he greets them all. When he reaches the final cheerleader he does a little leap to smack their hand.
And then there’s the seemingly introverted hipster woman in glasses, black leggings, and a cropped camo jacket. She pushes her hips through the turnstile, hands in her pockets. She will most certainly duck at this sudden attention—but no! When she spots a sign, she throws her arms in a T, looks too toward the ceiling, and runs toward the cheerleaders, graceful as a crane in preflight.
Fans of writer Amy Krouse Rosenthal might recognize this scene from her TEDx talk, “The Crevices of Life.” The first several times I watched the cheerleaders, I cried. The scene was so joyful, and life is so hard, and yes, at the end of some days, cheering is precisely the action that fits the deep longing in my gut. We live on a gorgeous, green, hostile, blue planet that spins a thousand miles an hour. We take 20,000 inhalations a day and lose our keys and our jobs and our beloveds and our ways, and still manage to let those 20,000 inhalations out. We are presented with a hundred thousand cellophane-wrapped food options that are terrible for us, and told not to eat any of it. We need to be cheered for. We need a chant, a high-five, a sign saying “YAY YOU!”
Adult life has a noticeable lack of awards. It doesn’t take a pandemic to figure that out.
The next several times I watched the video, I also cried, and for some of the same reasons. But watching it in the fall of 2020 was like glimpsing another era, when strangers made contact with the palms of other strangers, when strangers stood unmasked and so close, as one commuter and one cheerleader did, that they could, if they wanted, lean in a few inches and kiss.
In mid-March 2020, at a scheduled midday hour, Italians poked their heads outside their apartment windows or stood on their balconies and applauded. In Milan, Naples, Palermo, Rome, they clapped their hands, sometimes even banged on pot lids. At the time, Italy was a hotbed of the coronavirus, with 1,200 deaths and 17,000 cases. They couldn’t leave their homes, so they found a different means of connecting. From my screen in America, the people on their balconies looked beautiful and impossibly far away. And then three months later, New Yorkers did the same, the virus having brush-fired inside the Big Apple.
Videos like this went viral. Watching lockdown cheerleaders induced a warm, watery-eyed surge of something both necessary and endangered. Hope, maybe? Tenacity? A belief in the human spirit? “Not sure who enjoyed it more,” reads a caption in Rosenthal’s video. “Those being cheered for . . . or those doing the cheering.”
But what about the minutes after, when the Italians and the New Yorkers turned away from their high-tower neighbors, stepped again inside their private quarters? Their hands still tingled, and they stood another day inside their unapplauded lives.
Adult life has a noticeable lack of awards. It doesn’t take a pandemic to figure that out. You’re gifted no honor for getting your kid dressed and out the door, no accolades for crafting that rhetorically savvy email your boss ignores. A pandemic makes this lack of applauding all the more noticeable, as something like grocery shopping can take twice as long and comes with a sliver of death risk.
If we can’t applaud ourselves during a pandemic, then when will we applaud ourselves?
I confess, I’m bad at cheer. Receiving and giving. I’m better at critique. The soup I made is too spicy. The talk I gave didn’t elicit enough laughs. I long ago fell prey to the doctrine that criticism is more real than praise. If you tell me 10 things you like about this essay, I believe it’s confetti to distract from the truth, which is the one—or more—things you don’t.
Why do so many of us dismiss the cheerleader as unnecessary? This is my own instinct, at least. Heather, you don’t need applause. You’re remote working with Zoom-schooled children. Your family can eat. Suck it up, buttercup. It didn’t help that in high school, the pom-pom shaking activity known as cheerleading was made to seem ornamental. It was a sideshow for the main stage, the yards of grass, where all eyes fell on dudes. Dudes grunting, dudes sprinting, dudes crashing into other dudes. Cheerleading felt subordinate, sexist.
All of that, I realize, is unfair to the intricacies of a sport that entails hurling one’s teammate into the sky only to catch them. But here’s a scrappier portrait of cheer: Baltimore, 2002. I, the non-cheerer, stood beside friends as we waited for our pal Amy to jog past. She was running 26.2 miles at a 12-minute pace. It was a lot of waiting. And there were a lot of runners. So we cheered on the non-Amys. Hundreds of them. Many had marked their names in tape on their jerseys for that very purpose. We shouted those most intimate syllables, bestowed upon them by their parents when they were just bundles of need. “Go Louise!” we cried with every vocal cord we had. “Go Jerome! Go Stew!” What thrill, what elation, as we called to strangers, trying to boost them another meter, maybe another mile.
And you know what? They were actually boosted. You could see it in their faces. When the sounds of their names cut through the fog in their eyes, they glimmered. They remembered something. Who they were, maybe, or why they were doing this, or the fact that, back at mile seven, they believed in themselves. They grinned, or pumped an arm, or sometimes called “Thank you!” over their shoulders, their bodies now past us, their eyes on the miles ahead.
Practically nobody wins the marathon except the winner, who is fleet-footed and long gone. We don’t cheer marathon runners to win. We cheer them to keep going. Which is why I’m starting to think the cheerleader is an essential worker.
Two weeks into quarantining, in the globe’s latest hotspot of New Jersey, I checked my phone. I was eager to know that my isolation—my private, absurd juggling act of remote working with unschooled/Zoom-schooled children—had contributed to some noticeable dip in the curve. Alas, we were still climbing, and epidemiologists told me why. And four weeks later came the spring peak, although we could only confirm that later, looking backward. And that too is all we have right now: months and months of numbers behind us, a few predictions, but no certainty on how many more months we will run.
I love the Rosenthal video because of the argument it makes. Cheer does not have to be stingy, doled out to only the most obviously deserving. Cheer can be absurdly abundant. It can go to the grandparent who figures out Zoom. To the furloughed worker doomscrolling through another day. To the mother who keeps herself from return-chucking cold spaghetti at her tantrummy toddler. To the remote worker who’s finished day 250 without an ounce of human touch.
I’m a reserved person. Even when I achieve things the external world validates as cheer-worthy (awards, publications, etc.), I recoil. I’m the hands-in-my-pockets kind-of girl. Meek face, chin tucked in. Don’t look at me.
Screw it. If we can’t applaud ourselves during a pandemic, then when will we applaud ourselves? When we climb that very ladder built by the economy that’s getting crushed?
Let’s throw our arms up, people. I applaud you. Applaud me. We are doing this. What are we doing? We don’t know. But it’s absolutely ridiculous, and we have lived to see another day of it. I want to call your name. I want you to call mine. Make your V-arms wide as bird configurations. Howl into the world’s hollow anguish. Roar toward the impossibly large sky. You did it!
Even if “it” is by fueling yourself entirely on all those cellophane-wrapped foods they say we shouldn’t eat.
CORRECTION: This article was updated at 8:09 a.m. PST on December 20, 2020 to correct a spelling error in Colombia and to clarify that the video of Italians applauding from their balconies was recorded in March 2020, not 2019. Read our corrections policy here.
Heather Lanier is an assistant professor of Writing Arts at Rowan University. She is the author of the memoir Raising a Rare Girl, and her TED talk has been viewed over two million times. Heather is based in New Jersey. She can be reached at www.heatherlanierwriter.com.