But even as I fantasized about what it must be like to be cute, cool and a cheerleader, I realized that the best cheerleaders in my life came in a variety of shapes and sizes and ages. They were not singing school songs or cheering on teams. They were cheering me -- and others like me -- on to become the best that we could be. Sister Rita. Sister Ramona. Dr. Elizabeth Swayne. Aunt Molly.
They cheered on my dreams and possibilities. They soothed my fears and insecurities and helped me to believe that I could make my dreams come true. So many of the joys and successes of my life came because they cared.
We all have opportunities to be cheerleaders. There's no better time than now to go out for cheerleading the young people in our lives, to step back from seeking the spotlight ourselves and encourage someone else to shine. This is the stage of life when we have more time to reach out, more reason to nurture, so much to share.
It can be wonderfully rewarding to cheer on younger people as they face life challenges.
Close up, with our own children and grandchildren, how often do we encourage instead of criticize? Celebrate instead of minimizing? Notice instead of ignore? What a difference it can make to notice the little triumphs, celebrate ordinary as well as extraordinary accomplishments, encourage a younger person to try and then try again, even when the path is not easy, even when success is far from assured.
It takes so little to make a difference: taking time to notice another's struggles and small successes, taking time to listen, giving advice when it is requested, offering warm but silent support when it is not.
What memories warm your heart when you think of the cheerleaders of your past?
I remember Sister Rita telling me I was wonderful when I felt so awkward and alone. I remember Sister Ramona squeezing my hand and urging me to take the risk of attending my dream college, even if I ended up with student loan debt "because no one can take the education you will get there away from you." I remember my most demanding professor at Northwestern, Elizabeth Swayne, who became a life long friend, writing to me during a professional crisis "I wish I could be there to hug you and hold you and tell you that you were -- and are -- one of the very best!" I remember Aunt Molly telling me that, even more than wanting me to become a good writer, she wanted to encourage me to be a good and loving person. All of these wonderful cheerleaders -- except for Sister Rita -- are gone now. But their caring, their inspiration and kindness live on in my heart and in all I do.
We can't live forever, but we can live on in the young lives we inspire. The opportunities are all around us.
We can volunteer at local schools, helping children to learn to read and to socialize. We can comfort children at hospitals. I had polio when I was six and still have warm memories of the special people who made life easier for me then -- the sweet volunteer who read me stories, the physical therapist who sang songs about "Myrtle the Purple Turtle" as she covered me with steaming wet towels and massaged my arms and legs. A story. A song. A smile. It takes so little to create sweet memories for a needy child.
At a time of life when our own dreams have been realized or let go, or even if we're still pursuing them, we can get over ourselves enough to encourage and mentor a young person's dreams. Giving hope to another generation takes nothing away from us and can mean so much.
My niece Maggie, who is just finishing the first grade, wants me to teach her how to write a book because she has decided -- poor soul -- that she wants to write books like I do. When I see her this summer, I'll sit down with her -- as Aunt Molly did with me -- and help her find her own way, her own style, as a writer -- encouraging but not overwhelming her.
In all our lives, there are so many young people who would love to have some encouragement.
We can cheer on the children of special friends, adult children who are just beginning or totally immersed in their independent adult lives, giving them an emotional high-five for getting that first job, that first apartment, being such loving parents to their own small children, as we watch their adult lives coming together.
And there are some young people whose lives and futures haven't quite come together yet, but who might like to hear some words of support and encouragement. Letting a young person know that you believe in him or her can make a real difference.
Showing that you care can mean so much to a young person.
Many years ago, my husband Bob spent more than twenty years as a volunteer for Big Brothers. He mentored two adolescent Little Brothers -- Paco and David -- with great enthusiasm. But it was the third Little Brother with whom he -- and we -- have had the longest relationship. Ryan was a funny, quirky nine-year-old when he first came into our lives. Surrounded by a largely female family of origin, he watched Bob to see what it meant to be a man. They hiked. They played sports. They argued over film rentals. They hung out and explored, talked and sang together for hours and days and years. Ryan watched me go back to school in my forties to become a psychotherapist and he and Bob took turns practicing with me for my oral licensing exam. He was a part of our family, in time becoming like a son to us.
Now about to turn 33 and a psychotherapist himself, Ryan calls several times a week to talk about his challenges and triumphs, sometimes to seek advice, sometimes to soothe our uncertainties as we age. We get together whenever possible. It was a special pleasure to cheer him on through his licensing exams, to encourage him to take the risk of committing himself to a new love relationship and to watch with such joy as he has grown into such a good and caring person.
But what went into building love between us was years of spending time -- particularly Bob, who was his official Big Brother for nine years and lifelong friend thereafter -- and noticing, encouraging, occasionally giving him hell, and celebrating each step along the way. We were, without thinking about it, going out whole heartedly for cheerleading Ryan through life.
I got a note from Ryan the other day telling me how sorry he was to hear about the death of my beloved Sister Ramona, my lifelong friend and cheerleader. "I know she was so important and so dear to you," he wrote. "And I think I can understand how hard it must be to lose her....because you are my Sister Ramona!"
Life can, indeed, be wonderfully circular as we cheer each other on.