Student safety in Newark is far from assured, but when Glover stays up nights worrying, he doesn’t let himself dwell there simply because he can’t do anything about it. Besides, most kids have someone at home who loves them and is looking out for their well-being, he said. But when it comes to sharpening students’ minds during their 14 hours away from school, the principal could use some reinforcement. Are the children spending their time hanging out, playing video games, on social media and watching television, or are they doing homework and engaging in activities that will brighten their future prospects? That is the question that eats at him, and the answer is one he believes holds Quitman back.
In school, one of the girls on Nydresha’s “most coolest, supportive friends” list is a cheerleading teammate named Sarah. Although Sarah is still 11, one of the youngest kids in their grade, she is a full head taller than Nydresha and appears even more so with her trademark high ponytail.
Sarah doesn’t have time for hanging out like Nydresha and most of the other kids in their grade. In addition to being a Quitman cheerleader, she is a member of a traveling All Star cheerleading team based in Waldwick, a suburb 25 miles north of Newark. She is also on a tumbling team and has in the past done a Double Dutch team; whether or not she continues with Double Dutch in the coming season will depend on the practice schedule, since she has not yet been able to figure out how to be in two places at once. She had to drop a second competitive cheerleading team this summer because of a scheduling conflict.
For the All Star cheerleading and tumbling, Sarah is coached by Rayshine Harris, a Newark native who went on to become a 12-time tumbling world champion. She dreams of being like him, and most nights the past school year, she had All Star practice until 9 p.m., getting home around 10. Tumbling practice was on Saturdays and All Star cheerleading was Sundays. The summer brings more All Star practice, and Sarah plans to fit in a separate cheer camp and Double Dutch camp, as she has in years past.
All of this is made possible by Sarah’s sleep-deprived mother, Andrea, who works an overnight shift as a parking lot attendant at Newark Liberty International Airport. (Parents in this story are also being referred to by their first names to protect their children’s identities.) Andrea goes to work at 10:30 p.m., leaving Sarah and her 7-year-old sister alone while they sleep, with neighbors to call on if they need anything. She heads home at 6:30 a.m. to get them to school.
The tradeoff is that Andrea is available to drive her daughters to sports practices. Her little one has taken to cheerleading and tumbling, too, and last year was the only second grader on the Quitman team, which otherwise consists of girls in third grade through eighth. The mother rests in the morning but often returns to Quitman to bring her daughters lunch. She also helps to fundraise for the All Star team’s travel expenses.
Andrea, 43, said she enjoys living vicariously through her daughters. She wishes she could have done competitive cheerleading and tumbling herself as a girl, but her parents, immigrants from the West Indies, weren’t open to it, and besides, she didn’t know what was available. “I’m happy they’re able to do something I would have loved to have done at their age,” she said. Whenever an opportunity comes along for them to join one team or another, she can’t say no.
The mother hopes the effort -- hers and her daughters’ -- will one day pay off in the form of college scholarships from cheerleading or gymnastics teams. In sixth grade, though, harder classwork combined with long practice hours took a toll on Sarah’s grades, which fell to B’s and C’s after years on Quitman’s honor roll.
Sarah said she sees peers getting in trouble because they don’t have enough to do outside of school. “I feel so bad,” she said. “Sometimes I just stare at them. I look, and I’m like, ‘You guys should cheer. It’s so much better than being on Facebook and on the streets outside.’” At the same time, she recognizes that not everyone has a mother as involved as hers. Without her mom, Sarah wrote in a memory book for English class, “my life would be nothing at all.”
Sarah’s dedication and singular focus may be rare at Quitman, but her desire to make something of herself through athletics more than academics is not. Glover would never discourage athletic pursuits; he was a basketball player himself, and his own son hopes to play soccer in college. In himself and his son, though, he has demanded academic excellence as well. He tries to demand it of his students, too, and to get them to understand that success in school is a surefire route out of poverty, while success in sports is not. But he is up against powerful cultural forces, and every year, members of the team backing him up -- the teachers and staff he counts on -- are rotating in and out.
While Nydresha and Sarah both excel in cheerleading, Nydresha does not share Sarah’s aspirations. “Tumbling / cheering IS LIFE,” Sarah wrote on the back of the memory book.
Stephanie Ruff, the Quitman parent liaison and cheerleading coach, said if Nydresha wants to, she could have an “excellent career” cheering in high school. “Hopefully she don’t let the little boys distract her,” Ruff said.