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How EAT CAKE. BE BRAVE. Helped Me Understand My Niece

One of my nieces was a cheerleader throughout high school. Unlike Melissa Radke, who wanted to be one but failed spectacularly at each of her three tryouts (she couldn’t even touch her toes!), my niece — let’s call her Amalia — was a natural at it. Unlike Melissa’s mom, who tried to talk her out of publicly humiliating herself at those tryouts (she tripped and broke a crown once, to give you an example), Amalia’s mom, who’s my sister, kept quiet. Oh, she went to all the games and did carpool duty and fundraised for pom-poms, but she kept her real thoughts about cheerleading to herself. And by that I mean she talked about them with me.

It turned out that we both had the same reaction. We were nonplussed. Neither one of us had any idea why Amalia wanted to scream rah-rah in front of other hormonal teenagers, pump her arms like the traffic police, and be obsessed with something that “popular girls” were into. As far as we were concerned, Amalia may as well have joined the beauty-pageant circuit. (Hands up if you’re at least partially relieved that Miss America contestants no longer have to parade in a swimsuit.)

The surprises didn’t end there. In college, Amalia studied theater and created light designs for a community playhouse. (From a phone call from her to me: “I couldn’t figure out how to light Hair, but I saw an Aerosmith concert this weekend and now I know exactly what to do.”) Then she worked for an amusement park and learned how to set off gigantic fireworks without burning her eyebrows. When she got tired of lighting fuses, she went to culinary school and is now a dessert chef. She loves decorating cakes (and not the crappy kind, like carrot).

I believe that Amalia and Melissa are kindred spirits. Melissa, who couldn’t do a cartwheel but wasn’t about to let that stop her from trying to be a cheerleader, who would go on to study music and be a studio session singer despite being told by a professional that no one would want to look at her, who has become a vibrant social media personality and public speaker and book author, who loves cakes (and not the crappy kind, like carrot) — well, Melissa must have been whispering in my niece’s ears all those years.

And what she was whispering was this: “Life is too short to do the same dance to the same song every single day, year in, year out. Make a wish, and wish to be brave.”