Real Life

Katie and Mary Betzler, tasting the bitter.
Deron Neblett

The ordained afternoon had weighed heavily on their minds, and finally it arrived. More than 70 girls, freshmen and sophomores at brand-spanking-new Cinco Ranch High School, arrived fresh-faced and nervous to try out for drill team. The girls, most of whom were enrolled in a PE class specifically dedicated to preparing for this very day, wanted badly to earn the distinction, to be named members of the Cinco Ranch Cougar Stars.

Half of them wouldn't be, of course, and this would be a standard adolescent disappointment under the best of circumstances.

The handout that had gone home to the girls' parents months earlier suggested that this particular disappointment, for those fated to suffer it, might be worse. The handout had specified, amid long lists of the athletic and financial travails to which Stars would be subjected, that girls, should they be chosen, would be required, by virtue of the uniforms they would wear, to "keep in good and attractive physical shape." Those girls who made the cut, the handout promised, would receive "much glory and recognition," and their experience as Stars would "help ease the transition from adolescence into adulthood." The team was referred to as a "sisterhood."

Any sister who didn't make the cut was clearly -- given the prevailing logic of 15-year-old girls -- a fat, gawky freak headed for a future devoid of glory and recognition.

The girls were divided into 18 groups, each herded by one of the 18 Stars carried over from the previous year. The 18 returning Stars were technically trying out for the team afresh before a panel of professional dance judges, but the new girls knew what was up with that. Anyone could see that the established Stars were all wearing matching silver hair scrunchies, and what possible purpose could that serve but to identify them as favorites to the judging panel? The girls thought the drill team teacher, a woman by the name of Hankins, must surely have been behind that bit of subterfuge, but there was nothing to be done about it. The logical skills of the 15-year-old girls were quite well developed enough to know that a high school without favoritism would be no high school at all.

So the girls tried out. They did their kicks and their splits and their leaps and their rolls and tried to present a good and attractive physical shape while three judges marked pencil on paper and decided whether or not each girl in turn would become a Star.

Some few hours later, the girls were handed sealed envelopes as school let out, and instructions were reiterated: School staff had already warned the parents of potential Stars about the risk of embarrassment and emotional trauma if the girls all ripped open their envelopes right there in the parking lot, in front of each other, and found out all at once who was bound for glory and recognition and who was not. The envelopes were to be opened only after the girls had gotten into their mothers' cars, or arrived safely at home in the new one- or two-story brick-sheathed houses that had sprouted in the freshly sodded Katy prairie to accommodate them all.

Katie Betzler took her envelope to her mother Mary's car, got inside and opened it.

"Lord," it said in bold black print, "you have taught me to accept defeat, to taste the bitter when I sought the sweet... Knowing the longest nights bring hopeful dawn, I gather up the pieces, and go on."

When Katie Betzler saw that, she says, it made her feel "like a nothing, basically."

When Mary Betzler saw it, she was appalled.

Mary Betzler, a former cheerleader herself in her home state of Missouri, wants to be perfectly clear that her complaint is not distilled of sour grapes. Yes, her daughter has an 11-year background of private classes in ballet, jazz and tap. And yes, Katie did earn ribbons, which her mother has photocopied for a reporter, identifying her as "Superior" and "All Star Performer" at mandatory pre-tryout clinics. But that was before Katie fractured her pelvis during the drill-team prep class, rendering her unable to perform her left split, so it's no big surprise Katie didn't make the team.

What bothers Mary Betzler is not that Katie didn't make the team, but just about every other aspect of the experience. Like the fact that her daughter's teacher failed to notice that Katie was injured and continued to push her to participate even after a long overdue diagnosis led to a doctor's note specifying total rest. Like the school literature implicitly urging already willowy girls like Katie toward further trimness and, Betzler worries, eventual eating disorders. Like the note, issued to students by an educational institution, defining them as defeated.

What's wrong, Mary Betzler thinks, is the entire culture being bred -- naively or otherwise -- by the whole Cinco Ranch drill-team process. The famous Title IX, she notes, was passed way back in 1972, guaranteeing equality among male and female athletes within the educational system. But her son, a benchwarmer on his high school football team, still suits up under a no-cut policy, and he was never sent home with a note labeling him a loser, and he was certainly never told he'd have to keep himself looking chiseled and buff.

Girls who made the drill team, Betzler says, were given notes headlined "Recipe for Success."

"The message is very clear that we're sending to our girls," Mary Betzler says. "People wonder why we've got kids shooting up the schools. Well, duh."

After a "nightmare" weekend of salving her daughter's shredded ego, Mary Betzler went to work with modem, phone and fax. She got on the Internet and began researching eating disorders. She faxed the school's handout material to the American Anorexia and Bulimia Association and received a reply that confirmed her suspicion that yes, "such an emphasis on thinness and attractive figures can give girls a strong push toward developing an eating disorder."

She talked to other parents and found at least one among the go-with-the-flow crowd -- Karen Davey, whose daughter is a friend of Katie Betzler's -- who was just as appalled as she was.

The mothers called the school's principal, Lowell Strike, and school counselors, and the drill team instructor herself, who told them that all the schools in the Katy Independent School District used the offending handout, and more or less that things had always been this way. Betzler says Hankins told her that the experience would make Katie a stronger person.

Betzler remembers thinking, "No, this is making me a stronger person because I just did psychobabble all weekend with a girl trying to get her back on her feet."

Betzler sent a 19-page memo to principal Strike outlining her concerns. Her suggestions included replacing the "defeat" letter with a copy of the students' tryout score sheet on the eminently reasonable grounds that this would be more in keeping with the school's educational mission and less inflammatory; that the results be mailed, since even the school had acknowledged the problems of handing out results at the end of the school day; that the language about "attractive physical shape" and "trim figure" be removed from school handouts. She included fact sheets on a variety of eating disorders and their associated risk factors.

Strike addressed the issues in a prepared statement delivered to the Press by his secretary: "Regarding the tryouts at Cinco Ranch High School, the tryouts are held in accordance with our KISD drill-team policies. These policies were developed by commissions of parents, administrators and drill-team sponsors." Principal Strike, the secretary said, would be reviewing Mary Betzler's suggestions when the process begins again in several months.

Whatever happens in several months won't likely affect Katie Betzler, since she's got serious doubts about trying out for drill team again anytime soon.

With a fractured pelvis that could require months to completely heal, she's sitting out the rest of her PE dance class on the sidelines. Her peers from the class who made the drill team were moved to another class period, and some of those who didn't make the team have transferred to other classes. Katie says her teacher suggested that maybe she should transfer out too, since she can't dance right now, but by the time the suggestion was made the deadline for transfers had passed. So instead, Katie says, Hankins assigned her a series of three-page reports on choreographers, due at the rate of one, sometimes two, per week for the remainder of the semester, and Katie, who says she's the only girl in her class saddled with the reports, is feeling punished.

"[Hankins's] attitude is I'm useless now, I guess. She's nice to me to my face, but I really feel that that's what she thought: 'Oh, well, you have an injury. Oh, well, I'm going to give you busywork.' "

"That's an important, key point," says mom Mary, who hesitates to lay blame at any particular doorstep. "Perception by the children is everything. I wish everybody would start listening more to the kids. We say, 'Listen to the kids,' but let's really listen to the kids."

And then she listened as Katie was asked if she felt that her tryout for the Cougar Stars had helped "ease her transition from adolescence to adulthood."

Katie laughed, a little shyly: "No."

E-mail Brad Tyer at

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