Guideposts Classics: Sandy Duncan on Learning from Pain

In this Guideposts Classic, Sandy Duncan touts the value gained from painful lessons.

- Posted on Aug 14, 2014

Sandy Duncan

Last year when I went back to visit my family in the old home town–Tyler, Texas–I went to a party at which someone came up to me and said, "Sandy, you probably don't remember me, but..."

Peggy Boocock. Peggy Boocock from my class in Hogg Junior High. Because I'd been away from Tyler a long time, she figured I had forgotten.

But how could I forget, forget Peggy or Josie Caldwell or Alice Lee Swapp or Phyllis Semple or any of those girls who were a more important part of my life than they knew?

I remember Peggy best from the spring when I was 15 years old and life was more packed and more frantic and more normal than probably it will ever be again.

I remember the closing weeks of our eighth-grade year when most of my energy and seemingly all of my hopes were centered on one important goal: I wanted to be one of the six girls selected as cheerleader for the next football season.

Of course, now it seems amusing to think that this could have been the most important thing in the world to me, but at the time there was nothing amusing about it. Everybody at school took it seriously. Football was important. What happened to our Razorbacks was of prime importance.

If I won the competition, I would go away to a special summer clinic for cheerleaders where we would be taught the finer points of whipping a crowd into a frenzy of enthusiasm, and in the fall I'd go to all the games and be in on all the parties and pep rallies.

Furthermore, being a cheerleader meant that you'd hit the top. It guaranteed you popularity in your class, in your crowd.

To tell the truth, I really didn't have a crowd. I think I was not exactly unpopular, but in the lunch room I always seemed to be sitting with an "un-in" group, often a group of two.

In those days my "best friend" was probably my grandfather, Jeff Scott. Jeff–I always called him that –was my one strong ally, and in anything as important as becoming a cheerleader, you needed all the encouragement you could get.

At home my parents watched my feverish pursuits with varying enthusiasms. Dad, who still operates a gas station there in Tyler, was a solid man–he's part Cherokee Indian–with a great sense of humor, and it made him smile, I think, to see me twirling about the house shaking my pompons.

Mom's temperament was different from Dad's. She was the artistic one. I think she was afraid I wouldn't make the most of any creative talent I might possess, so it was Mom who was behind my debut in a dance recital when I was five.

It was Mom who watched me at my ballet lessons in the American Legion hall where we'd use the edge of a poker table for a practice bar. It was Mom, even though she herself had been a drum majorette in one of her schools, who had quiet doubts about my being a cheerleader.

"But I can win it," I'd tell her. "I have timing and rhythm. I can jump higher than the other girls."

"Maybe I'm just a little afraid of that," Mom would say. I knew what she was referring to. My ballet teacher, Utah Ground, had warned that I might misuse some of the leg muscles so specifically trained for dancing.

And so it was that more and more I'd seek out Jeff. He was a lovable man, blond and slender, little like me, with a pied-piper personality. At that time he had the night watch at an oil field outside Overton.

I'd go out to see him and we'd sit together in a work shack called the "dog house" and he'd whittle on a stick and we'd talk until he had to go out and do something about one of the pumps.

Jeff loved politics, and to tell stories, and though he was amazingly well-read, he was always jumbling up his quotes. "As the Bible says," he'd tell me, "'To thine own self be true.'" Or, "Ralph Waldo Emerson said a mouthful when he declared that 'God is our refuge and strength.'"

He may have mixed up the name tags but the product was always solid. "You'll get no junk from Jeff," he used to say to me, and he was right.

Some 40 girls were trying out for cheerleader. On the morning of the competition, the bleachers of the school gym were filled, not just with students, but with parents as well. It was a big event.

One by one we were announced, and then each girl had to run out into the center of the gym and give a solo performance.

"Sandra Duncan!" the announcer boomed, and I bounded out, bursting with personality, showing all my dancer's tricks, whirling and swaying and shouting:

"Gimme an 'H'

Gimme an 'O'

Gimme a 'G'..."

And then a fantastic jump, coming down to a dazzling split at the end.

I knew I was good, and the applause verified it. Then we had to go back to our home rooms to wait interminably for the decisions. Finally, the public address system crackled and I sat frozen at my desk while the six outgoing cheerleaders began to speak.

"Hi, this is Alva Bloomquist. The girl who is taking my place as cheerleader next year is Peggy Boocock!"

"Hi ... and the girl who's taking my place is ... Phyllis Semple." Phyllis was in my home room, and she whooped and jumped up and the kids applauded while she ran out of the room to claim her victory.

Alice Lee Swapp ... Josie Caldwell ... Jane Brandt.

They said later I placed seventh. It didn't matter; that didn't make me a cheerleader. I was dazed. Out in the hall between classes, Tom Stokes was waiting for me. Tom and I were going together. We were barely in the hand-holding stage but he was my boyfriend. Tom squeezed my hand. "Sandy, I'm sorry."

"It doesn't matter," I said. "It just doesn't matter." Then I hurried off to class. But it did matter. The rest of the day was a torture and when I left school that afternoon I wanted never to go back there again.

At home Mom was gentle with me and Dad said that the important thing was that I had done my best. But it was Jeff whom I wanted to see. I found him at dusk in the dog house, the thick smell of petroleum and the churning sound of machinery all around us.

"Oh Jeff," I said, burying my head in his chest and letting the tears flow. "I worked so hard and I wanted it so much. Why didn't I win?"

You would have thought that Jeff himself had been out there in the gym trying to be a cheerleader, that he too had lost out. We were two of a kind and as for why we had failed, there was no answer between us. "But it hurts, doesn't it," he asked.

I nodded. "The awful thing is it's probably going to hurt for a long time, maybe always."

I was horrified to think that I might have to endure what I was feeling then for the rest of my life. But Jeff wasn't giving me any junk, and I knew it.

"Listen, honey," he said, "I know a proverb you ought to be thinking about. It's just four words, but I've tested these four words in my own life, and I can tell you they're true."

Curious, I lifted my head from his lap and looked into his serious face. Then, as though it were a secret for my ears alone, he told me the four words that sounded too simple and too cute to be profound.

"No pains, no gains."

Hogg Junior High is a good many years in the past now, and though I smile a little, I still hurt a little when I think about not making cheerleader. Yet over the years I've done some testing of my own with Jeff's four words, and he's right, of course–they're true.

Easy living doesn't strengthen us, our muscles don't develop without the soreness from stretching them, and pain seems to be part of God's design for our lives from childbirth to growing pains to all the hurts that find us, though we don't know why.

I haven't liked the recent shock of my television show's sudden closing notice, or the misery of a failing first marriage or the unbelievable pain of the tumor that took the sight of my left eye a year ago. But I do not believe that these things have come without reason.

I have come to respect the anguish of mind and body. Today I'm more aware of living than I ever was, and more grateful. I think I'm more aware of other people and what they are feeling, and I know that when I'm thinking of them, I worry less about myself.

If Jeff were here today (he's not; he died ten years ago while out in the woods reaching up for some branches to whittle on), I'd tell him about a proverb that I, his own little granddaughter, discovered along the way: "There's nothing evil about pain, unless it conquers you."

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