It was the very beginning of Harry Styles’ solo career when I entered a contest to go to one of the listening parties of his debut album.
I completely forgot about it until I got an email six days before the release of the album telling me I’d been selected to go! I’d never won any contests before for anything Harry, One Direction, or even music-related — so I was over-the-moon excited. The only issue was: I would have to miss a day of cheer practice.
I didn’t anticipate this to be an issue since we were just working on basic drills and skills for the new team we just had tryouts for. I let my advisor know I would be missing that day for an event. She left me on read, so I assumed she knew and eagerly set off to the Columbia Records offices.
I felt like a VIP being let into the gate by security and getting a printed-out visitor sticker with my name. I sat down in that conference room with other fans to listen to my favorite singer’s debut album and even had a little chat with the employees and other fans there. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to get to listen to the album early, and I was buzzing with the knowledge that I had heard something so highly anticipated that only a handful of others had.
The album was incredible (of course), and I couldn’t keep up with the overload of information enough to remember which songs were which from the tracklist. I went home on cloud nine, excited to share my experience with my friends and talk about it on Twitter.
I went back to practice the next day to a huge shock: They had picked stunt group positions for the year, and I was placed as a base (the person lifting the flyer) when I had spent the previous year as a flyer (the person being thrown in the air).
This new development caught me completely off guard as there was no talk about picking groups on that particular day nor had my advisor said anything — or even replied to my message when I said I would be absent. The previous year I was a flyer and also on the competition team, so I was confident in my skills and abilities. I knew we had a lot of new members that would be good flyers, but I thought my position was guaranteed as a more senior member. This made no sense as I already had a year of experience as a flyer and would have to completely relearn my position, as would the new member taking my place.
There was nothing I could do, so I stuck it out and spent the summer as a base while I knew I would be a better asset to the team as a flyer. At the end of the summer practices, I knew in my heart I wasn’t right for this position, but I felt like there was nothing I could do. I struggled long and hard with whether I should leave the team after routines had already been finalized and lose a dream of mine to be captain, or stick it out for the next few years. We had grueling evening practices after a long school day and homework waiting for me at home, as well as eight-hour Saturday practices and competitions. But I loved the feeling of being in the air, hitting a stunt, and the adrenaline of performing in front of a crowd, so I felt these hours were worth it.
Back in middle school, I had really felt like I’d found my family in the middle school dance team. Most of the cheer team members who were in my grade I had known for two years since we had been on the dance team together as well. Yet I never felt truly welcome or a part of the group. I was left out and sitting on the side at the beginning of practice when they would talk together. The friends I ate lunch with even had a group chat that I wasn’t in. I brushed it off, but it hurt to know I was being excluded in such an obvious way.
Once, someone called me “LingLing,” which I thought was a joke to which I replied that my name was Megan — which was also mocked and laughed at. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back it might have been mocking my name or my heritage. Growing up in a predominantly Asian neighborhood, it unsettled me but never crossed my mind that it could be offensive. It wasn’t until years later that I found out “LingLing” was a racial slur, and, although I’m sure my teammates didn’t mean to hurt me, it did sit weirdly in my mind for the next few days.
The entire summer, I listened to Harry Styles by Harry Styles and became more active on Twitter, becoming friends with other Harry fans. I formed some close bonds and made friends with people who lived outside our little bubble. I found a whole new part of the world and realized that maybe I didn’t need those girls who purposely left me out of gatherings and group chats. After discussing it with my family, I decided to leave the team due to the change in position as well as the financial cost. But of course, there was another factor: the toxic and unwelcoming environment.
In hindsight, it wasn’t a healthy environment for me both mentally and physically as I sustained a few bad falls and pulled back injuries which left me unable to walk properly for a few days. I would come home after practice tired and upset, going to sleep in the early hours of the morning after completing my homework. I would listen to “Sign of the Times” and cry with my dog as a reminder that it would be alright eventually.
The next fall in school, it was quite awkward as all my friends were on the cheer team and I wasn’t, but I was still supportive of them while they rarely asked about me. I never truly felt like a part of the group and my departure from the team only made it more clear. I trudged through a year of awkward lunches where they would barely say two words to me, and I spent most of it on Twitter or skip eating with them altogether in favor of the library or occasionally with other friends. This all happened as I was watching live streams from around the world of Harry Styles’ first arena tour and bonding with my newfound friends over tour videos and Harry’s outfits.
At least I could look forward to my Harry Styles concert in July and had my Twitter friends to confide in. These strangers who I didn’t know a year ago now knew more about me than the people I had known for years. By the end of my sophomore year, I felt ready to move onto a new environment both academically and socially; the teachers and classes were lacking, and I dreaded going to school when I used to love it. The social environment felt like a never-ending cycle of drama and pettiness that I thought only existed in movies.
I decided to take a high school exit exam that summer that if I passed I would attend community college in the fall. My parents were hesitant at first but upon further discussion, they agreed as it would allow me to get a two-year jumpstart on my college education. I had to find my footing among older students and a more rigorous curriculum, but I fit right in and found the environment so much more productive and friendly than in high school. I made new friends and joined new clubs all with the support of my trusty online friends and Harry’s music, interviews, and live performances.
Now, three years after Harry’s debut album was released, I have been to five of Harry’s concerts and even flew to Denver to meet an online friend at his show. I am transferring to a four-year anniversary in the fall with a 3.92 GPA, and I am happy to say that my mental health is so much stronger than it was three years ago. Twitter encouraged me to seek help, and I have a strong support system of friends I know I can talk to about anything at any time (literally with the time zone differences).
I don’t think I would be as strong and confident as I am today if I was still at that high school or on the cheer team, and it’s all thanks to Harry Styles and the luck I had of attending his listening party.
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