Struggles to fit in and inspiring teachers — watching Cheer brings my teen heartache flooding back

Rob Rinder
Rob Rinder: Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures L

Never heard of Corsicana, Texas? Nor had anyone else, until Netflix’s Cheer brought its elite cheerleading team tumbling, stunting and jumping to an unprecedented international audience. Over the course of the six episodes , Cheer marries the heart-stopping athletic wow of Cirque du Soleil with Brokeback Mountain mascara-chic, and thus creates the most intense and joyous docuseries in living memory.

At the centre of the maelstrom of broken bones and tears stands coach Monica Aldama. Everything about her screams CEO, but it is the relatively obscure sport of ultra-elite competitive cheerleading which has become her raison d’être. Monica is a small town, capital C Christian Conservative. She’s part Mary Poppins, part Margaret Thatcher and part Michelle Obama packaged in Texan Protestant poise with perfect eye shadow.

For Aldama, every young athlete in her squad is one of her kids. She takes their success and failures, their struggles personally. She argues with her pastor about her gay protégés (“they’re my boys”) and, behind her rarely-seen inscrutable smile, sets impossibly demanding standards with staggering results. Morgan Simianer, a talent abandoned to live with her young brother in a trailer, finds in Aldama a much-needed inspirational mother figure, she “would happily die” to please.

Watching Cheer cast my mind back to life as a lost, portly teenager with a middle-aged soul at my state school. Until I met Mrs Wendy Cornish, my attempts to fit in had felt like trying to shove a round pink peg into a square beige hole.

Mrs Cornish and I began to have coffees in her little office, which gave me a space where I could finally be myself at school. For a struggling young adult like me, one dedicated mentor turned my daily horror into a safe, inclusive and joyful space. When I left the school at the end of my GCSE year, the withering conclusion of my head of year read like a Noël Coward review without the charm or wit; “Robert could do alright at something if he sets his mind to it I suppose.” Not a single teacher had ever proposed I had any academic future.

Then, on a Friday morning the quietly charismatic Mrs Grice looked at me and said, “you’re really bright”. She meant it. I re-evaluated my entire sense of what I was capable of in light of her confidence. Just like Aldama, Mrs Grice expected something from me and so she helped me discover my self-discipline and gifted me a love of learning that I had never possessed and have never lost. I often think about Mrs Grice and Mrs Cornish and their impact on me in the context of what it’s actually like to be a teacher nowadays. It’s appalling that teacher salaries in the UK were 10% lower in 2018 than in 2005. That’s one scratch on the surface of the thankless grind teachers face.

Everything about Monica screams CEO yet she has chosen cheerleading coaching as her raison d’être

Aldama’s expectations of her squad revolutionise their inner worlds and enable every team member to achieve the seemingly impossible. Mrs Cornish and Mrs Grice did this for me and I will never be able adequately to thank them.

These are the inspirational figures we need to continue to attract to teaching. They have the power to shape our young people. This potential will be lost unless we pay and support our teachers according to the huge impact they have.

I’m on the vagina candle waiting list

As soon as I heard Gwyneth Paltrow was flogging candles that “smell like her vagina” I just had to have one. It’s not that I was especially interested in the scent (apparently it’s geranium juxtaposed with Damask rose), I just wanted to conscript my house guests into a fun “guess the scent” game.

Gwyneth Paltrow attends the goop lab Special Screening in Los Angeles, California (Getty Images)

Think a twist on charades. I’d light my candle and then mime an old Brad Pitt movie (The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button would work), then perhaps a Chris Martin song (Yellow?), along with a sign I’ve yet to work out (I’ve texted my friend Lesley for help). The first person to shout out “That’s the smell of Paltrow’s muff!” would win. Oh, what fun it would be.

But sadly the website has totally sold out, with sales boosted by Gwynnie’s new Netflix show The Goop Lab. So now I’m on a waiting list.

I do hope it arrives soon. I can’t wait to invite people over for the guessing game. In the meantime I’ll have to prepare by watching her TV show.

No soggy bottoms on my Bake Off

The cat is finally out of the bag — or, more accurately, the self-raising flour is finally out of that thing people keep flour in. Yes, I am doing Bake Off for Stand Up To Cancer on Channel 4.

My rivals for star baker include Louis Theroux, Carol Vorderman and Love Island’s Ovie Soko but I’m sworn to secrecy about everything else. I can’t tell you who I face on my episode but I can say — without question — that you will be delighted, amazed and even inspired at the quality of the baking. Soggy bottom? I don’t think so.