Often when Jenny Lee goes to a State College Area High School sporting event, she loses herself in the action.
Lee, a special education teacher at the school, doubles as the Little Lion school mascot. Once she slips into the kitty costume, she assumes a new identity — super feline fan, ready to cavort, dance and cheer State High teams to victory.
“I’m there for the students. I’m there for the athletes,” she said. “I don’t even think about being Jenny Lee. I’m just full torque, whatever the sport is.”
For the past 10 years, she has embraced the role, shaking her tail, rubbing her ears and energizing football, basketball, volleyball, hockey, wrestling, and track and field crowds.
“For me, it’s an adrenaline rush,” Lee said. “I don’t think of myself as anything but hyper. I mean, I just hype up unbelievably. It isn’t about me at that point in time. It’s about the athletes that are on the field, on the court, on the ice and on the track.”
But she first donned the outfit for her classroom.
She accepted former Athletic Director Ron Pavlechko’s offer to become the Lion because she saw a chance to expand her students’ horizons. Perhaps they would feel more comfortable attending sporting events if they had a personal tie, she hoped.
During physical education class, she enlisted their help creating routines to solidify the link. Brainstorming led to group dancing — and fun exercising.
“I would say, ‘OK, guys, we have to do some choreography. The Lion’s got to dance. What do you think I should be doing? What should I be moving?’ ” Lee said.
Since then, her plan has worked out as intended.
“They sort of really feel connected to State High in a different way than they had ever felt,” she said.
“We started to go to all the football games, volleyball games, wrestling matches. They felt safe because they knew the Lion. It was a segue for the kids in my classroom to have extracurricular activities and get that State High spirit and understand what it is like to be part of the school population.”
Lee learned something herself. Being the Little Lion carries a heavy burden — literally.
Her lion head is molded to a football helmet. After her first game, she woke the next morning with an aching neck from the weight on her shoulders.
“I talked to the football players and they said, ‘You’ve got to walk around the house with a football helmet on, Jenny, to get your neck used to that,’ ” she said.
She also discovered that running, jumping and twisting inside a padded, furry suit — especially at summer golf tournaments or early-season football games — constitute excellent ways of losing weight.
“It becomes very hot, with a capital H-O-T,” she said. “I’m not a pretty sight when I take the head off.”
It might be worse if she were not a fitness instructor. To stay in leonine shape, she regularly hits the gym for cardiovascular workouts and strength training.
The same goes for students hoping to fill in for Lee occasionally at winter and spring games. She prepares her apprentices as thoroughly as she does herself.
“We look at it like any other sport,” she said. “You can’t just walk out on the field and play football. You can’t just walk onto the field (in the Little Lion suit) and for 21/2 hours run around a football game.”
After one of her first, and best, trainees announced he was ready for the suit, Lee took him to an air-conditioned fitness club for a trial run: 20 minutes of intense aerobics as a headless lion.
“I put him in the suit and after 15 minutes, I looked behind me and he’s kind of like woozy and swaying around,” she said.
Shedding the suit, he eventually recovered and continued the session — the kind of drive that led to working as a mascot for the State College Spikes minor league baseball club and then at his college.
Lee has seen half a dozen of her assistants follow the same path.
“That’s really rewarding for me,” she said. “I mean, ‘Wow, you liked it. You got stronger.’ And then, these kids who have such spirit inside, they’re not afraid to show it. I wish everybody would have that light inside.”
Not only at games does Lee shine. At least a dozen times a year, she’s asked by parents to visit homebound or hospitalized students.
She customarily arrives with a State High T-shirt and a heart full of cheer.
“They know somebody from State High is thinking of them,” Lee said. “And it’s not just the person who is in the Lion. It’s the population of State High and their spirit who have gone to see that individual.”
She sweats buckets and endures sore muscles for those moments, for the smiles and laughs they bring. All the hard work pays off when crowds roar, athletes high-five her paws in thanks and little children crawl across her at charity events.
Short of treading on the ice at hockey games or wearing a wrestling singlet, Lee’s willing to give everything she’s got, even if it means an ice pack that night and a hot bath the next day.
School spirit, she said, tends to rise and fall from year to year. But in her book, it’s a constant.
“I rise above the not-cool ebb, to encourage students to have that kind of fun, to have that light inside,” she said. “We all have it. You just have to let it go.”
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