Tales of a Second Grade Spitfire

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It’s January. ‘Tis the season of motivation!

Gone are the days of trendy diets and “scientifically proven” workout regimens. A generation ago, January represented an uptick in gym memberships. Today, January is the time to read up on your Love Language, determine your Enneagram, and start practicing yoga – not to trim your thighs, of course, but rather to cleanse your chakras and recalibrate your mind’s eye.

The zeitgeist of today is dripping in New Age affirmations and I’m lapping it up like a kitten with her face in a saucer of organic nut-based milk.

“LOOK DEEP INSIDE YOURSELF!” the chorus cries out. “THE ONLY STRENGTH YOU NEED IS ALREADY INSIDE OF YOU!” The idea is here is that if you can bushwhack through the tangled jungles of past traumas and toxic cultural narratives, you will ultimately find a sparkling jewel of self-realization.

Unfortunately, this has been my sticking point.

Just look inside yourself!

Okay, bumper sticker on a Subaru. I’ll just go and do that, as if Maya Angelou and Joan of Arc are simply wading about in the deepest cavities of my soul, just waiting to be fished up and sic’d on whatever egregious stressor is ruining my day. Maybe if I cough hard enough, a hairball containing a collection of Brene Brown mantras will come tumbling out.

I’m irritated that as a 36-year-old woman living the 2020, I need to be encouraged to dig deep for strength in the first place. After all, I’ve felt the burn of not one but two human skulls tearing through my cervix in the last decade. I assembled an IKEA entertainment system all by myself with nothing but $3 Trader Joe pinot noir in my blood and Michael Buble’s 2005 seminal album “It’s Time” in my ears.

I’m a survivor! I’ve seen some shit!

In some ways, the misadventures of adulthood have added a layer or two of scaly protection atop my thickened skin. I’m usually adept at letting certain cruelties and injustices roll off me and I credit that to normal life experience. But in many ways, I’m softer now than I was as a little girl.

As I’ve discussed before, contrary to the popular belief that all little girls are conditioned to be docile, apologetic conformists who grow up to be shrinking violets who get passed up for promotions, I feel like I’ve long been running on the lingering fumes of my younger self.

Truth be told, 8-year-old Rachel was a stone cold broad. So, if I must dig deep to unearth the inner strength needed to power through this cruel world, then I’m digging a tunnel straight to 1991.

Second grade. My punk rock year.

They say well-behaved women seldom make history. Well, second grade was probably my worst year, behaviorally, and the closest I’ve ever been to a true, scorched earth renegade. I hate to admit it, but I may have peaked when I was 8.

Let me just start by explaining that in 1991, I looked a bit like George Costanza if he was an American Girl doll. I just think it’s important for you to have that visual as we dive into my salacious past.

It all started with a note that needed to be signed by my parents. I don’t remember if I didn’t want her to see it or if I had simply forgotten to get the signature and realized it was due that day, but either way, that day at school, I made the split-second decision to forge my mom’s signature.

I gripped that Lisa Frank pencil with a determination as fiery as a thousand suns and signed my mother’s name with these giant, sophisticated swooping loops never seen before that day and never seen since. It was a masterpiece. Did it look like my mom’s signature? No. Did it even look like a signature? Not really. I had not yet been taught cursive, so it was more like a sloppy sketch of a sideways snowman.

But I owned it. I believed in it when no one else did – namely my teacher, Mrs. Carter.

When she confronted me, I told her that my mother gave me verbal authorization to sign on her behalf while she was in the shower. This was just how we chose to manage business in our home, I explained. She relented. At the time, I thought she bought it. Now I just realize that she probably hated her job because of tyrants like me and had finite battles that she wanted to fight. Mrs. Carter had likely already given up on my entire generation.

No matter. I had already tasted the sweet, sweet nectar of rebellion and it was time to up the ante.

At first, I kept it small. When I was instructed to vacuum my room, I did so, but without actually turning the vacuum on. I made the vacuum lines on the carpeting but didn’t clean up any of the mess. The fact that I still did the manual labor of vacuuming was irrelevant. The dirt was still there and hence, I was sticking it to the man.

THAT’S RIGHT, MOM, LOOK UPON MY FILTH!

Other times, I would pretend to eat everything on my plate but I was actually spitting it into my napkin in small increments, disposing of those steamed vegetables with the stealthy precision of the world’s deadliest assassins.

YES, FATHER, MY CLEAN PLATE AWARD WAS BUT A SCATHING SYMBOL OF MY EVIL GENIUS!

But my boldest moment came after listening to an angry tirade about the war on Christianity by 90s conservative radio darling Rush Limbaugh while in the car with my dad. There was a war! What a revelation. And here I thought war was over. We were fresh on the heels of the Gulf War and many of my friends’ parents were just returning home from that. But according to Rush Limbaugh, there was still a war on Christianity. And, according to the sing-a-longs at Vacation Bible School, I was in the Lord’s army. As a young, moon faced Lutheran white girl wearing outlet mall Reeboks, I realized I was being oppressed and it was time to rise up and revolt.

I woke up the next morning, strapped on my armor – orange floral Oshkosh overalls, naturally – and headed out to the battlefield. The state of things proved confusing in the context of Mr. Limbaugh’s grave warnings. The world around me was still strangely Christian-friendly. People still said “bless you!” after a sneeze, church parking lots still appeared full, and at school we still enjoyed a 60-second prayer break before lunch. (I mean, it was the Deep South.)

Clearly the cowardly enemy had to be coaxed out of hiding!

Suddenly, what started as my earnest attempt to be a crusader for Christ became a concerted effort to wield religion as a weapon of power and shame.

As we stood in line in the cafeteria, the twisted stench of country fried steak and okra swelled. Satan and his minions were taunting me and it was time for a strategic counterstrike. I lifted my arms up and gave the entire student body the middle finger. Double middle fingers, in fact! The most egregious of hand gestures.

My classmates were beside themselves. “Mrs. Carterrrrrrrr! Rachel’s giving people the birrrrrrd!” What a bunch of little narcs, and they were playing right into my plan. Predictable.

Poor Mrs. Carter, who just wanted to eat her thermos of room temperature casserole, walked towards me. “Rachel…” she said. It was more of a breathy exhalation than a word spoken. She was sick of my crap.

“Mrs. Carter, where in the Bible does it say, ‘Thou shall not give people the bird,’” I interrupted.

That was it. That was my big play. She and I both knew there were no references to flipping people off in the Bible. The public school system was here to oppress me with man’s law, not God’s law, and I would not let them police my body and my freedom of expression with their secular strictures. And fortunately, she didn’t really have an answer to my badass hardball.

“Please just…stop.” She shuffled away dejectedly, back to her casserole and her dreams deferred.

Once empowered by the Holy Bird Flip of ’91, I proceeded to tote my Bible all over school, dramatically placing it over every textbook in the curriculum, eagerly waiting for someone to try to stop me, for the war to ignite. I treated every class like it was the Second Virginia Convention and I was Patrick Henry. “Give me liberty or give me death!”

I was like a little William F. Buckley, waiting for her Gore Vidal.

Of course, Gore Vidal would never come. The war I was anticipating never happened. Second grade ended and I’m pretty sure Mrs. Carter flew to the Maldives that summer and never returned. And I never listened to Rush Limbaugh again.

I grew up to become the woman I am today – relatively accomplished and extremely driven, but a lot less apt to take a stand on the matters that give me heartburn. I avoid confrontation at any cost and absorb any angst or discomfort in other people – pulling it from them and making it my own, all in the name of harmony.

And while I obviously have no interest in being the fundamentalist juggernaut I was for that short period nearly 30 years ago, I do yearn for that no holds barred attitude.

That little girl still lives inside of me. Ready to fight when the cause demands. A passionate spitfire who won’t be steamrolled and is more proactive than reactive.

And when the going gets tough, she knows that a couple well-timed middle fingers are just what the world needs.

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