The Funniest Girl in Class

Adulthood, Childhood, Coming of Age

When my parents went through the requisite empty nester minimalist purge, I was summoned to the depths of their garage, where I was instructed to sift through stacks of tattered moving boxes that contained all my childhood mementos. “I know this stuff is sentimental,” my mother explained in a very unsentimental tone. “But I can’t keep lugging it from place to place.”

The brown Mayflower boxes had been on quite the journey, traveling across no less than a dozen state lines over the last 30+ years. As my family moved so frequently during my childhood, the scratched out Sharpie labels on the sides of the cartons served as a poignant journal of my many life phases:

Barbies

Tapes

Karate trophies

Photo albums/scrapbooks

Photo albums and scrapbooks are by far the most exciting keepsakes to revisit during a storage purge. For the post-9/11 generations, images and scanned documents from one’s childhood are kept in cyber perpetuity. For the rest of us, memories are sandwiched between sticky cellophane sheets, slowly aging at the same pace as the fashion choices they contain. (Culottes. So many culottes.) Nestled beneath the photo albums were at least half a dozen yearbooks and autograph journals. I scanned the scribbled notes from classmates, amused by the hollowness of it all, e.g. “Have a great summer!” and “K.I.T. QT!”

As I continued through the messages, a common theme emerged. Between grade school, junior high, and high school, there were a lot of references to funniness — to my jokes, to the many apparent goofball memories that these pseudo-friends held deep in their hearts during the five seconds it took for them to write it all down and move onto to the next yearbook.

“You’re nutty and I love it! Stay crazy, chica!”

“I’ll always remember that one time you jumped on stage during the grad dance and rapped all the words to Coolio. That was hilarious. KIT!”

“I’ll always remember you, the funniest girl in class!”

The funniest girl in class. As I sat there, mulling over the pages of forgotten sentiment that once carried so much weight in my own validation, I realized that the funny girl quip was more than just a flippant yearbook compliment, it was a strategy, a shield, an identity.

I don’t recall the first time I got a rousing laugh from a group, but I imagine it goes way back. My parents often reminisce on how I was the chubby, smiley baby who couldn’t help but constantly coo and gurgle for fellow patrons in the restaurants and stores. And isn’t that the tale as old as time? Girl dazzles crowd with pithy one-liners to distract them from her thick thighs and rubenesque arm creases. Maybe babies in the 50th percentile can play it cool, but babies in the 99th percentile gotta work twice as hard to earn that love.

And in terms of earning love, as a young woman, there’s certainly a hierarchy of appeal. First it’s conventional beauty, then unconventional beauty (the conventional beauty who is hiding behind her bookish eyewear), then proximity to money-slash-celebrity, then about a hundred other things…and then there’s funny. In a perfect world, a group of guys would have been sitting around in the locker room, drooling over my encyclopedic knowledge of Mel Brooks films. “You know who’s really hot? That Rachel chick. She knows every line in ‘Dumb and Dumber’ and her Gilbert Gottfried impression is sexy as hell.”

Yes, I was the girl who did awesome Gilbert Gottfried impressions in the cafeteria and wondered why I didn’t have a date to homecoming. That’s fine, though. As evidenced by the aforementioned Coolio performance, I didn’t need a date to homecoming. I had nimble dancing shoes and access to a microphone.

Looking back, I acknowledge that having the loudest laugh and the quickest joke was often a defense mechanism. Fire first so no one had a chance to fire at me. Make everything a joke so that nice boy in science class couldn’t get too close. Put a snarky lid over my vulnerability so I always had the upper hand, the power, the control. I was too scared to know what people really thought of me, so I decided early on that I would make myself the quick witted funny girl, without any consideration as to how others might perceive me. 

Wielding humor in this way made me feel safe – safe from judgment, safe from betrayal, safe from disappointment. And while being told by the popular girls and the cute boys that I was the funniest girl in class wasn’t a mark of acceptance, it wasn’t a mark of rejection either.  

Yet, for all the ways that being funny shielded me from the soft, glittering, romantic experiences that many of peers enjoyed throughout adolescence, I cannot overstate the power and joy it has given me as an adult. It has made me a great storyteller, a skill that has helped me in my career as a communications professional. It has helped me make connections and forge strong relationships with the mentors, colleagues, and friends that have been by my side through some of the toughest, most grueling moments of my life. It has helped me be a better mother and wife, as being able to crack a joke or find the levity in the day-to-day challenges makes even the hardest days seem surmountable.

I’m even lucky enough to now be writing and producing comedy here in Chicago alongside two other hilarious women. We bear witness to the important role that humor plays in helping people make sense of an increasingly frustrating world. Today, being “nuttiest chica” is no longer my defense mechanism, but a key component to my empowerment and liberation.

So cheers to the funny girls. May we know them, may we raise them, may we be them. We need them now more than ever.

 

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The Most Hated Girl in Watermelon Culottes

Adulthood, career, Childhood, High School, Motherhood, Self-Help

When I was in 2nd grade, my dad signed me up for recreational soccer with the local park district. This was in the Deep South, so the rest of my girlfriends were either in Girl Scouts or were ballerinas. I, on the other hand, was the awkward girl with very thick plastic prescription goggles and a slobbery mouth guard. I was the only girl on my team, so I had to hustle and endure a bit of teasing to get ahead. But being as though I’ve always been a bit thick-skinned, the downsides to this arrangement were trumped by the euphoria of competition.

Back at school, the boys would organize soccer games on the field during recess. A kid in my class named Darius was the self-assigned captain. One day, I decided to take the skills I had learned in the community league and show them off to my male classmates. Rather quickly, I found myself head-to-head with Darius during a very dramatic scuffle for the ball. Ultimately, I maneuvered the ball away from him, he stumbled and fell, and I scored. The glory of the moment was short lived. As Darius stood up, covered in red Alabama mud, he started to scream, “I HATE YOU! I HATE YOU SO MUCH.” The rest of the boys glared at me. There was no acknowledgement of my awesome moves, just universal distain for the girl who ruined their game by daring to play. The bell rang and we returned to our classrooms. Just as recess had ended, so began my entrance into the world of likability politics.

Scientific research has shown that men and women are liked equally when behaving in a participatory manner, meaning collaborating and sharing in an experience. Yet, when positioned in equally authoritative positions, women are disliked far more than men. Data shows us that high-achieving women experience social backlash for simply exhibiting the very behaviors that nurture success. That’s because those behaviors, such as forcefulness and decisiveness, violate traditionally feminine attributes such as warmth, gentleness, and friendliness. Perhaps it would have been warmer, gentler, and friendlier for me to let little Darius trot around me on that soccer field, allowed to easily score while I shot sunbeams of encouragement and approachability from my eyeballs. Instead, I played fairly, Darius tripped on his own two feet, and I promptly became the most hated girl in watermelon print culottes east of the Mississippi.

And the soccer fiasco of ’91 is only one of many examples in my life where I’ve been caught between wanting to be liked and having an inherent desire to compete and lead. Between the angry letters I got at the high school newspaper office when I was the opinions editor, to the eye rolls and condescending scoffs I experienced during the fiery debates in my political science classes, I am acutely aware of what it’s like to “rub people the wrong way.” And when I tried to shake things up and be the fun, loveable girl, I was nicknamed “ponytail” at my first job out of college, which I hated much more than any of the much more crass names I had encountered when I was my more authentic, bullheaded self. Yet, turns out that “ponytail” gets invited to more meetings and gets more promotions, so that has been the identity I’ve aimed to take on over the course of the last 10 years.

The truth is, as a society, we put a premium on charisma and charm. I mean, okay — when you’re 20, shiny hair and a solid hip-to-waist ratio can go a long way in getting people on your side. But pop out a couple of kids and get some adult-onset acne and you better hope you’ve got a decent personality. That’s why I’ve smiled and played the likability game like a champ. Rational pushback is often replaced with gentile diplomacy. Confrontation is avoided at all costs. Instead, I often take on the laborious task of massaging a harsh message to ensure that the person on the other end of the phone line doesn’t feel attacked or threatened, even though they themselves are the repeat offender of the most egregious of office crimes.

Maybe Dave thinks it’s appropriate to call me five times in two hours, requesting that I do his work for him by end of day. Maybe I want to tell him that his unrelenting disrespect will no longer be tolerated. Instead, I’ll scream in my lumbar support pillow, take a deep breath, and say: “Yes, Dave, really appreciate your rigorous follow-ups and your investment in this project. Moving forward, please kindly note that we typically require a 72-hour review period on such requests. However, given these special circumstances, I will get back to you by close of business. Thanks so much.” This has been my life. Every. Day.

But an interesting revelation has begun to take shape inside of me as I’ve been pondering where I fall along the spectrum of likability. Over the years, when I’ve shirked conflict, I had always convinced myself that it was because I was actually a nice girl who didn’t like confrontation. I always assumed it was the conflict in and of itself that brought me pain. But the truth is that I’m actually a bull in a china shop, trying too hard to be the graceful nice girl. That’s really where the dissonance lies. Likability is a tool I’ve been using to get ahead — because I know it will make me more palatable, not because it’s right or rewarding or even the most effective way to operate in the world.

Some of the women I admire most are the least conventionally “likable” people. Authors Roxane Gay and Lindy West are both prolific feminist writers, thinkers, and internet troll destroyers. They speak truth to power without apology, all the while knowingly alienating thousands of “haters” who think they should mind their mouths and stay in their place. Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, another renowned feminist writer who I deeply admire, once addressed young female writers, saying:
“Society teaches young girls the idea that likability is an essential part of you, of the space you occupy in the world, that you’re supposed to twist yourself into shapes to make yourself likable, that you’re supposed to hold back sometimes, pull back, don’t be too pushy, because you have to be likable…and if you start thinking about being likable you are not going to tell your story honestly, because you are going to be so concerned with not offending, and that’s going to ruin your story.”

This is great advice not just for young girls, but for all of us who want to occupy our space in the world with not just grace and charisma, but with honesty and authenticity. I still struggle with this daily. But as I reflect on that time when I put myself out there with all those boys on the soccer field, motivated only by the same love for the sport that they had, I think about my own daughter, who also happens to be 8 years old. If she came to me today and asked me if she should join the boys on the soccer field, even in the face of the very real chance that she could get teased or even screamed at, I would tell her to go for it, every time.

And that’s my litmus test. If I expect my own daughter to live her life authentically, then I should expect it for myself. At the end of the day, I think I’d rather like who I am and exist in that space alone, then to barter my truth in exchange for being liked by everyone else.

That’s my honest story and I’m sticking to it.

If Woody Allen Starred in Twister

Childhood, Family, Weather

“If you don’t get on that microphone and tell everyone that a tornado is coming, there could be catastrophic consequences,” I shrieked to the receptionist at my office, one dark and stormy weekday afternoon. “No one’s told me to make any announcements,” she replied, flipping through a magazine.“I AM. I am telling you that this is serious!” My voice shook with fear as the clouds outside turned black and began to climb higher into the atmosphere. My eyes darted west to east across the huge skyscraper windows. That’s the direction the storm is moving, I thought to myself. Which corner of the building should I shuttle associates to in order to save them from a gory death of shattered debris? No storm alarms were going off outside, but I knew crisis was imminent.

“Rachel, you’re hysterical!” laughed one of my co-workers. I stared at her with wild eyes – hysterical with fear, yes. Hysterical, as in funny because I was a nervous wreck, was probably what she meant. Either way, I did not appreciate her observation and left her to be swept up into the ravaging winds that would certainly come. The storm began to rage, flashes of lightening and torrential rain wrapped our 40-floor building. Men from the engineering department stood at the window, pressing their foreheads against the glass. They looked down at the flash flooding below, showing very little respect for the force of nature that was surely going to kill us all.

“You guys are not God!” I squeaked, forcing a laugh so they wouldn’t think I was a total freak on the off-chance that we didn’t die and had to come to work the next day. “Maybe we should move away from the windows.” One of the guys asked me what my deal was. My deal? My deal?! My DEAL was that we were under a tornado warning in a tall building, and the only way I could keep from vomiting or peeing my pants was to pace the floor and spit dramatic one-liners to everyone in my wake. Like in the movie Twister, but with Woody Allen instead of Helen Hunt. That’s what it’s like to ride out severe weather with me. 

 

It all started when I was six years old. My family moved down to Alabama from New Hampshire over Christmas break in the middle of kindergarten, a month after the tornado of 1989 wreaked havoc through our new home, Madison County. To acquaint me with our new community, my parents took me and my baby sister on a scenic drive. Nice idea, right? NO, not when houses on that route had been reduced to rubble, and all of the pretty trees on the hillside were flattened like toothpicks. I stared out my window, mouth agape, dazzled and horrified by the impact of this new “tornado” thing I was learning about. “Do you think a tornado will ever come back?” I asked my mom. I don’t remember what she said, but knowing my mom, it was something along the lines of “Probably.”

Fast forward a couple months to kindergarten naptime. I don’t think kindergartners have naptime anymore, but I remember loving those plastic mats that smelled like Clorox and lemon juice. This was in 1990, when many teachers in the south still paused before and after lunch for “prayer or quiet reflection.” As thunder rumbled in the distance, I said a little prayer as I dropped down onto that smelly mat and tried to close my eyes. It had been a particularly trying day. In my opinion, we had spent way too much time working through the “th” sound – like, try to keep up, you guys – so I was eager to get some sleep. 

Just as I dozed off to the sounds of a Peter, Paul, and Mary record, a loud POP sound hit the window above my head. I shot up and looked outside – it was dark as night and a rock had been picked up by the wind and cracked the class. “TORNADO!” I yelled, panicking. All the kids around me who had spent 1% of the mental energy I had on severe weather looked at me very confused.

Our teacher urged us to remain calm. “What’s that sound?” cried one of the little girls near me. It’s a tornado, and it’s going to make this building flat, I wanted to say. But I was too petrified with fear to speak. Sure enough, a voice over the loud speaker instructed us to line up and proceed to the hallway. As we all crouched down on the floor with our hands cradling our heads, I began to sob uncontrollably. “Mommy! Mommy! I want my MOOOOOMMMMMMY,” I yelled. My teacher, probably regretting her decision to take in the neurotic Yankee kid, handed me a wad of toilet paper to wipe my nose. My terror then set off a chain reaction of crying kids.

“What’s going to happen?” the boy next to me asked to no one in particular. I raised my elbow and peered over at him and said, “The tornado is going to make this building flat.” It felt good to finally say it aloud, as if welcoming the concept of death like a little H.P. Lovecraft. We then cried together as the miserable scene continued to play out. I called out for my mom again and again. “Your mommies and daddies are not coming right now,” said my teacher, who, looking back on it now, was kind of an asshole.

Well, little did I know that my mom, also new to tornado etiquette, LEFT our apartment and drove to the school to get me while the sirens blared outside. Like a slow motion airport love scene in an 80s movie, she walked down the dark hallway, covered in mud, while the theme from St. Elmo’s Fire played over the speakers. At that point, I’m sure my teacher just wished we’d move back to New England. Incidentally, ever since then, I have expected my mom to come save me during every severe storm. It’s not really her thing 25 years later, but I still text and call her in unbridled panic every time there’s a warning. It’s probably pretty grating at this point.

Close calls happened over and over again during our 6 years in Alabama. Most notably was the time my mom was picked my sister and me up from school, driving directly into a wall cloud. “It’s just rain,” my mom said, ignoring all the years of meteorological training I had given her as the Weather Channel’s number one fan. No, no, it was not RAIN. It was the beginnings of a funnel cloud spiraling above our heads as we dashed from my mom’s sedan to a small roadside church for protection. I ran behind her with my black flute case above my head to deflect the hail. Yes, a concert flute was my only defense against Mother Nature’s fury, quite possibly the nerdiest way to die. Imagine me in pinstripe overalls, screaming in terror above the howling wind with a flute above my head, and understand my childhood.

Today, I suffer from what fear experts call lilapsophobia. Some might suggest that I am co-opting a real disorder, but I assure you this is not true. I literally go to the bathroom every three minutes during severe storm warnings, just like your old stinky dog who is afraid of thunder.

And what happened after my office meltdown? A tornado actually did touch down a few miles away. It was strong enough to knock down some trees, put out power, and flood local streets for two days. So who was the crazy one? Well, still me, probably. But one day a tornado is going to make your house flat and I’ll be safe and dry in an underground bunker, rocking around in fetal position, listening to Peter, Paul, and Mary.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Culottes

Childhood, Family, Sisterhood

In a modest but tastefully appointed brick home in northern Alabama lived two little moon-faced girls, decked out in coordinating sponge-painted t-shirts and acid-washed ruffle skirts, rifling through a stack of cassettes. “Let’s play Reba,” decided the older girl as she adjusted her round, red, wire framed glasses. “The ‘Fancy’ song.” She popped Reba McEntire’s 1990 album Rumor Has It into a clunky Sony radio/cassette player, fast forwarding to the singer’s now-classic anthem about a young girl ascending from the depths of abject poverty into a lucrative escort career after her terminally ill mother transferred her into the care of an uptown strip joint. “That’s my favorite song!” squealed her little sister, tugging on her polka dot tights.

“I might have been born just plain white trash, but Fancy was my name!” they sang as they jumped up and down on ruffled Laura Ashley-inspired twin beds. Little Southern girls in the 90s had a distinct style – big bows on their heads, patent Mary Janes on their feet, and tales of tequila and betrayal on their tongues. And my sister Stephanie and I have always been nothing if not en vogue.

   Rachel Reindeer Sisters Stephi Rocking Chair

As kids, we couldn’t be more different. I was a dark haired, extroverted, talk-before-you-think type, while she was a blonde, shy, studious type. Four and a half years her senior, I was ever the domineering older child that child psychologists write about. A leader, I’ll call it. Even when my parents told me I’d be a big sister, I had a sense that I would need to guide that little fetus through life, position her for success. I would show her the ropes – how to fetch juice boxes for me and my friends, how always be “it” in hide-and-seek and count to 150 in the pantry while my friends and I found the hardest hiding spots imaginable so she would end up getting really frustrated and crying when she couldn’t find us, and how to always be the backup singer in my imaginary musical groups.

During the summer of my sister’s birth, my entourage and I had formed a prolific New Kids on the Block all-girl cover band but were struggling to fill the Danny Wood spot. This new little sister would be the perfect female Danny Wood, I thought. Sadly, when Stephanie emerged from my mother’s womb, she was small, pink, and wrinkly. Even Danny Wood didn’t deserve that. I was so disappointed. Yet, as a colicky baby, her lungs quickly matured, and a few years later, she was ready to play both guy parts in our Ace of Base tribute band, aptly named Ace of Base Two. She resisted these roles at first, which I didn’t understand. Why wouldn’t a four-year-old girl want to pretend to be a muscular, ambiguously gay Swedish man in a techno pop band? She would be Jonas and Ulf, or be nothing at all. She relented.

culottes-02

Ace of Base Two toured our Alabama subdivision for the summer of ’93 but fizzled out by fall due to creative differences. It was during that turbulent summer, however, that my sister started to wise up to the politics of siblinghood and began to build out her own arsenal of weaponry that she would wield rather proficiently over the next decade.

In 1995, we moved to Florida and were enrolled in a small parochial school with one class per age group all the way up to 8th grade. Having both children in one school is a parent’s dream – after school activities were more streamlined, the parent-teacher community was tighter knit, and your younger kid could be a mole, spying and reporting on the older, more rebellious child’s indiscretions. This was very convenient for my mother, as I slipped into a bit of a bad ass phase around ’96.  Oh, on the drive in to school, I was a picture of buttoned-up nerdiness.  My long, shapeless hair was pulled back taut with a gray scrunchie. “Keep your hair pulled back, Rachel,” my mom said. “So people can see your face!” My face? Eyes that were magnified behind rectangular glasses. Cheeks that were peppered with cystic acne caused by the fresh, new hormones coursing through my adolescent blood.

culottes-01

“You look so cute,” my dad said, as he watched me slide out of the backseat in the knee-length, navy blue uniform culottes that I paired with clunky Airwalk sneakers and a JanSport backpack featuring an assortment of parent-friendly punk rock iron-on patches.  I waved goodbye to car and walked my sister to her 2nd grade classroom. As soon as she was gone, it was goodbye, nerd and hello, hottie. As a sax solo played, down came the hair, off came the extremely necessary prescription glasses, and up went the hem of the culottes as I awkwardly rolled the waistband into what certainly looked like an inner tube of stiff fabric. I sashayed my way to homeroom like the squinty love child of Blossom and Gilbert Gottfried, excited to impress my friends with my femme fatale allure.

Yet every time I emerged from my cocoon, there was Stephanie, peering out from the behind the lockers, mentally scribbling her daily reports in her mental notebook like Harriet the Spy. My mother’s very own double agent.

Steph Diary

(My sister’s actual diary entry – May 3, 1996)

“MOM SAID YOU HAD TO WEAR YOUR HAIR BACK,” she hissed at me as she and her 7-year-old buddies walked by us on the way to gym.

“OOOOO! MOM SAID YOU’RE NOT ALLOWED TO ROLL UP YOUR SHORTS,” she called out to me as I was clumsily flirting with a boy that usually hated me but was clearly admiring my newly exposed kneecaps.

“HEY. WHERE ARE YOUR GLASSES?” she asked accusingly as she strolled by on her way to Wednesday chapel. I couldn’t see a damn thing but I knew that judgmental little voice anywhere.

“I thought you said you got contacts, Rachel,” spat one of the mean girls who was popular because her boobs grew disproportionately faster than the rest of her body parts.

This, among other offenses perpetrated by both parties, led to many after-school fights.

And when we fought, it wasn’t the girly sighs, foot stomping, “talk to the hand” nonsense of our peers. It was WWE Raw meets Real Housewives, with all the chokeholds of the former mixed with the emotional warfare of the latter. As quickly as I was able to apply an Indian burn to her forearm, she was just as quickly able to blackmail me with an inappropriate handwritten note she was able to skillfully obtain from my backpack the day prior. Screams were supersonic, piercing the balmy night’s sky, giving my father a veritable ulcer and a sense of cosmic retribution for some past dark deed he committed in some other life.

Yet, as often as we were at odds, we were also thick as thieves, spending hours and hours perfecting cannonballs in our pool, eating Dairy Queen flurries and watching Blockbuster movies on summer nights, making up original comic characters in secret sketches in the living room. Humor has always been the strongest common denominator between us, the thread weaving through all of life’s stages and growing pains. Sisters who watch Mel Brooks together, stay together, after all. While other girls were reenacting Coyote Ugly, my sister and I were lampooning Coyote Ugly and quoting Blazing Saddles and Best in Show.

Time sped along. I left town for college and my sister became more engrossed in her music studies at her performing arts high school (yes, it was just like Fame, except with way more Asian students). Our family relocated to Chicago. I got my own apartment and entered the corporate workforce. Stephanie went to college down in Nashville and became a bohemian singer-songwriter. Dairy Queen and evening movies were replaced by texts and check-in emails. We both came of age awkwardly, facing off with parents who were having a hard time accepting their daughters’ impending adulthood, as well as our own issues with a scary new world of fiscal responsibility, artisanal cheeses, and long-term relationships. Boyfriends came and went, all subject to sisterly judgment as scathing as the End Times. Some were bad, others abhorrent.

I knew my husband was the jackpot as he met my sister’s immediate and gracious approval.

He and I went on to produce two kids, also four and a half years apart — just like my sister and I had been. Our daughter is a spitting image of me, with all the sass to match. Our son is a serious, stubborn little whirlwind who, in many ways, is like my husband. Still, as I watch my daughter dance around the living room, giving choreography instructions to her little brother as he bounds around happily beside her, my mind wanders back to that moment during the summer of ’93 when my sister pretended to be a Swedish beefcake keyboardist because she loved her big sister.

I can only hope for that kind of love between my own children.

siblings

Illustrations by Kelly Riker