Rachel Yoder's work has appeared in the New York Times, Sun Magazine, Kenyon Review Online, Cimarron Review, and is forthcoming in Quick Fiction and PANK. This past year, she won 2nd prize in Opium Magazine's 500-Word Memoir Contest, had a piece recognized as a Distinguished Story in Best American Short Stories 2009, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She's taught creative writing to women in rehab, Arizonan undergrads, and Midwestern retirees. Currently, she's an Arts Fellow in the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa.
I Was The Mennonite Kid
The first day of the third grade at Fresno Elementary School, I sat beside a blonde mountain of a girl. Nearly a foot taller than I was, she wore acid-washed shorts and a Bon Jovi t-shirt that featured a slouchy, big-haired band. The longer I sat, the more she seemed to grow, each of her characteristics enlarging her: her brand new Trapper Keeper splayed on her desk, the boxes of every-color markers and perfectly sharpened pencils. Her two long front teeth, straight and notable. Mysterious protrusions that suggested not only a training bra, but the even more mysterious and oft-fabled boobs . Her hair, blonde blonde, and permed. Her bangs, fashioned into a stiff and balanced fan that towered on her forehead like a tiara.
“I'm Nikki Fisher,” she said, sitting on her knees behind her desk. “Who are you ?”
Up until that point, I'd never met anyone quite like Nikki Fisher. The kids at my previous, private Mennonite school-Lake Center Christian-all came from the same deep gene pools: German, Swiss, maybe a little Russian thrown in. The only blonde in my class had been Becky Newman, who was my best friend, and she wasn't Mennonite, but rather some other sort of strict Christian, maybe Baptist. The last names of the other kids in my class, though, read like a role call for a Mennonite Who's Who : Yoder, Miller, Coblentz, Troyer, Raber, Stoltzfus. Our ancestry was solidly middle-European, our locale within the Unites States centrally mid-American, and our stature and demeanors pretty much average, middle-of-the-road. Our hair colors ranged from wheat to mahogany, brownish you could say, and blue eyes were a thing .
Plus, no one would have ever shown up for school, or anywhere else, in a Bon Jovi t-shirt. Never. Ever. Sure, we might have known the lyrics to their songs, but these were words we only ever murmured off-pitch and under our breath while riding bikes far away from home, or silently, into hairbrush handles, in the locked interiors of our bedrooms.
Maybe we could have spun Living On A Prayer as having religious undertones to our sometimes clueless parents, but the “Take my hand, and we'll make it, I swear” line would have betrayed us since Mennonites were not supposed to take oaths, not even any “swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” in a court of law-and especially not with your hand on the Bible, which was considered even more sacrilegious. We were, after all, supposed to be telling the truth all the time and not just when we made special promises.
But Nikki Fisher was wearing her Bon Jovi shirt unabashedly. Me, I was in jam shorts I'd sewn myself, purple and yellow and green with black roses printed over top, a white t-shirt and white tennis shoes. I had buckteeth and an exquisite unibrow, thick dark bangs, and scabby knees.
“I'm Rachel,” I said.
“Well, I like your jams,” Nikki offered.
“Thanks,” I said, relieved she couldn't tell they were homemade.
Even if she and my other classmates didn't know about my do-it-yourself shorts, they did know other things: about my last name, Yoder, which implied Amishness or Mennoniteness or something; whatever they thought wrongly or rightly, they knew I was different. That was all that mattered. Also, and perhaps more importantly, there was the matter of Deer Spring, the reason we had moved in the first place. Deer Spring, an “intentional Mennonite community” my parents called it, compounded my weirdo factor infinitely. We had bought twelve acres and were building a house there above a pretty hillside hayfield amid the ten other Menno-hippie families, families who also had elementary-aged kids: Lief and Hannah one grade ahead of me, Jael and Abbey and Jake and Nathan and Ben peppered in the grades below. Janna Bowman, also a Deer Spring kid, was in my class. She had long red hair and a motor mouth. I was jealous of her last name, Bowman, so innocuous, so benign, so mainstream. If she wanted, she could go undercover, pretend she wasn't even really Mennonite. She could fit in. Me, though. I was stuck with Yoder, the most Amishy of Amish and Mennonite names. I felt I couldn't hide anything.
That morning I examined my new world and calculated how I could make this work, noting what might help me and scouting possible pitfalls. Our third grade classroom wasn't really all that different than the room at Lake Center; it was a bit more institutional-linoleum instead of carpeting, an old metal door with frosted glass in the window, long banks of murky yellow lights on the ceiling. No problem. The most significant difference, however, was the flag that hung ominously in the front corner of the room, and then the other flag outside on the flagpole, whipping and snapping like a carnivorous dino-bird. I'd heard about this thing called The Pledge of Allegiance, from my second grade teacher Mr. Dutcher back at Lake Center when he explained to us why the black metal doodads screwed to the classroom wall held a wooden dowel and hanging plant rather than a flag.
“Mennonites don't pledge allegiance to the country because our first allegiance is to God,” he said in a hushed voice. (This was the same man who had explained to us shouting awesome! about things like recess or Junior Whoppers was inappropriatesince the only thing that could truly fill us with awe-that is, the only entity truly awe inspiring, awe-filled, awe- some , in the purest sense of the word-was Jesus.)
But at 8, I didn't really get what allegiance was; it seemed highly theoretical, and our refusal to pledge more symbolic than practical. I had the sense this sort of thing-not pledging allegiance to the flag on principle, not swearing to anything, eschewing “awesome”from our vocabulary-was rather silly. There were all these invisible ideas swirling around us, and somehow they dictated what we were supposed to do, even though my 8-year old evaluation of real world situations always suggested other, un-Mennonite courses of action. I wasn't concerned with God and theology and ideological conviction; at my new public school, I just wanted to be able to slap my hand over my heart and join the ranks of my patriotic American classmates, swear to God I was so totally not in love with the swarthy and elusive fourth grader Scott Wentz, and then top it all off with my commentary on how awesome I found the newly popular schoolyard game of four-square. I was a survivalist, an opportunist even, which I intrinsically knew was not Mennonite, even though I couldn't have explained to you exactly why.
My plan regarding the Pledge of Allegiance was I'd just press my palm to my chest and mouth the words; this didn't seem to break any Mennonite rules. However, in the weeks leading up to my first day of school, my dad reminded me of Mr. Dutcher's explanation, adding under no circumstances do we pledge allegiance to “the nation state,” which I had only a vague notion of as war-hungry men in tall boots and smart uniforms collected around a highly lacquered table, the image of which situated itself in my imagination somewhere between Star Wars and Nazi Germany. “You can stand up for it, sure,” he explained. “No need to be disrespectful, but no hand over your heart.” His last instruction thwarted my spirit of the law plan and goal to muster a few moments of normalcy before I was found out to be a traitorous Mennonite. I finally resolved to just stand silently during the pledge and hope for the best, that is, that no one would notice.
That morning at Fresno Elementary, Miss Leavengood asked Lance Landon to lead us in The Pledge of Allegiance. We all stood, kids placing hands over their hearts, Nikki doing the same beside me. I scratched my left shoulder with my right hand so as to approximate for the kids behind me the pose of earnest allegiance. Lance started in: “Our Father, who art in Heaven...,” then stopped as everyone started laughing.
“Sorry,” he said, slapping his skull with the heel of his hand. “Mrs. Elliott had us learn The Lord's Prayer in second grade.” Really!? If only I could have switched schools a year earlier, I might have been cool, knowledgeable of The Lord's Prayer frontward and backwards, able to assist in recitation, enunciation, and inflection. I could have pontificated at length about how the Mennonites did not say the final bit of the prayer, the doxology my father called it- “...for Thine is the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory forever”-since this was an add-on by one chump or another, and wasn't in original texts of The New Testament. We just ended it with “deliver us from evil. Amen,” which was fitting since, for Mennonites, evil was pretty much everywhere.
Ah, evil. That first year of public school introduced me to the big, messy, roiling world of evil, which up close didn't seem so scary. In fact, evil seemed fun . All the things which formerly carried a whiff of sin-some of them downright odorous, sure-no longer stunk in public school, but were instead intoxicating perfumes scented with spice and fire, the aroma of hell. But I didn't want deliverance from evil; I wanted immersion: Doritos, Fruit Roll-ups, processed food stuffs of any sort, white sugar, white flour, Oh my God, Jesus H. Christ, the rap lyrics of Salt N Pepa's “Push It,” everything Madonna, MTV, TV in general for that matter, brand name clothing, Nike tennis shoes, finger nail polish that wasn't specifically of the peel-off variety, blue eye shadow, not agreeing with your parents, saying I hated something, believing in Santa Claus, candy and presents and baskets filled with fake purple grass for Easter, Halloween costumes and candy again, a store-bought Barbie cake for your birthday, birthday parties with streamers and party favors, impractical shoes not able to be laundered or polished, singing along to the National Anthem at the beginning of sporting events, buying the popcorn at basketball games instead of taking your own in a brown paper sack, going to the movies, machine-dried clothing, boy-girl school dances, aspirations of cheerleading, mini-skirts.
That first day, however, my elliptical progression through the universe of sin had not yet begun in earnest, as it would in the weeks to come. Instead, as Lance Landon cleared his throat then started in with The Pledge with me still scratching my itchy heart with my right hand, I was guilty only of coveting what my neighbors had: their unified chant to the Republic, and then, after we sat down and the day progressed, Nikki Fisher's Ked tennis shoes, Georgia Hardesty's poodle-like perm, and Elizabeth Greten's steady, the diminutive and doe-eyed Josh Miller who slid smiles to me sideways across the room.
My job that day was one of observation, the compilation of mental wish lists, notes to self on how to minimize my weirdness, Mennonite and otherwise. As Miss Leavengood handed us our textbooks, I noted Tanya Storm's jean jacket and breast pocket covered in small, round pins. Note to self: jean jackets, cool. Wish list: buttons, lots of them. At lunchtime, after we filed by the ladies in hairnets with their steaming vats of iridescent green hot dogs, I slid my coins across the counter, out of sight of the other kids. Lunch Log #1: as far as I could tell, only the mulleted and mutinous Jebb McKee, Betsy Sweetwater who spent half the day in special ed, and a handful of other obviously uncool kids were on reduced-price lunches. Despite my father's no shame in government subsidization , I knew better. Operating Instructions: Pay as quickly as possible, act natural, hope no one noticed. And near the end of the day, when I was learning how to properly handle and fold the flag from the pole outside the window-never hold it upside down, fold it in half longways, then into triangles, stars out-I didn't even have to think twice about what Not To Mention: my Amish grandfather, his conscientious objector status during World War I, my own father's rants against nationalism, patriotism, and all things with even a faint tint of red, white, and blue.
That afternoon, lulled to introspection by math, it didn't seem like the flag or The Pledge were entirelyevil. The kids had chanted “one nation under God,” after all, which seemed like phrasing of which the Mennonites would approve. There was, however, the matter of “The Republic” reference during The Pledge. I imagined Darth Vader's evil empire, his skittering legions of brainless white-helmeted soldiers, his cold metal warship that prowled through deep space. And the end of the pledge, “liberty and justice for all” almost redeemed the whole thing and sounded like a very nice idea to me; even in the third grade though it struck me as not really true. My grandfather had still been sent away to boot camp even though he was a C.O., was an American who had been beaten, mistreated, held against his will. And what about racism? People getting fried to death in electric chairs? The fact a Republican was president? I'd learned all about the ills of the nation during my father's dinner-table State of the Union addresses; not everything was right within our country, despite The Pledge's assertion to the contrary.
Allegiance, liberty and justice, good and evil, holiness, sin, even God-everyone was peddling an idea. Adults seemed to think ideas were very important, stuff we should learn about and believe in . The thing was, I was 8, and I didn't truly care about anything much beyond making new friends, boys, hair, and clothes. Sure, I believed what my parents believed, but that was mainly because I had to or else I'd be in trouble. So what if I decided to say the pledge one day, even if I knew it wasn't entirely true? You compromised. You gave a little. What mattered most was fitting in. At school, I would be an American girl; at home, I'd be Mennonite. I would transform into something from a horror movie, a monstery head with two faces. Here I am, but turn around and it's another me, the same but different, one twin good, one evil. I wanted to learn how to multiply and metamorphose. I wanted to know how to be both different and the same.
“You know, we're neighbors,” Nikki said at the end of the day. In rural Ohio, “neighbors” meant we lived on adjacent township roads, about five miles apart. “We could be friends, I guess. You could come over,” she offered with a shrug of her towering shoulders. She was so tall she could have easily placed her chin on top of my head.
I nodded and smiled. Yes, yes. I would love to be her friend; I could only imagine what riches might await me at her house: unlimited access to daytime soap operas, Twinkies, her very own stereo in her bedroom on which we would blast Bon Jovi while strumming air guitars.
You compromised. You gave a little. This I pledged to the nation of myself, an emerging democracy, a breakaway state.