In the sixth grade I was chased home by
the Gatlin kids, three skinny sisters
in rolled-down bobby socks. Hissing
Brainiac! and Mrs. Stringbean!, they trod my heel.
I knew my body was no bi deal
but never thought to retort: who's
calling who skinny? (Besides, I knew
they'd beat me up.) I survived
their shoves across the schoolyard
because my five-foot-zero mother drove up
in her Caddie to shake them down to size.
Nothing could get me into that car.
I took the long way home, swore
I'd show them all: I would grow up.
Combining the powerlessness of childhood with the biting shame of being unable to stand up for yourself to your bullies, Rita Dove expresses here what so many children have always felt: I will show them, I will be better than you all. This is addressed not only to her bullies, the Gatlin kids, but also to her mother, who like the bullies, uses force to coerce, even though it is in defense of her daughter.
The embarrassment from having your mother come to your defense is completely palpable, and something most can remember. We so want to be able to fight our own battles when we are young, even if we are powerless to do. We're made powerless by bullies, whether it's the mean neighborhood kids, or in the case of the Gatlin kids, made powerless by someone's mother. Dove sees those two uses of force similarly. She wants to "grow up" and be bigger than all of them. Dove also makes herself powerless through self-rationalization. She never fought back against her bullies because she "knew they'd beat" her up. Whether it's true or not, she allowed their power to control her, and she knew it, making it hurt all the more. I think that's where the rejection of her mother's forceful help comes from, that sense of known injustice. She doesn't want to participate in it, but rather she wants to escape it.