CStreetlights Clothes Matter

When I Realized Clothes Meant More Than Me

I really love clothes. Or I did, anyway, until somehow that became not okay. But that’s another topic, the shame that’s thrown onto survivors for loving things that’s just for them.

Anyway. I wore a red satin skirt to work once.

That’s it. That’s all I got. I wore a red satin skirt and the school imploded. It wasn’t ready for satin, or red, or the sassy little gold chains at the hips. Or something.

My administrator asked me to come into her office two days later and I found myself being reprimanded for wearing not only this skirt but also another dress with a neckline that was too low. I had not received any parent complaints, this was just her way of “looking out for me.” Of course, she couldn’t leave the reprimand there, she had to continue by saying that everyday when she “holds her breath, worried about [I] was wearing that day.”

Because apparently I come to school ready to teach dressed as a stripper or a Hollywood prostitute.

I was not being written up, there was nothing that she could write me up on — and this was all just friendly advice, anyway. She was just looking out for me. I was stunned. We had been friends for years. She was my mentor teacher from the start of my career and she had just belittled me over… clothes? That were not even inappropriate?

As I walked out of her office, she called out to me, “Why don’t you spend the weekend shopping for new clothes? You seem to enjoy spending your money on that.”

All I could do was turn to her and stare. I rarely gape, but I think I might have actually gaped. It’s amazing how years of friendship and loyalty could easily be cast aside once a person is put into a leadership position.

Missing Pieces

As always, there were two sides to this experience that my administrator did not know. The first, and most related to the red satin skirt had to do with what I was teaching my 9th grade English students at that point in time. We were reading The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, a book written in vignettes and told in a young Latina’s point of view about growing up in Chicago. The student population is approximately 90% white, and my students were struggling to understand — and care — about the book. They were especially judgmental about the characters and how they are characterized. I don’t necessarily blame my students — they had a very limited world view based on where they live and I was challenging a very simplistic way of thinking for them.

The week before I was called into the principal’s office, I asked one of my classes: “Is it fair to assess the value of someone’s worth just by looking at them?” Some students said no, but others fell back on the idea that first impressions are a good indicator of who someone is right away. They used words like “instinct”, and “hunch”, or a “gut feeling”. I followed up with the question, “But what if someone’s outward appearance or first impression doesn’t match what that person’s actual ability is? What then?” Again, the discussion ranged between the extreme (“The person can’t be trusted if they aren’t the same inside and out.”) to the mild (“Well, I guess I should pay better attention because I can’t even remember people’s names.” But I wanted to know if they would apply the same ideas from our discussion, to the book, to real life. So altered my clothes.

I wanted to see if my students who judged the characters from House on Mango Street so harshly for their appearance (and therefore their circumstances) would do the same to me. Would my red satin skirt somehow negate my years of experience teaching? My advanced degrees? My professional status? So far they had ignored my own Latina heritage, but why had they?

The other side of the coin was my mental health. All the while my administrator was apparently holding her breath over what I was wearing each day, she should have been grateful I was even showing up each day. My anxiety disorder had reached such unhealthy levels that I would wake up several hours earlier so I could have enough time to have an anxiety attack before getting ready for work each day. The mockery she displayed in how much I loved clothes and doing my hair and makeup, in reality, was how I coped with even getting out of the house.

To keep my anxiety under control, I would have to prepare myself for the day in this order: Select my outfit, do my makeup (wash my face, moisturize, concealer, foundation, powder, blush, eyes, and then lipstick), hair, perfume, clothes. If anything went out of order, I’d have to start over again or risk a panic attack. This was all before I had medication because I did not know what I had — I thought I was losing my mind.

Anyone with mental illness will recognize and understand how exhausting it is to prepare for a day of masquerading normalcy. To then be reprimanded for not “being normal” well enough is devastating.

What Then?

Unfortunately, I never had that discussion with my students because once I had been reprimanded by my administrator she had already proven the point, hadn’t she?

In fact, it doesn’t matter how many years of teaching I had, how many degrees I had earned, or how much professional development it really did just come down to my clothes and not me. The lesson impacted me more than it could have impacted my students, and I chose to approach it in a different way with them. Though I do think some of them picked up on it anyway. Junior high kids are not stupid even if adults wish they were.

Some might think I’m not fair to my former administrator, believing that if I had told her my lessons plans or my struggles with mental health, many of my issues with her could have been averted.

Bless your heart.

The Aftermath

There are many things I still think about from my teaching career. I have so many wonderful memories that I am able to call up freely now that dust has settled. Recently, a friend of mine said to me, “I have never heard of such an unsupportive faculty as the one you had.” Which is both true and untrue. I had many knives in my back at the end, but I also had many quiet heroes who helped pull them out and patiently waited for me to trust again. I love them all for it, too.

The entire administration from the time I was there are all gone, off to different schools or positions. Many of the faculty members I taught with are gone, too. Some have retired or left teaching entirely, others have left for other schools. One has passed away. Former students have left for college, graduated, gotten married, started families and careers.

And I am still here, writing.