Friday, September 12, 2008

The Fashionista

Every woman goes through it, this self-loathing.  Sometimes I think I go through it more than most, but of course that's not true.  It's just that lately, it's crept up on me again.

For a long time, I'd been on a huge exercise kick, getting healthy and losing weight.  I've even run a race or three, but lately I've plateaued.  (This photo is from my first race, an 8K called the Shamrock Shuffle that I did back in March.)  Maybe it's school starting again and I'm so tired I don't want to do anything, but I've been a giant slug, and it's got me down.

So.  The other day, one of my girls stayed after school with me.  She hadn't typed her assignment, and I was letting her use the extra computer in my room while I attempted to get some work done.  It's the part of my job that sucks, grading.  When I first started teaching, I put so much effort into every paper that I wanted to cry when I saw kids toss them out on the way out the door.  Now I put more effort in the conversations, in the one-on-one contact I have with my kids every day.

This was one of those days.  Ashley sat at the computer, typing away for some time and when it looked like she was getting to the end of her paper, I told her I was going to start closing up the room.  

There's a whole procedure to this when you work in our neighborhood.  We're in Washington Park, an odd little neighborhood sandwiched between Englewood, Bronzeville, and Hyde Park. Not too long ago, our building was surrounded by the projects.  They've been knocked down, but we still have to be careful to lock everything down every night.  The windows have to be locked and shades pulled down so they don't steal anything important.  (I try not to laugh too much at this statement, as the computer in my classroom barely starts.  What are they going to steal, my markers?  But again, I do my job and batten everything down every night before I leave.  The last thing I want is for somebody to accuse me of being careless.)

So I'm closing and locking things and Ashley is shutting down her computer and she stands up and says to me, "Miss Baader, do you know I talk about you at home all the time?"

I didn't.  And frankly, I was surprised.  Ashley is the kind of girl who keeps things to herself, and there have been times in our relationship when I wondered if she liked me at all.  This is the second year I've had her in my class -- she started out so painfully shy that I counted it a victory if I got her to say one word in a class period.  

But I worked on her.  You can't survive in the real world if you're afraid to speak.  I used to make her so angry because I wouldn't back down over this.  "I do my work," she'd tell me.  "Why do I have to talk?  It doesn't make any sense."  And I'd tell her why her entire future would hinge on her ability to present herself.  We talked about ways to get over fear, ways to make people think you're not afraid when you actually are, and I told her that I, too, was insanely shy but most people don't know it because I keep my fears to myself.  But this was all last year.  This year, she walked into my classroom and raised her hand more times in the first three weeks than she did all fourth quarter last year.  I'm proud of her, and I tell her all the time, but I can almost never tell what she's thinking.  Unless, of course, she's mad.

Anyway, Ashley had clearly been working up to this conversation, because she looked down, looked up, and said, "I talk about you to my parents every day, sometimes even on days when I don't have you.  My parents know all about you."

And this is the time when I'm almost overwhelmed with chagrin, because hey.  I'm fallible.  I'm always telling kids to do things, giving them advice about this and that, and I sometimes wonder what I they tell their parents about me.  I hope it's good, but oh, I know in a case or two thousand, it hasn't always been.  That's when I get the phone calls.

But I've only met Ashley's parents once or twice, and frankly, I'm surprised as hell.  Like I said, I could have sworn that I was just another teacher to her.  I've got kids that I know are attached to me -- I often have to kick them out of my classroom -- but my interaction with Ashley is usually a word here, a word there, a letter to me in her notebook.

I said I hoped it was all good, and she assured me it was.

"You remind me of my mom," she said, and clearly she meant it as a compliment.  But see, she's a sophomore, and she thinks I'm old enough to be her mother.

Come to think of it, I probably am.  Just barely, though.  

"You remind me of my mom, and then you're the opposite of my mom," she said.

Why is that?

She hesitated.  "Please don't take this the wrong way."

(When somebody starts out a sentence with that little phrase, I know whatever follows is going to hurt.)

"See, my mom is a little ... bigger too, and I'm always telling her how you carry around some extra weight, but you never dress badly.  You always look real good."

I didn't know how to respond.  

"My mom, she doesn't try real hard, but you?  You're always so pretty, with your skirts and your heels and your dresses.  I tell her she should meet you."

Oh, god, I thought to myself.  Her mother probably hates me.  

"Just because you're a little bigger, doesn't mean you can't still look good, right?  You're not mad, are you?"

No, I said.  I'm not mad.  I know I've got some work to do to get smaller, but I've been working on it.

"I know," said Ashley.  "I told my mother that, too.  I told her how you used to be so much bigger, and you run and you exercise and you dress so well."

I wasn't sure whether to be hurt or pleased.  Clearly she meant well.  I'd like to see your mother again, I said finally.  Is she coming to open house?

"I don't know," said Ashley.  "My dad met you once last year, and he always says he thought you were a real nice lady."

A real nice lady.  How sweet.  And how appalling.  When did I become her?

But here's the thing: I've never heard so many words from Ashley in one sitting in my life, so I wasn't going to show even a hint of dismay.  I told her instead that she was so kind, and it made me feel good to know she liked my clothes.

And in truth, it does.  I wasn't always put together like this.  I can remember ten years ago when I ran around for most of the year in fuzzy sweaters and turtlenecks and corduroys and jeans.  I didn't own a single pair of heels and I certainly didn't take care of things like my eyebrows.  These were things I discovered for myself gradually, mostly over the years I lived in New York.  I threw out half my wardrobe after moving there, and turned into the woman who wears nice clothes almost all the time.

Kids notice these things, too.  I guess I shouldn't have been as surprised as I was when I learned that my clothes had been the topic of such conversation.

Life, however, never throws just one of these things at you.  Ashley and I had our little talk yesterday.  Today, I made my usual lunchtime trek to the sandwich shop to pick up some lunch, and the lady behind the counter said, "Oh, it's you."

Hello, I said, not terribly surprised that she recognized me.  I don't like to pack my lunch, and so I get sandwiches from there a lot.  And also, Chicago's pretty segregated.  I'm probably the only white woman they have walking in there most days.  The surrounding neighborhood is sketchy to say the least.

"What do you have on today?" she said.  "My sister said you came in on Monday and you had on a real nice dress."

She did?

"Yep.  We decided we want to go shopping in your closet," she added.

I grinned.  Thanks, that makes me feel good.  You know the only reason I wear skirts all the time is my butt's so big.  It's the only way I can look halfway decent.

"We don't care why.  You look so good all the time.  You make us want to wear dresses," she said.  "We talk about it.  We call you the dress lady."

The dress lady.  I could live with that.

All this is just to say that this week, I really needed to hear good things about myself, and I did, from the most unlikely people.  And because of that, I've gone and registered for another 5K.  Next weekend.  And, I'm going to do two races next month and one in November.  Time to break through this wall.  Time to stop feeling bad.  Time to run.

Nobody ever sees you as poorly as you see yourself.  This much I know is true.  But today, I believe it.


Anonymous said...

You look so great-your running/ exercising program HAS been paying off-"SMALL"time! I'll bet not just your students have noticed. You're looking so good.
If/when your usual walk companions can't, maybe I'll do some walks. We can keep one another motivated MAYBE you can positively influence my wardrobe choices too-though I wouldn't count on it.
Your shorts/jeans/slacks Auntie

Anonymous said...

A wonderful story... Im proud of all that you have accomplished. Keep up the good work.