Who I Am
My Identity and My Fashion (or lack thereof)
I have always wanted to be a stylish, fashion-minded girl. My mother has impeccable taste and is always well dressed. I assumed I had inherited this trait. Instead, I identify more with cartoon characters who wear identical outfits in each episode. The Weekenders character, Tish Katsufrakis, and I have a lot in common. Tish wore clogs with a long skirt and her hair hung at her shoulders without much flair. Beneath the clothing, there were similarities others could not see. We are perfectionists who love William Shakespeare and math.
When I met Tish, I was a graduate student with a husband and three kids. Every Wednesday night, clad in clogs, a long skirt and denim jacket I drove to Hyde Park to study mathematics. I enjoyed developing activities to use in my classroom and in my job as an instructional coach. As a wife, mother, teacher and student I accepted the challenges of being a Black female living in a neighborhood where the SES left many depending on handouts from government entities and churches or worse. I had come a long way in learning to defend myself and stand up for the person that I wanted to be but I still had miles to go. As I look back over my life in an attempt to define who I am, I identify my growth and transformation by the clothing I chose for myself. It all started with a minidress.
In 1973 my mom and her sisters planned the only vacation we would take as a family. We drove from Chicago to Niagara Falls, Canada. In their true spirit, my mom and aunt fashioned matching outfits for the whole family. They purchased bolts of fabric, lime and orange with white intersecting circles outlined in navy blue. I asked mom to make a minidress for me. With knee high socks and patent leather shoes, I completed the outfit and then found a way to pose strategically in almost every photo taken that week. I hadn’t yet learned to feel insecure about my skin, my big forehead and thick lips. I spent my time surrounded by people who looked like me and who loved me. That would all change when I entered elementary school and realized that I was a little different from most of the kids.
Each spring a representative from the uniform company would come to our school to measure us so parents could order uniforms for the coming school year. My mom ordered fabric and made my uniform. Primary school girls wore jumpers with two fake pocket flaps on either side of the front panel. My uniform was a short jumpsuit and had real pockets, one on each side. Maybe my mom didn’t understand the purpose of a school uniform, maybe she didn’t care. Either way, I struggled to make myself disappear. I had no desire to be different or to stand out in the crowd. Going unnoticed felt better, safer.
In fifth grade a new girl joined our class. I made up my mind that I would make an effort to have a friend and who better to start with than someone who didn’t know that I was the weirdo, smart kid who spent most of her days on the floor in the library reading and doing my own math problems. Cindy was a redboned, skinny girl with light brown hair. She had beautiful high cheekbones, deep set eyes, and strong legs from dancing ballet on pointe. For the next three years, we would be inseparable. I decided to spend more time in the classroom, give up my spot on the library floor, and be less weird.
Cindy tolerated my quirkiness and tried to help me to fit in with our classmates. Mom made us matching outfits for all school and church occasions. She allowed us to pick our own patterns and fabric. We learned to pin the patterns to the fabric and cut them out. I enjoyed sewing, and liked having a friend. I reached out to make friends with other girls in my class but failed. Throughout the fifth and sixth grades I struggled as most girls do. I was too short, too skinny, too dark and too smart. There was nothing I could do, no clothing I could wear, to make me feel accepted. Eventually, Cindy would build friendships with others in our class and have less time for me. As our friendship dwindled, I didn’t understand who I was or what to wear.
By the end of seventh grade I would find a new retreat, the convent. Sister Grace came to our school during the summer before 7th grade. She was a white haired, small framed, retired high school teacher. I loved Sis. Grace. She taught me algebra. When my lessons were finished we would play piano and bake bread for communion or cake if there was a birthday to be celebrated. When mom sat down to make my uniform skirt for what would be my last year of elementary school, I asked for my skirt to be longer, flared at the bottom and without pleats. I don’t know if mom put together in her head that I wanted my skirt to look like Sis. Grace’s or not, but the skirt she made was spot on. It had a wide waistband with two large black buttons in the back. As I prepared for high school I found myself in a place where I was comfortable knowing that I was gifted. In the time I spent with Sis. Grace I developed a faith in God and was beginning to understand that I was different because God had a unique purpose for my life. I signed up for catechism classes and was baptised that year. I took my faith seriously.
I made some substantial growth during my first year of high school. I no longer wore homemade clothes to school each day. I had a pair of Levi’s and penny loafers. Most of the kids in my high school were nerdy like me so fitting in was easier not because I was different but because my environment was. Now old enough to join the youth group at church I found that there were kids in my neighborhood that also identified as Black Catholics. Our youth group traveled all over the country to participate in various events, conferences, retreats and mission projects. I took on leadership roles in the youth group and even participated in many of the adult ministries. At school, I was almost respected for being smart. Almost.
Some of the kids that I hung out with were smarter, but none were adversaries. We looked out for each other. Joann, the daughter of Chinese immigrant parents who owned one of the most successful restaurants in Chinatown, taught us to study smart. She would create jigsaw reading assignments and have us share out in the lunchroom before the first period. I found academic success in high school, made friends with like-minded students and found a niche in my church community where I fit perfectly. I dressed in Levi’s on most days and developed a habit of wearing shorts with combat boots. I may or may not have thought of myself as slightly goth, a cute goth not a scary one. I left high school feeling pretty good about myself but not prepared for what would lie ahead.
I started college at the Illinois Institute of Technology and though I was academically prepared, I lacked the emotional, social and mental maturity to be successful in a school that cared little for who I was and had no respect for the culture and community that created me. I was emotionally and fashionably lost. I was relieved when the last final exam ended. I left Illinois and went to Michigan to intern at GM and that experience changed the trajectory of my life.
That summer I lived and worked with another engineering student, Leslie. Leslie was beautiful, smart, and commanded the attention of everyone around her. The factory where we spent most of our time was hot and humid. In an effort to both save money and be more comfortable, Leslie led the women in a decision not to wear pantyhose as required by the dress code. Her thought was that if we all went bare-legged none would get in trouble. She was right.
Leslie attended Tuskegee University. I believed, whether it was true or not, that if I could go to Tuskegee I could like Leslie, confident and assertive. So I made up my mind to transfer. When our internship ended, I boarded a bus headed to Tuskegee, Alabama and arrived twelve hours later, sight unseen, and ready for a new adventure.
At Tuskegee University I found a space to fit in. I adopted the Afrocentric folks as my tribe. I put away my Levi’s and preferred instead to wear dresses with my head wrapped in an African print or sporting afro puffs with large hoop earrings. When I graduated from Tuskegee, I applied to the alternative certification program and earned a master’s degree in special education. I continued to wear my African garb and ethnic jewelry. I kept my hair in natural styles and was very comfortable in the person that I was becoming.
With my teaching certificate in hand, I took a job teaching math and science to middle school students. I acquired additional certifications and held offices in various community organizations. There were struggles but I managed to keep my faith and get through them until my mother became ill. Everything I had going for me came to halt and I had to pack up and move back to Chicago to help care for my mom.
I have always had a special relationship with my mother so when i was told that she was sick and that I should come home I didn’t hesitate. I reached out to my high school assistant principal and I landed the best job ever. I had a ball teaching science to high school students for the next few years. I gave up the African clothes and chose to wear a dress everyday under my lab coat with modest pearl stud earrings. I would work in Chicago Public Schools for more than 20 years.
In the summer of 2016, I decided to move to Texas. I am teaching science again to high school students, leading a Bible study group in my church, and pursuing an Ed.D. in Higher Education at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. I have had the dream of working in a teacher preparation program since I finished my MS. It took me a long time to decide that it’s ok to pursue my dreams and care for myself. I am no longer frightened by the gap between who I am and who I aspire to be. I find my identity and my purpose in God. Maybe I’ll buy a pair of cowboy boots to add to my wardrobe.