My very first day of elementary school remains vivid in my mind. I am jumping up and down on my parents’ bed in my “sleeping clothes.” We didn’t have official pajamas, we simply donned old shirts that had been washed and worn to a sleepy softness at bedtime. Before me are a set of new Hanes briefs and white T-shirts, and new socks. I am pumped. I know how to spell words and add numbers. I am more than ready to join the student body at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic Elementary School.
I still remember the smell of the new Hanes underwear, that singular odor that emanates as you tear open the plastic packaging. Was it the new cotton jersey? Or was it the fabric sizing that keeps it wrinkle-free in the bag? Was it the oils from the textile mill or the factory? Whatever it was, it was a perfume that signaled new school terms for the many years that followed, scents that grew to dread.
Mingled with this fragrance memory is the herbal petroleum-based pomade that my dad smears onto my hair so my curls stay in place. He cuts a precise part down the left side of my head so I look like a barbershop poster for the collegiate cut. My neck still tingles from the blade old Max used to shave my neck.
Guam – on a normal day – features weather that would have most Michiganders running indoors to sit in front of a fan in an air-conditioned room. Merely mild in the high eighties, normally humid at 100%, in 1971 the island was a mostly air-condition-less landscape. The house I grew up in is a post-war wooden structure with a tin roof that amplifies raindrops and keeps us cool by reflecting the merciless tropical sun. I depart this coolness for the first grade, dapper in my parochial black and white finery, under which the new underwear promises a measure of prolonged personal maintenance.
But during the first period, I start to itch. The sharp Hanes label cuts into the nape of my neck. Damp from the morning prayer and Pledge of Allegiance in the sunny courtyard, the T-shirt slides against my wet back as my neck and face become slick from the melting pomade. I remain damp and oily for the rest of the day. Cotton holds moisture and heat; in Guam, it is not anywhere near the fabric of our lives. Rather, with a dress shirt over it, cooling evaporation is not possible so it becomes a special kind of hell. By the second period, sweat is dripping below my waistband into my briefs and down my legs. I am miserable, I want to cry from the heat rash I feel forming all over. When recess is called, I consider running away to hide under the bridge that crossed the stream across the street.
When I was a college student, I never put on a new T-shirt unless it had been washed a dozen times. Fortunately, Madonna made vintage t-shirts fashionable and I began wearing old ones that I sourced from Chicago thrift stores. For the first time in my life, I actually enjoyed wearing them. As I got older, I protested event swag that I was required to wear. In defiance, I would tie them around my waist for 5Ks and other fundraisers.
Today, the texture of pre-worn clothing is of the greatest import when assembling my back-to-school wardrobe. How anyone survived the pre-stretch or pre-washed world boggles my mind. Those old Levi’s were pure torture. New sheets, too, are awful without several washings. New towels, yuck! They are never absorbent because they too are infused with chemicals that make them retail-ready and artificially fluffy.
I maintain a back-to-school closet update because, sad to say, teachers dress horribly. Nothing about old khaki pants, athletic shoes and a polo shirt with a school logo says “inspiring” to anyone. I feel it is my duty to motivate students in every way possible, which includes the way I dress. As my sartorial proclivities tend to be nontraditional, I do usually cause a slight stir; but that’s OK. Keeping kids engaged is a relentless pursuit; therefore, if they can start a conversation asking what I was thinking when I got dressed this morning, then I’m all for it.
I like the idea of not being a predictable teacher. I feel it is good teaching and preparation to find consistent ways to refresh my image. Let’s face it, if you teach biology, you’re going to give the same lessons and assignments as you have probably done for the last twenty years. For goodness sake, give the kids a new haircut or a different way of styling your clothes when they reluctantly return in the fall.
I also always search for a new set of pens and a memo book or two, the same way I did as a young student. Or a new water bottle. If I can’t influence my students with the curriculum plan, they can always be stirred by the superficial. Almost any kind of interest is welcomed and accepted.