Today I decided to do my classic “tie with a polo shirt” look.
Oh yeah, there was a hat.
One of the great things about my school — torn between being progressive and traditional, nurturing the whole child but with the looming vista of college admissions at the end — is that this tension is actually generative. It has its moments of maddening frustration, but it also allows for some pretty great things to happen.
Like what I wear to school everyday.
Let me explain. In my first week of teaching, I wore kakhis and button down shirts. (Which, by the way, I look awful in.) I had been told from everywhichway that your dress matters. That you need to dress older, to gain authority. I think even that horrible “First Days of School” bible gives the prescription of dressing in a suit everyday for guys, or something crazy like that. So I tried it out. And I noticed that some of my colleagues dress more relaxed, so each week I very consciously started dressing down. Button down shirts to polos. Kakhis to jeans. Dress shoes to grey sneakers. Polos to t-shirts. Grey sneakers to colorful Adidas.
No one commented. I hadn’t broken any norms.
Then, afterwards, I started adding to the outfits. A hat here. A scarf there. 5 pins one day. A cardigan with binder clips the next.
Why am I bringing this up? A couple reasons.
1. I was stopped on the street two times today by strangers because they needed to tell me “I found Waldo!” (One had alcohol on his breath.) And a few colleagues said something similar, and one said something about “Papa Smurf.” But he said it to me last week too, because I’ve been wearing this hat almost daily. It’s pretty kickin’, right? Okay, so I just thought it was neat and wanted to share.
2. I definitely think dressing up for teachers new to a school is important. Each school has different norms and they have to be carefully navigated early on. But I really, honestly think that people need to rethink this whole “you have to dress up to have authority” trope. Majorly. I get if putting on a suit makes you feel older, and that feeling gives you confidence, fine. But the suit does not make the man. I know I have control in the classroom. I can stand with a certain look and bring my class to silence in 3 seconds. My kids don’t take advantage of me. We have a good time. But I have control of the classroom.
And it’s not because of what I’m wearing. Wow, yeah, if that was a meterstick of anything, I would be an EPIC FAIL.
3. Most importantly, because of today, I was thinking again of why I dress the way I do. I’m not fashionable, I know. But I love my fashion choices. And it all started when I was in high school. My clothing was how I expressed myself. Badly, but it was. And in college, well, let’s just put it this way: one of my friends snuck in my closet and took out some of my signature pieces and was ME for Halloween freshman year, and definitely didn’t need to explain his costume to tons of people. (More impressive: my parents are from India, and his parents are from Korea. In other words, we don’t look at all alike.) Clothes are about individuality. And one benefit of being able to dress the way I do is that I get to express myself to my kids, and they see that it’s okay to express themselves in quirky, unfashionable ways. I don’t know if any of them take that away, that it’s okay to be yourself, by looking at me. But today, when I was pondering, I thought it might be nice if one of ’em did.
You know, teachers as role models, and all that stuff.
If you really want me to return full circle to the idea that the school is “torn between being progressive and traditional,” it is this: it is only because of this tension in my school am I allowed to express myself in this way, and still garner the respect from my students and from my colleagues that I think I have.