It’s the summer of 2015, and I move back to the South wearing a blue and white pinstripe, racer-back dress, paired with chocolate ankle-boots adorned with brass. I feel Americana as fuq driving my Subaru down from Columbus, alone, sporting a slightly-femme take on the jeans-oxfords-white-shirt combo I’m partial to when the heat is a little less stifling. Kentucky rolls by slowly. My legs can breathe. It’s easy, but more than that, it’s liberating—especially after a winter of layers, sweatpants, and so much ice.
I get to wear this outfit four more times before classes begin and I switch over to the kinds of outfits “serious” lady teachers wear. Or, at least, this is my impression of my position as an adjunct: I am young and don’t look the part, so I’ll play dress up in order to fake it. I never felt this pressure as a graduate student teaching. It feels strange and foreboding to feel it now. Maybe this is what going on the job market is like for women; maybe I’m being paranoid. The internal dialogue is, well, annoying. Instead of dreaming I show up naked on the first day, I dream of showing up looking like the physical manifestation of a hangover—wearing ripped tights, high-waisted jorts, a sheer racer-back tank, and full cat-eye makeup. That’s annoying, too.
Dressing for success-in-tricking-students-into-thinking-I’m-around-thirty-years-old in Ohio, where I completed my MFA the previous spring, was formulaically simple. Black high-waisted BDG’s + any sweater + over the knee faux suede olive-and-black boots. Or, two layers of leggings + dress + cardigan + scarf + snow boots (because, necessity). Cold weather let my hair retain its volume, my makeup stay mostly in place, and offered the ability to shed layers as the day wore on / the buildings heated up.
Not so in the Carolinas. I can never be naked enough, living here. I have some dress pants from Ohio living, and some dresses, but I bike to campus and for most of the year it’s too hot for tights, so dresses are out. I’m 25 years old, it’s 98 degrees by noon every day, I feel like a college kid being back at my alma mater, working, now, alongside folks who used to be my teachers—and I’m trying to look put-together. It feels like I’m destined to fail.
My first day teaching (ever), in grad school, was mostly nerve racking in the preparation stage: Where will I stand? Will I make jokes? Will they be self-deprecating? Of course they will be, Self; give up the hopeless dream that you will effortlessly embody the position of authority figure, curl into a ball, freak out more.
My first day of teaching in South Carolina, I show up sweating (not such a big deal, since everyone here is covered in sweat, constantly), with smeared makeup and visible wet spots on the blouse I thought would be dark enough to hide those very stains. The blouse is from Forever 21, yes, but it’s classy! It has a lace Peter Pan collar and opaque black side paneling with a subtly-shiny black center panel! I’m wearing dress pants, and flats, and no jewelry, and the strangest thing happens: students I have literally just met begin commenting on how I look like a student, they thought I was a student when they passed me on the stairs / in the hall / in the classroom / the other day when I was making copies and they noticed me.
And yes, I look young. Like, very young. But something new happens in those first weeks, that, as a petite woman of color in an authority position, I likely should have expected to happen earlier in my teaching career. My students age imprint on me. They think I have just graduated college. They think I have seen High School Musical—both the first AND second film. They assume I am about 22 years old. They, frankly, seem to think I’m some kind of T.A. One asks me if I played sports in high school, because he plays sports, and he can see me being a baseball player (lol). I try to answer politely: “Baseball isn’t really my thing, and I went to an arts school.” Now they want to know about art school. Better yet, they know which school I attended—it’s a fifteen-minute drive away. Do I know Abbey H? Elissa Q? They were probably just a few grades behind you—like us!
Let me tell you how much I wanted dress pants to solve this problem. I wore only dress pants to teach for three months straight. Surely, I thought, that will set me apart as “more mature.” Let me tell you how I continued to distance myself by ALMOST-lying, dropping ambiguous nuggets like, “in the previous years when I’ve taught this class,” or “I used to have to explain ________ to students BACK IN THE DAY.” I couldn’t tell whether their reading of me as one of them was age-related, or gendered in some way (maybe they’re hesitant, I thought, to view me as an actual authority)? What I didn’t realize is that dress pants were part of the problem. It was transparent to them, my attempt to look like someone they should respect. What would they do if they got a teaching job right out of college? Buy a bunch of dress pants and hope it helped them seem professional. Right.
This semester, I gave up. I put my BDG’s back on, and today I’m wearing dark blue plaid paired with maroon Chelsea boots (an outfit I wore on Super Bowl Sunday, if that helps situate its level of professionalism at all). Dressing like I dress normally has, of course, boosted my confidence. But it has done something less predictable, too—it’s highlighted the gap between what my students wear normally, and what I wear normally. They seem to notice that my peplum, polka-dot top from Express, my sense of ease in it, is removed from their sweatpants or leggings-and-hoodie ease. This semester (wherein I have worn dress pants precisely once, and have been practically married to ankle boots with heels), they talk to me like I’m a person, but like I’m a person whose life is removed from their own. And when they forget I’m a woman with a life and life experiences far removed from their own, revisiting my outfits has served to ground them.
Like today: a student asks me how I afford to look so cool on a teacher’s salary, adding, “Is it okay if I ask you that?”
“Of course,” I say, and tell him that when you donate to Goodwill, they give you 10% off your purchase. So, always buy when you donate, even if you only buy one thing. But also, donate, because it’s important (here I try not to start up again on a convo about privilege). And then I go off on a tangent about taxes and various other thrifting spots in town for a few minutes.
He responds, dismayed—he can’t get to Goodwill, because he doesn’t have a car. “But you really know your stuff,” he says, “and that is a dope top.”
“Thanks! Years of practice,” I answer, and then I call roll.
Raena Shirali’s first book, GILT, is forthcoming with Yes Yes Books in October 2016. She currently lives in Charleston, SC, where she harbors public obsessions with red wine, gold, coastlines, the moon, eyeliner, & tswift. You can find links to her poems and photography at www.raenashirali.com