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Parents embarrass their kids.  This is an immutable law of the universe.  They ask you (loudly) if you have to make.  At Kohl’s, outside the dressing room, they ask you (loudly) if there’s enough room in the crotch of the pants.  They try to walk near you in public.  They dress unfashionably.  They say “I love you” at inopportune moments and demand hugs as they drop you off at school.  They try to sit near you in the movies, and then talk (loudly) through the whole film. 

But are they trying to make your adolescence miserable?  Are they trying to stunt your climb up the social ladder?  For the most part, I think they mean well.  Maybe they hover a bit, or dwell on potty-training a bit long, but their efforts are usually well-intentioned, and embarrassment may be, at worst, unintentional. 

What, then, of my parents’ decision to paint our house pink?  Not a subtle pink (if there is such a thing), nor a historically precise Victorian pink, but a Pepto-Bismol pink, with the windows trimmed in even more fluorescent hot pink.  We lived in a small town, where we already were different because we were Jewish, because my mother worked, and because both my parents had been to college.  The Pink House, as it became known throughout the town, only served to exacerbate my feelings of difference among my peers.  The house itself became something of an urban legend, with speculation running wild about how it came to be that color.  Rumors were that they had let the daughter (me!) pick the color, or that vandals or pranksters had thrown a gallon of pink paint at the house, necessitating a cover-up.  In truth, I hated everything about it, from the nauseating paint smell that never seemed to go away, to the long walk down the driveway, from the notoriety, to the identity of being “That Girl”, to the mail we’d get, simply addressed to “The Pink House.” 

While I had many friends from many walks of life and the full range of social strata, from trailer parks to new McMansions, I always sensed my family was different.  We came from Elsewhere.  Other kids had older brothers or sisters come before them, and teachers would eagerly welcome Eric’s younger brother, or Michelle’s younger sister into their classes.  It seemed I was the only first-born among my friends.  My parents spoke differently.  They learned to imitate the Northern New York Cricker dialect to our amusement, but there were some subtle and not-so-subtle cues that we weren’t just different; we were better. 

The elitism, which I didn’t recognize as such until much later, took its cues from the limited educational and cultural offerings in our town, in contrast to the vast and storied opportunities in other places we had lived.  We weren’t content with the local offerings, so my parents made sure we had our cultural education from Elsewhere.  We went to Colorado every other year because the skiing was better than in New York and New England.  We took trips to visit museums and see concerts and plays – down to Albany, over to Burlington, and all the way to Boston, where my father’s family lives.  On one ski trip to Colorado, my godfather took me to see a professional ballet, and I was never the same.  The early grades of the local schools were acceptable, but my parents had said that they’d considered boarding school if we stayed long enough for me to reach high-school age.  The subtext of Temporary was never too far away, and we all sensed it.  My father often said in his regaling us with another Cricker anecdote, that when the children came home saying, “Jeezum Crow” (the local variant of Jesus Christ), it was time to move.  We were never meant to live there long enough to settle in, to fit in.  Though the vast majority of my early memories are from our nine years in that town, I guess I never did fit in, and I always knew it. 

We moved to Minnesota, to another small town, one which, ironically, given its higher median socio-economic status, didn’t even have a local 4-year college.  Now, even the menial cultural offerings we’d had in our old town, courtesy the local SUNY branch, were absent.  We compensated by lauding the superior public schools, and I hoped for more social compatibility.  More families there were transplanted; few outside of those with Nordic lineage were actually native to the area, so we hoped they’d be more open to outsiders.  There were Indian restaurants, two synagogues, and a youth theatre.  Entering my freshman year of high school, I did my best to fit in. 

At school, fitting in had a narrow definition.  Outside of the few freaks (the Marilyn Manson girl, the few goth kids, and the guy who always wore fatigues), no one dared show a shred of personal expression with clothing, hair, or make-up.  Back packs were Jansports, shoes were brown 3-eye Doc Marten’s, winter coats were yellow Columbia parkas, and mittens were from Winona Knits.  In Minnesota, even mittens conformed.  I waffled between expressing myself and trying to fit in.  With my strategic incorporation of vintage wrap-skirts and brocade smoking jackets into my wardrobe, it would seem I wasn’t trying very hard.  Yet I would have rather died than be the only one dressed up on Halloween.  Another “fashion” trend I bucked was the wearing of white socks with Birkenstock sandals.  I made the mistake of expressing my opinion on the ghastly combination for an editorial assignment in my oratory/debate class.  While the class was populated mostly by my compatriots, my teacher cruelly ordered the taping and subsequent broadcast of my editorial over the school’s TV network.  I sat in my homeroom, head on my desk, as the piece played.  That editorial followed me the rest of my high school career.  Any hopes I had of fitting in, or at least not sticking out, were dashed.  I hadn’t kept my mouth shut; I had identified myself as an outsider, and unlike in my earlier years, this time, I had done it to myself. 

Among my friends, those who cared less about clothing particulars and shopping at the mall, I was still an outsider.  They had all gone to elementary and middle schools together, and had a massive shared history I could never make up.  My own history, my own world knowledge clashed in subtle ways.  Once I mentioned FAO Schwarz, the legendary toy store, to which I had been exactly once on a family trip, and was met by blank stares.  I explained, and it was assumed that I would know about such a place because only rich people shopped there.  It didn’t matter how much I tried to persuade her (a girl whose identity was wrapped up in being poor) that no one actually shops there: it’s more of an experience, a tourist destination, an item in the cultural lexicon of millions.  She didn’t believe me, and I had once again donned the elitist, outsider badge, even among friends. 

I keep my mouth shut more now, if I haven’t completely assessed my human surroundings.  I wait people out, trying to see if they’re going to castigate me for being “smart” or “rich” or “privileged” or “elitist”.  At my last job, the role of “smart” came unwittingly to me, as people sought my advice on everything from Lyme disease, ringworm, and GERD; to spelling and grammar; to GPS, cell phones, and formatting Powerpoint.  I don’t think I put myself forth as an expert in matters medical, orthological, or technological (I’m certainly no Modern Major General), but people still treat me as such.  In putting me in that position, I’m partially flattered, but in selecting me as an expert in anything, they are singling me out, and yet again, I am an outsider.  I tried to mitigate this effect by seeming less confident.  Oh, I think you can add a picture this way.  Better talk to your doctor about that.  I’m pretty sure “commitment” spelled with two “m”’s, one “t”.  But they probably see right through it.

In my current job, I kept my mouth shut initially.  I wanted to feel out the vibe here, if intelligence was to be prized or hidden.  I kept my Halloween costume low-key, to strike that balance between fitting in/showing spirit, and self-expression (the only one in costume).  I dressed all in black, but put on a pink tu-tu, not strictly a costume piece, but something I could remove if necessary.  I wasn’t taking any risks. 

Last week, I had a most marvelous experience that let me know I may be close to fitting in here.  A student was asking his teacher why “sign” was spelled with the silent “g”.  Without going into the morphology, his teacher explained it was because of the word’s origin.  Many of the words that don’t follow sound-it-out spelling conventions can be explained away by blaming one of the languages that influence Anglo-Saxon.  French is legendary for all those unpronounced letters in “bouquet” and “ballet” and “hors d’oeuvres”.  The teacher said he thought that “gn” digraph was of Anglo-Saxon origin, related to the word “gnat”.  I demurred, saying it was more related to the “gn” cluster in Latinate words like “cognizant” “agnostic” “benign” and “malignant”, pronounced with or without the “g” depending on the specific word.  We consulted the Google.  Lo and behold, I was right.  That wasn’t the exciting part.  The exciting part was that I allowed myself to be right about it, to rib the teacher a little.  The thrilling part, on later reflection, was thinking about the fact that I had debated the etymology of the spelling of the “gn” digraph in the word “sign”.  At work.  And not been ostracized or felt like an outsider.  I felt smart, but I felt accepted, which was more important.

“Cool outfit,” my coworker said casually as I waited for a turn at the copier.  “The kids really enjoy your style, no joke.”

And as my heart melted into an oozy pile of love, acceptance, and validation, I assessed what it is exactly that I am wearing today that elicited such a comment. 

Definitely the most distinctive piece I have on today is a skirt made for me a former student’s mother.  It’s light blue hand-dyed old-fashioned chenille (like the blankets your grandma always had on the beds), complete with fringe tickling my knees.  To battle off the winter chill, I also am sporting an off-white men’s long underwear-style Henley I picked up at a genuine “dry goods” store in the Federal Hill section of Providence as it was going out of business, paired with a lurid red Orlon acrylic cardigan picked up for $4.00 at a job-lot style store, intended for use with school uniforms.  It’s a child’s XL, so the cuffs of my Henley peek stylishly out from beneath.  I also have on candy-striped knee socks (a trend I will never let die), which I’m hoping tie together the whole outfit with their lifesaver’s colors.  On my feet are T-strap Doc Marten’s from the late 1990s. 

The kids enjoy my style.  Ha.  When I was in high school, we would often arrive a few minutes before school started, and we’d find ourselves killing time by walking the main hallway.  As the school was a 1960s circle, we could just keep walking round and round without too much effort, which was all our brains could handle at 7:00am anyhow.  On these walks, a particular friend would enjoy counting how many oblique stares my outfits would elicit as we rounded the school.  Whether it was the bright orange Pendleton wool pantsuit, or my dress made from 26 neckties, she never seemed to tire of entertainment at my expense.  At a conservative Minnesotan school where our limited shopping diversity meant the trends were specific (yellow Columbia coats, Winona knits mittens, brown Doc Marten’s oxfords, American Eagle tank tops), hideous (white socks with Birkenstocks) and rarely defied, I stuck out.  Sure, there was the ROTC guy who always wore army fatigues, and the Marilyn Manson girl with her sullen black clothing, chains, and heavy eye make-up, but then there was me, and very little variety beyond that.

Over the years, my initial inability to figure out even simple trends like bootleg jeans, waffle knit shirts, or Umbro shorts (I never knew what a Tretorn was until this year), has morphed into some sort of defying-the-mainstream identity.  I wish I could be proud, confident, and somewhat oblivious like Jerry Spinelli’s “Star Girl,” but I’ll settle for some respect of myself as an individual, as a “cool teacher.”  Or, at the very least, a dork-tastic teacher with some respect from some teenagers for my “cool outfits”.

I never thought I’d see myself working with children taller than I am. At merely 5 feet tall, this would seem a ballsy assertion, but I never thought I’d make it out of elementary school as a speech pathologist.  Most speech-language therapy targets this younger set, with an increased focus on early intervention before kiddos even walk through the kindergarten doors.  While decent-sized elementary schools may employ 2 or 3 SLPs, middle and high schools have starkly shrunken caseloads that often mean an SLP is running among all the high schools in the district to comprise a full caseload.  Intervention in the upper grades, too, has a different focus.  More and more, these are kids who will be needing lifelong strategies.  I include in this group both kids on the higher functioning end of the autism spectrum, as well as kids in learning support.  These are no longer issues than can be “fixed” with some intensive articulation therapy or flashcard drills with verb tenses. 

I never saw myself working with an adolescent population because I really liked preschoolers.  I never thought I’d be taken seriously by a gaggle of 6th graders taller than me.  I never thought I’d be back in middle/high school dressing up for Spirit Week, either, but here I am. 

Yes, they’re taller than I am.  But one-on-one, which is how I usually see kids, middle and high schoolers can be quite rewarding to work with.  I don’t have to deal with classroom management, grading tests, or running parent-teacher conferences.  And I no longer have to sit on itty-bitty chairs and worry about boogers in the play-dough.  I miss the play-dough, but not the boogers. 

Still, I am now working in a middle/high school, and, as this week is Spirit Week, there is sprit run amuck.  On Monday, I was too tired and mopey to participate in Clash Day, which I’d ordinarily embrace whole-heartedly.  My closet is overflowing with garishly colored stripes, plaids, polka-dots, madras, and floral prints.  At 6:00 Monday morning, I just wasn’t feeling it.  I was also unsure how fully the student and faculty body embraced their spirit.  For 4 years in high school, I tentatively tried to participate in such themed days and holidays.  I was disheartened to note that few kids dressed up for Halloween, but I tried to keep the spirit by wearing an orange shirt. 

Now that I’m back in school, so to speak, I’m still feeling it out, still waiting to see what the other teachers do, so I don’t stick out too much one way or another.  For Halloween, I chose a pink tutu, something I have worn out in public in a non-costumed outfit, and something which is appearing on racks as apparel outside of the dance studio.  That way, if all the teachers were in costume, I’d totally be like, “Hey!   Me, too!” and if no one dressed up, I’d be all cool, like, “Yeah, I totally wear this any day, not just because it’s Halloween.”  Totally.  At my high school we had, in addition to Spirit Day, which always were safely celebrated by wearing a school t-shirt, Twin Day, PJ Day, and some others I can’t recall.  Since graphic novels and comic books have started entering the main stream (and cinemas), superheroes now rule.  We had Superhero Day at the request of the student body.  Since I’d pussied out of Monday’s Clash Day, I needed to redeem myself after seeing colorfully festooned students and adults alike. 

After school on Monday, I went home and worked on my transformation from mild-mannered speech teacher, into Wawa Warrior.  I had at home a large promotional t-shirt I probably picked up for $1 at a thrift store, emblazoned with the Wawa logo and some coffee/sandwich deal advertised on the back.  For future crafting purposes, of course, just waiting to be transformed.  Last night, I cut away the front around the neckline to fashion a cape.  The front (with logo) I cut into a strip and tied around my forehead à la Rambo.  Then, I got out the duct tape.  After a quick trip to Wawa for some half-caff for Mr. Apron, I had all I needed for my gear belt.  I taped sugar packets for flair, and holstered the coffee cups into my belt for some quick mock-dispensing action.  I was good to go.

It was a big hit.  I had achieved the perfect costumed combination of regional recognizability, comfort, and panache. 

Today was Crazy Hair day, so of course I tied my ever-growing locks up into tightly wound buns at four points on my head, and embellished them with various ribbons: red ball fringe, autumnal stripes, flimsy organza, and rubber ducks. 

Tomorrow is School Spirit Day.  I have no idea what I’m going to do, but I know I’ll do something.  I hope these kids aren’t the paint-the-face and tattoo-the-chest types. 

Back in high school, I tentatively tried to navigate the unspoken rules of social acceptability.  Though I was probably never in the right, and definitely never popular, I still cared how I appeared to others.   I wish I could have been like Jerry Spinelli’s “Star Girl,” mysterious and magical in the ways that made me different, instead of awkward and self-doubting.  While this is my first year, I’m still feeling out how things are done here – how much people socialize outside of work, what kind of clothing constitutes the adult dress code, whether adults dress up for Halloween.  I’m still testing, still comparing, still making sure I don’t stick out too much.  It seems like conformity, at least a smidgen of it, is a protective mechanism in high school.  As we work with kids who clearly don’t fit in, and are uncomfortable about socializing, it helps to remember that not everyone can be a “Star Girl”, with a devil-may-care attitude about our rainbow mohawks or our pop-tab chain maille or our pink army fatigues.  Some of us try to keep our differences hidden just a bit, so we can feel that much more at ease in new surroundings.

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November 2020