In Teaching for Joy and Justice, Linda Christensen tells the reader that “equating success with wealth starts early—think of Cinderella’s magical transformations. Through clothes we can move from scullery maid to princess.” (71). Of course, this made me think back to the original non-Disney version, where the ugly stepsisters chop off their own toes to make them fit into the glass slipper. Being very visual, I can see the blood smearing on the glass and have images of the slipper filling up. And I think this is about right in some regards; many in our culture would wound themselves, mar themselves to fit into the idea of beauty, especially beauty expressed through the material and the body. Christensen goes on to write “students play out this story on a daily basis. Children begin ranking and sorting each other based on those material possessions: clothes, toys, electronic gear, cars” (71). My students’ experience proves this to be true over and over again. And, when I examine my own story—growing up working class in an increasingly middle-class suburb, I know that what I thought was my own unique anxiety over clothing and status wasn’t unique at all, just painful in the way that I hacked at my own toes to fit in.
We write about class every quarter in my Fundamentals of Writing Class at Metro. It’s a terrific course and I have a textbook called Seeing and Writing that allows the students and I to look at things through both text and images. It’s a smart book. Interestingly, the chapter called “Confronting Class” is one of my students’ favorites. I actually begin with a piece of a documentary called “People Like Us” which always engages my students by pissing them off. One of my students, we’ll call him Hank, was watching the documentary in this disengaged way. He’s already resisted our conversations on race and gender, struggling to see how these related to him. But when a woman in the documentary made a snarky comment about driving a Ford in a true blue blood old money voice, he erupted. “Fucking bitch, what does she know!” Now I know I’m probably supposed to admonish Hank in this moment, but I didn’t. Instead I saw it as a way into him, into our conversation.
Hank dressed like a middle class guy and wrote his first essay on snowboarding, which has some decidedly middle-class markers. I think it’s safe to say that none of my poor students from North and South Omaha have ever been snow boarding, or skiing or water skiing. Heck, neither have I. But Hank suddenly revealed that his father was a mechanic. He wanted to stand up for that Ford and for the people who drove Fords. The documentary had punctured something for him. I seized upon it and we began writing about class. Hank gave me an essay about when his parents sent him to a parochial school in Omaha during his elementary school days. Hank went the first day wearing his shoes that lit up. They were worn shoes, but they were cool to him and they were what he had. None of the other students had light up shoes, they were considered infantile. And all of the students had new shoes, something that was expected for the first day of school. This painful memory served as the motivating force for Hank to go on to become a drug dealer. And that choice led to him watching his friend die in front of him. He had to have his own money to have clothes to fit in with everyone. He had to pass as middle class or as cool. I saw Hank with new eyes then. He had been performing his identity. His middle class clothes and the stories of middle class exploits, including vacations and cars weren’t exactly true or untrue—they were what he wanted others to see because he was carrying the legacy of being laughed at for light up shoes and his father being a grease monkey. His anger about class was bright and hard and gave us a place to build on his writing and thinking.
Hank’s story and the narratives in Christensen’s chapter “Can’t Buy Me Love: Teaching About Clothes, Class and Consumption” brought me back to several memories from my own childhood growing up a working class kid. I don’t think that I ever thought about clothing until I got to Harry Anderson Middle School in the sixth grade. Suddenly clothes were a competition just as Christensen describes in her chapter. I didn’t know what was cool. Didn’t own what was cool, and suddenly I had been marked. I had found that “clothes [were] class. And coming from my class background, I wanted desperately to fit into [my classmates’] world” (71). I began begging my parents to take me shopping at Richman-Gordman’s rather than at K-mart. I quickly learned that the blue light special was a special mark of shame. In the sixth grade, I can remember sitting on a gazebo bench with my friend who had migrated from the same elementary school to this enormous, terrifying middle school, and grabbing the back of his shirt and twisting it so that I could look at the label. I was desperate to compare, to consume, to fit in. I wanted my foot to fit into the glass slipper. I remember the fads, coca-cola branded clothes, Guess, t-shirts with ivy league college logos on them (I believe I convinced my mother to get me a Princeton shirt, which I feel laughably embarrassed even writing now), and Ocean Pacific. Dear God, I needed OP clothes to be cool.
It didn’t end there. In the seventh grade, my friend Brian and I had finally been invited to a party and we dressed ourselves up in new shirts and jeans and liberally, much too liberally, splashed Brut cologne on ourselves. We were anxious to have it right—to perform the right codes so that everyone at Emily ‘s house would accept us somehow. I can remember my cousins laughing at us in the driveway. They knew we’d overdone it. And Brian’s shirt’s color was coming off and was turning his skin and unhealthy corpse colored green. Of course, we’d totally misread everything. When we got there everyone was in t-shirts and we still didn’t fit in there. I can remember nothing about that night’s party except for an ugly sixth grader making out with the seventh grade girl I had a crush on. Clothes hadn’t allowed me to fit in; there were still many more things that seemed to leave me out in the cold.
Christensen tells her readers that writing about these things is “part of [her] yearlong campaign to get students to examine what is taken for granted and normalized” (75). She sees it as part of a literacy that is vital for students to become aware of because “too often, school allows students to stay isolated in their private feelings and observations” noting that “their emotions and interpretations are at the mercy of advertisers and a culture industry that rarely have young people’s best interests at heart” (75). Hank and I were just like that. Our private observations about class and clothing had led us to conclude that we weren’t worthy and that we had to fit in at any cost. I see this with more and more with my students as I learn to read this phenomenon more adroitly. The awareness that Christensen raises here is the awareness that Freire calls for us to have as he urges us to read the word and world. As I’ve taught in a community college over the last six years, I’ve learned to read class and to look back and see how much better I might have managed the world I was slogging through if I had been taught the kinds of literacies that would have allowed me to raise my consciousness along these lines. Teaching that now is an opportunity that I’m terrifically grateful for and one that my students respond to in a ferociously positive manner.