I wasn't artsy, I just didn't have the money not to be
The mic traveled down the line of middle schoolers, most dressed as doctors, teachers, chefs, with the occasional construction worker or law enforcement officer thrown in. I trembled in my plaid capris and fingered my activist buttons.
“And what do you want to be when you grow up?” the principal asked me, shoving the mic into my face.
“I want to be an environmentalist and an individualist!” I proclaimed, stretching a smile onto my face so broadly my cheeks hurt.
The silence in the room may have lasted only a second, but in that instant, every eye in the gymnasium burned into my skin as hotly as the nuclear power the button my chest eschewed.
The girls in my class of 24-odd students were a cliquish, tittering bunch. They clustered together before class started to gossip or exchange friendship bracelets, reconvened at lunch, and rode the bus home together afterward, often to one girl’s house or another, ostensibly to continue the seemingly-constant stream of talk, talk talk.
Three major suburbs comprised the bulk of the children in our school, and by some twist of fate, all of the girls in my class lived in the same one and therefore, rode the same bus to and from school every day. Since I lived only a few blocks from the school, my parents drove me every day on their way to work. Anyone who has ever been to elementary school knows the vital part the bus ride plays in childhood society. In the cast system of St. Bernadette, I might as well have been a leper.
Growing up, we weren’t poor, but my mom didn’t exactly drive the carpool in a Mercedes Benz either, if you get what I mean. She and my father worked hard to send my brother and I to the nearest Parochial school, where the kids came from mostly upper-middle class backgrounds and there wasn’t an ethnic face in all nine grades. We wore uniforms most of the time: a black watch plaid jumper (skirts for the older girls and pants for the boys) and yellow shirts that flattered everyone equally, which is to say, not at all. Once a month, however, we had “dress down days,” wherein the students could show off their personal style. Or, more to the point, how much money their parents made.
I went to elementary and middle school in the tail end of the Tommy Hilfiger era, when a multitude of spin-off brands were just beginning to come into popularity among the not-yet-shaving set. The odd red-white-blue block logo would occasionally pop up, but the bulk of the kids my age advertised American Eagle, Abercrombie and Fitch, Hollister or Old Navy on their chests and back pockets. Shoes had to be Nike or Adidas, preferably of that year’s style or newest feature. Clothing could be as plain and nondescript as a white t-shirt. If it bore one of these accepted (read: expensive) logos, you were Cool. And as anyone who has ever been a child in America knows, that mattered. A lot.
Me? The best days of my childhood were when one of my mother’s friends brought over a fresh supply of “hand-me-downs.” Their older daughters’ cast-offs were pulled anxiously from boxes and bags, and I searched frantically for one of the labels I coveted. Something, anything, that would make me look like everyone else. Unfortunately for my pre-teen fashion sensibilities, my mother’s friends had the same attitude she did: labels were a waste of money when there was a perfectly good Macy’s with coupon sales, or better yet, boxes of clothing to be shared among the neighborhood kids.
And so, I did the next best thing. When everyone else pulled on the same hot jean style, the same three-stripe white sneakers, the same t-shirts from that season’s collection, I’d come up with the most outlandish ensemble I could muster. A pair of my rainbow of leggings, a matching (or contrasting) oxford shirt or oversized t-shirt with splashy design, perhaps some costume jewelry. And sneakers? I drew on my white keds with markers until my socks were permanently tie-dyed underneath. I’d shrug hopelessly at myself in the mirror as I wound my hair into a decidedly un-cool mass of braids or twists. If I couldn’t get the cool brands, at least I would wear something interesting. If I couldn’t blend in, I was going to stand out as far as I could.
“You have such great fashion sense,” my eighth grade teacher said one day. “I love how you don’t look like everyone else.”
She meant it as a compliment, I know. But my heart sank that day. My defiant sense of style had attracted attention, sure, but not from the ones I wanted. My classmates still more or less ignored me, by now used to my quiet, bookish mannerisms and “creative” dress. In an effort to conceal my lack of brand awareness with Style, I had concealed myself. I wasn’t fashionable or artsy. I was just making do with what I had, and creating what was, to my mind, firmly second best.
Career day rolled around and I rose early, determined. With my worn collection of sharpie markers, I scribbled my passions on a plain white t-shirt (Hanes). Art. Music. Books. Acting. I drew little treble clefs, a paintbrush, dramatic masks, a book. The rest I scrawled with splashes of color. One of my hand-me-down sisters had become something of an activist in high school, so I had a selection of activist buttons. Nothing too incendiary: anti-fur, anti-bullying, anti-war, pro-democracy. Peace, Love and Happiness. I affixed these to a pair of black suspenders from my father’s closet. A pair of black and white plaid capri leggings and my habitual sketched-up sneakers completed the look.
My classmates barely batted an eyelash as I marched determinedly into the classroom. They fiddled with the play stethoscopes around their necks or adjusted their dad-borrowed blazers as we trooped to the gymnasium for the Career Day assembly. I swallowed a lump in my throat. For all the effort I had put into my costume, I still didn’t know what aspiration it was meant to depict.
The principal walked around the room with her microphone, teachers smiling indulgingly as students meekly stated their ambitions. Some mothers. Some doctors. The usual smattering of astronauts. A farmer or two.
And then my proclamation flew out of my mouth, mostly of its own accord. I didn’t recycle and ate as much processed food as any child of the 90’s. An individualist? I didn’t want to be any more different than I already was. I just wanted to be known for something. I wanted to be seen.
“I don’t even know what that is,” the blondest girl in my class whispered to the boy next to her, tugging at her nurse’s hat. “I think it’s some kind of hippie,” he answered from beneath his construction worker hat.
My cheeks burning, I smiled. For the first time since I started there seven years before, they were interested. Scornful, sure. But interested. On the way back to class, several of the girls I had known since kindergarten asked me about my “career.” We hadn’t had a conversation since we were sharing Tonka trucks, but suddenly, they realized I may have something to offer, after all. And so did I.
I didn’t need their fancy labels to fit in. I had finally found an outfit loud enough to let me speak. And that felt better than the softest designer t-shirt ever could.