Back to School flyers fall out of Sunday’s New Mexican; catalogs for Santa Fe Community College are stacked in newspaper stands; a gigantic advertisement for St. John’s College is posted on the side of a crosstown bus. It’s almost September but I’m not teaching, or starting another degree, or writing a grant, or designing an upcoming teacher-training.
Last week I panicked. At Santa Fe Community College I tried to sign up for an undergraduate class on the History of New Mexico but it was already full. I met with the ESL Coordinator about teaching a course. I called St John’s and had a meeting with the admissions officer about their Graduate Program in East Asian Studies. Hobbling across those campuses in pain, still dependent on a cane, my body is saying wait awhile. But my brain says shame.
I can’t help myself. It seems I’m hard-wired to go back to school. For fifty-five years, since I was seven years old, around the middle of August I get ready. Each year of private school at Holy Family started with a new uniform, five pairs of navy blue knee socks and three crisp white blouses with Peter Pan collars. Heading up Adeline Drive for ninth grade to a new school, August’s anxiety was all about getting it right. I wore a medallion miniskirt and a butterscotch man’s shirt with the tail out, unbuttoned cuffs covering my knuckles. At those big swinging green doors, the huge Vice Principal stood like a bouncer and yelled Tuck In That Shirt! I did as told, my outfit ruined, the big shirt bunched up inside a scrap of skirt.
When I moved to Denver the summer before my Senior Year, I planned for the first day at the new school, dressing up in my favorite maroon swingy mini with the giant pink and white blooms. Students in the parking lot going into the building were all dressed down: jeans and sneakers sweat pants and hoodies. I was the only girl in the entire school wearing a dress. And so I learned the codes: the humiliation of getting it wrong took me to studying how to fit in.
Packing for college in the ‘70s, I cultivated an eclectic bohemian style, shopped Salvation Army for vintage finds long before consignment stores even existed. In graduate school, when I started teaching Writing as a GTA at 23–only a few years older than my freshman students–I stood tall at the front of the room in the uniform of hip:: dark fitted ribbed turtlenecks, multi strings of hand-strung hishi beads, high-waisted flared jeans and Frye stacked-heel leather boots.
During my thirties, working internationally, teaching at the Universite de Cheikh Anta Diop, I designed African-inspired clothes made to order from little tailor shops in the side streets of Dakar; in Tokyo bought high-end designer fashion for corporate language training,; in Bucharest wore serious blazers and matching wool pants to teach at the Ministry of Finance. I shopped in airports during layovers: Frankfurt, London, Paris.
In my mid-forties, when I decided on public education., every early August for those fifteen years, I studied the fat fall fashion tomes of Vogue and Bazaar, pulling hangers from the closet and piling pants, shirts and jackets on the bed, reimagining a look for that coming year’s high school teacher dress-code.
In the last seven years, traveling on grants, still following an academic calendar in Dushanbe, Bloemfontein, Delhi, Kolkata, Ulaanbaatar,, I curated capsule wardrobes for the climates and the jobs, using every inch of my one allowed personal check-in bag with outfits–and shoes and accessories–for the two- or four- or six-month contracts.
Now, I’m in retreat. I hardly go out. I live in t-shirts and pull-on yoga pants, my greying hair pulled tight on top into a little-girl elastic. From the bed, elevating and icing my emaciated leg, I try to ignore the whispering coming from behind my closet doors. She’s finally lost it! She’s really let herself go….
Personal photos, travelogue shots, and images from Coimbra are combined in digital space to spoof this extended recess of recovery and the distraction of past years’ fashions.