By third grade I was allowed to dress myself. My parents were both working, I was the oldest and my mother, frankly, had better things to do than to police my sartorial choices. I was free to express my fashion sense however I chose. I chose comfortable pretty much all of the time. One of my absolute favourite outfits was a pair of grass green pants patterned with red barns next to trees with blue trunks and yellow “leaves”. I particularly liked to pair this with a black leotard. Regularly.
I played outside a lot – catching frogs and climbing trees with Chad and Saundra – so I spent most of third grade in grubby clothes that were just on the edge of unwearable. We often roller skated to school, which involved a fair amount of sweat and a small amount of falling. (Before you laugh too hard, our school actually had roller skate cubbies near the bike area to accommodate all of the roller skating kids. The 70s were weird.) I showered when someone noticed I was dirty.
Third grade was also the year I convinced my teacher that I was really good at reading and really bad at math. Apparently this was at least in part because I “paid attention” while reading – I have long been able to get lost in a story – but wandered the room aimlessly during math, “helping” others after finishing only two or three of the problems. My grades suffered but my demeanor did not. I neglected to mention to anyone that I just did the last three problems of every worksheet and then moved on. After all, those were the hard ones. As a result, my math work got easier and I had more time to read and contemplate my lovely green pants. Perfect.
Towards the end of the year, my teacher, Mrs. Glantz, proposed a class party. She said we should ask our parents to see if anyone could host it. I immediately said that my family could do it. Mrs. Glantz said I had to bring a note from my mother. I did. She seemed uncertain about this, so she called my mother who confirmed that we could host at our house.
“Ok,” said Mrs Glantz, dubiously. “I’ll just take up a little collection from the children to help with the expenses.”
“Thank you,” said my mother, “but there’s really no need.”
“Oh, no worries, no worries. The children can help out.”
Puzzled, my mother accepted. Mrs. Glantz sent home the collected money, and the weekend before the party, we prepared food and decorations. I was really excited.
Finally, the big day came. The whole class was going to walk (not roller skate) to my house. I was probably wearing my fancy green pants/black leotard outfit because I loved it. My mother came to school and she and Mrs. Glantz led the way to our place.
As they walked and chatted, my mother noticed that at many intersections Mrs. Glantz seemed to want to turn away from our neighborhood, towards the ones a little closer to the school with smaller houses, but she didn’t think much of it. As we turned into our neighborhood, my teacher got quiet. Then, we arrived at our house, she exclaimed, “Oh, but this is a beautiful home!”
Sometime after the party ended, my mother took a long look at me and realized what had happened: the yearlong experiment of letting me dress myself had resulted in my teacher thinking that we were poor. When she tells this story, we all laugh and it ends here. But when I think back, I realize that fourth grade was when I started bathing regularly and my outfits mostly matched. I wonder now how Mrs Glantz might have treated me differently if I had dressed differently? I marvel at the privilege of changing my clothes to change people’s perception of me. And I’m not even the tiniest bit surprised that things changed in fourth grade.