Friday, January 30, 2015

70s Plaid and Why I Am Not a Professor

This is the story of how a simple plaid skirt made me think yet again about Why I Am Not a Professor. Bear with me; it's a circuitous path to the tale.

I have wanted a plaid, a-line skirt like this forever, probably since the 1970s, when I first saw them sported by smart (in both senses of the word) women everywhere. 

I finally found one on Mod Cloth and snapped it up immediately.

It is a quintessential 1970s skirt, most often paired with pert blouses or turtle-necks, and slouchy boots or bright, whimsically coloured tights.

Skirt: Mod Cloth; Sweater and tights: Reitman's; Bag: ; Pendant, large ring, shoes, jacket, bracelet, and sunglasses: vintage
This was the look I had in mind when I styled my new skirt. 

I'm not sure it looks quite right though. Mod Cloth said this skirt ran small and suggested customers buy it one size larger than their regular size. In my case, I think this may have been a mistake; I don't feel it hangs quite right. Do you think I should hem it a bit shorter? I think that might help. I'm a shorty.

Still, on the whole, the outfit worked -- I got compliments from strangers -- and I did feel very 1970s and a little bit early 80s.

It was only afterwards that I realized how much I had dressed like this Igigi model. I have this image on my Pinterest board, Style Inspirations Past and Present, and I was thinking of her some when I got dressed, but I didn't realize I was almost copying her. 

Whoever styled her outfit clearly had the 70s in mind, so I don't think looking a bit like her misses my mark.

I was very excited to emulate this particular look because I associate it with the kind of woman I think I've wanted to be at certain moments in my life, including moments in my childhood.

As I came into puberty around ten or eleven, I started thinking about what kind of a woman I wanted to become. I felt that what I was to become was up to me, but I felt that my range of choices was very limited. I could be what I called a "sex kitten," desired and popular but without self-respect; I could be a hippie, unshorn, unkempt, and of the past; or I could be a feminist, trousered and strong, but lonely and unattractive.

None of these options really appealed to me but I didn't understand I had other options. I think, in my attraction to this plaid skirted, prim trend, I saw a glimpse of another choice, one where fashion, feminism, education, and self-respect could somehow co-exist.

I wanted a world where I could like pink, and still be strong and own my own body (a body which, as a sex trafficked child, I had never yet owned). I did not yet know that such a world could exist. It was certainly not one the feminists I knew thought could exist. If you liked pink, you were not a feminist. It was as simple as that. 

The movie 9 to 5 might have been the first time I saw feminist women who also had style. I loved this movie. Who wouldn't? I used to show it to my E.S.L. (English as a Second Language) students who were immigrants and woefully under employed, given their education and job experience. Male and female alike, they loved it too, male and female alike.

Three strong women, fighting back against their "sexist egotistical lying hypocritical bigot" boss? Can't we all relate?

Lily Tomlin's character was the strongest of the three women, and take a look at her outfit; it's plaid and it's pink! Win and win.

In my mind, career women wore this look. It wasn't a "sex kitten" look and it wasn't a "hippie" look. It was a look of strength and style. What a concept.

It was also a look I associated with a high level of education and a keen intellect. It was the look of journalists, teachers, and professors, as exemplified here by Miss Sherwood, the English teacher on the T.V. show, Fame. 

I grew up to have a pretty good education myself. I first taught E.S.L. and then college English for years before my disabilities made it impossible, so I guess I fit my own, childhood idea of a woman who wears a plaid skirt.

I wasn't the only one who associated the look with education. This back-to-school issue of Seventeen supports the association.

And pretty much all I can think when I see this image is: student.

For the record, I was not this kind of student. I was the radical, protest attending, leftie journalism writing, dead poor student. I was the student with no financial help from my family because they had abused me horrifically and contact with them was akin to emotional suicide. I was the second-hand clothes wearing, bohemian student. I was the student always looking for the people and perspectives that were left out of the materials we were studying. I had seen too much of life already to leave my professors' words unquestioned.

I was the angry student -- even during my post-graduate work.

I went back to university to get an M.A. in English when I was in my thirties. I had decided to become a professor because I felt intellectually stultified in my work teaching E.S.L. I needed more. 


But that "more" wasn't being a professor. I realized that quickly. I just did not fit in. I could do it and do it well: my grades were excellent, I already had years of teaching experience, and I got glowing references. But I could not take Academia seriously. 

To me, it was a world of painfully, even laughably sheltered students who grew up to be painfully, even laughably sheltered professors. I had never had the luxury of being sheltered. 

A sex trafficked child, I left home at seventeen and lived poor and rough for a very long time. By the time I was ten, I had seen murder, heroin addiction, sadism, paedophilia, and other depravities for which I, with all my education in English and Communications, still cannot find a name. 

I'd seen more than the scholars I met during my M.A. would ever see, more than they'd ever imagine even existed. And, in my opinion, their innocence made them inferior scholars. Their limited range of human experience limited their interpretive skills, limited their intellects, and limited their imaginations. They were blind to this fact.

Here's an example. In one of my M.A. courses, we studied several of Alice Munro's short stories. Now, I love Alice Munro. She's my favourite author. But, when professor and students alike said that one of her strengths is that she writes about the complete range of female experiences, I had to object. What about women's lives, I was asked, could she possibly have left unexplored in her many works of fiction?

"Well, for instance," I said, shaking all over, "she's never written about an under-aged prostitute working the streets on skid row."

The entire class, including the professor, laughed at me. It hurt like hell. My face still flames with impotent anger when I think of that moment. Later, the professor, his voice dripping with dismissive sarcasm, joked that we should all take a field trip to skid row where he was quite sure we would learn a lot.

Well, yes, they could learn a lot. But they never would. 

There were those who said that Academia needed people like me, people with my perspectives. Well, maybe Academia needed me, but, if this was the way that my knowledge and ideas would be received -- and it happened often -- I sure as hell didn't need Academia. Maybe they needed my perspective, but, if they refused to hear it, I would do them no good and they certainly wouldn't do me any good.

I sometimes wonder who I would now be if I had not been abused as a child. I suspect I would indeed be a professor, probably living in New England, working at one of those well-respected, brick, ivy covered, post secondary institutions.

But I was abused. I know things I cannot unlearn, and I simply must apply them to the way I use my brain, to the way I see, to the way I read, to the way I teach, and to the way I write. I did not feel I could do that as a professor, not in Academia as it is today. To be an academic, I would have to compromise my intellect and my very being in ways I just could not accept.

I'm really not good at that kind of compromise. 

I can look the part of the professor, but I'll settle for being a highly educated, brainy, fashionable blogger. I reach more people this way anyway. More people actually hear what I have to say. And I can say whatever I want to say.

I'll just remain an outsider and continue my lifelong habit of observing the world from an outsider's perspective. I will not try to change what Del, one of Alice Munro's protagonists calls, "my old devious, ironic, isolated self." Whatever the reason -- abuse, brains, oddity, some combination of all these and more -- it's who I am.

To paraphrase the poet, Robert Frost, I will go on avoiding the road most taken.

How could I do otherwise? 

I go my own way, carrying my devious, ironic detachment with me.

And I will go on noticing the little things that many others seem to miss, like these January flowers ... 

... that match my scholastic skirt, which I will not wear in a scholastic setting ...

... on a beautiful day ...

... so bright, it blinds ...

... as the people flood the streets with their books and school bags and coffee.

There's more than one way to be smart. There's more than one way to use a good mind.

Personally, and call me crazy, I think my outsider, observer status in the world is part of what makes me so observant, even on seemingly trivial matters such as fashion. I enjoy that. I enjoy using my brain that way.

Check out my purple eye shadow, so in keeping with my late 70s, early 80s look.

Check out how the photo with my curl falling onto my forehead suddenly reminds me of Shirley Temple, to whom I was frequently compared when I was a small child.

I didn't know who she was, but I hated her because she made me feel on display. My similarity to her, whoever she was, brought unwanted adult attention, pinching of cheeks, comments on my supposed beauty or cuteness, or something. To me, being on display meant abuse, sexual abuse. Whoever this Shirley Temple was, I hated her, but I also felt sorry for her. Maybe she was as unhappy as I was.

Other people just see a cute kid. I see things differently -- but not wrongly. I could be right. It's worth a thought anyway.

But, despite all this, I still loved my hair. Joy and sorrow can coexist. Trust me, I know. I know things others don't have to know.

I still love my hair to this day. I often dress to compliment it.

My only quibble is that it's only red in certain light, not in all light. Maybe, when I finally go grey, I'll dye it just a bit more red than it really is.

That's if I ever go grey.

I'm 44 now. The greying process began years ago but, for me, it's really really slow. Nobody believes me, but if you look really hard, you can see a little grey. See? Look hard.

I think I've got a few more years of auburn, though, don't you? I like to wear bronze and brown jewelry to pick up the red in my hair. Such jewelry also makes me feel bohemian, in a 1970s sort of a way.

I got this ring for under a dollar at a garage sale in Toronto, when I was getting my M.A. there. I've only recently learned that the ring was made by Rafael, a Brutalist designer who worked in Toronto in the 70s. It's worth about $100. I think my eye for quality is yet another "symptom" of my observer, outsider status in the world

I paired it with this Brutalist bracelet given to me by a fellow lover of vintage, and this $2, 70s pendant that my friend, Sal, bought for me when I was going to pass it up. He insisted that I must have it. 

I got this great bag at an Ingledew's sale recently; it solves one of my disability style struggles. Since my back injuries took over my life, it's very painful for me to carry anything of any weight whatsoever, like a journal or a notebook computer. It's easiest if I carry things in a backpack or close against my chest. I've been using a backpack that my step-son used in kindergarten and, trust me, it effectively ruins every outfit. This bag is a good solution.

I knew it would fit perfectly in the front basket of my mobility scooter.

And, of course, I had to be sure Beau got a photo of it doing just that.

My chronic pain disability, caused by the child abuse, is yet another thing that helps me know and see the world differently from other people. It's yet another way in which I don't fit in. It's yet another perspective from which the more fortunate could learn -- if they chose to listen. 

And so, I sally forth on my unbeaten path, noticing the good and the bad both, the decay and the beauty in decay. 

Am I, as a professor friend of mine says, "wasting a good mind"? I don't think so.

There is light and there are shadows and I exist in both. That has made my path an unusual one, but it's who I am. And I must be true to that.

(I'm sharing this over at Visible Mondays on Patti's Not Dead Yet.)


  1. Such a wonderful post! I applaud your stance in being true to yourself and your values. This comes to me on the day I was feeling low, due to being reminded I can't join in the world as others can. I also sit in the outsider's position, due to disability, gender identity, sexuality, and religiious upbringing on the mission field. As you say, these things make us who we are. I too love the beauty in decay, and notice small things others overlook, and I am also taking a long time to grey! I love the look at the plaid skirt, with your usual insights.
    And I'm glad you finally found a lovely bag for the basket...kiddie backpacks don't quite suit the erudite look! :-) xo Jazzy Jack

    1. You be surprised at how many erudite folk use sad little backpacks. But, you know, I try to look good AND be a smarty pants.

  2. I do not think that you are "wasting a good mind." You have a gift for writing and a completely unique perspective. You also have a finely tuned fashion sense. You are clearly a talented and sensitive person. I feel you have a book in you.

    1. I don't feel like I'm wasting my mind either, but some do. I'm happy to say that my former Medieval Lit prof (and now friend), who likes my mind, thinks I'm doing better with my blog than I could in academia. That's a nice feeling. Yes, I feel there's a book in me too, but one thing at time. My project this year? Getting married!

  3. It is a beautiful day isn't it? And I really have enjoyed your writing, Please don't stop. Thanks for sharing with Visible Monday. xo

    1. I'm so glad you read my writing. I think of myself primarily as a writer, but there are many who only look at the photos and so miss what my posts are really about. If they like the photos, I guess that's okay, but there's more here than meets the eye, pun intended.