Category Archives: Identity

Off to College: Student Imaginings and Creating an Aloha Spirit

I’m 18 and about to go off to college. I think I’m supposed to see this moment as an opportunity to refresh, to become untethered from my life before college. In other words, find my personal identity.

What I hope will happen in college is that I will find a core group of friends who are similar to me in some ways.

What makes me anxious about going to college is that the academics will be more challenging than I might have imagined.

People ask me if I’m excited about starting college. Although I say that I am, I don’t want to have expectations that are too high and be disappointed.

I think it will be an adjustment to have roommates.

Because my parents have taught me well, I’m confident that I will have good judgment about right and wrong.

I can’t wait until I’ve completed my first semester and I’m comfortable in the environment and with my routine.

I think my parents are as anxious as I am because they don’t know how well I will adjust.

I would love it if I can be the best version of myself and college proves to be a positive and inspiring experience.

It may be too much to wish for, but after the isolation of the COVID pandemic, I want my college experience to be an adventure full of fun encounters that I will always remember.


I’m 24, the single mother of a 4-year-old and I’m about to start college. I see starting college as a key and pivotal moment in which my life will finally come into focus.

What I hope will happen in college is that I will discover and develop talents that I never realized I had.

What makes me anxious about going to college are the challenges of doing well in school and being a good mother to my child. I will need to balance my life in a way that I’ve never had to do before. I’ve been successful in working and taking care of my child, but the addition of college courses will test my ability to do it all well. I’m fortunate that my parents are willing to be a back-up for taking care of my 4-year-old’s needs.

People ask if I’m excited about starting college and I tell them that it’s exciting and terrifying in many ways. My greatest fear is that the courses, faculty, and collegiate environment won’t live up to my high expectations. I’m willing to take out the loans and to continue working and doing whatever is necessary to go to college, so I want to know and feel that it is worth it.

I think it will be an adjustment to be in a classroom with students who are just finishing high school and with people much older than me. I don’t fit with either group. Although I’m relatively young, my experiences as a single mother have made me more mature in many ways.

Because my parents have taught me well, I understand that sometimes sacrifices must be made in order to accomplish your goals. I have the resilience to stick to my plan, barring negative circumstances beyond my control.

I can’t wait until I actually have my books and can begin my journey to reach my potential. I feel like I postponed my life by not going to college immediately after high school, and now I have a chance to fulfill my highest goals.

I think my parents believe in me and that makes all the difference. They have always had my back, and that fact gives me confidence that I can succeed.

I would love it if I could accelerate the time to complete my degree requirements and find a group of folks with whom I can develop friendly relationships.

It may be too much to wish for, but I hope that someone such as a mentor or teacher will help me discover what I know is waiting for me and will help me use my education as a perch from which to soar!


Though these future college students are in different stages of their lives, they both are hesitant to allow themselves to feel the true excitement of attending college. Why might this be the case?

Storybook and movie versions of college often depict an environment in which people are interacting and having fun together. Also, in imaginings prior to college, individuals cannot help but feel that this is an opportunity and time when they can be all that they can be.

These expectations can be shattered when in a classroom, residence hall, dining hall, or just walking across campus if they feel as if they are in the wrong place or that they are unexpected visitors. When one feels like this, headphones and text messages are a refuge. The student doesn’t have to look at those who won’t acknowledge them. They don’t have to risk looking at someone who won’t look back. They don’t have to feel the sting of being invisible.

College and university staff, especially in Student Affairs, understand the need for a welcoming campus climate and they provide resources for students to be involved or to get help when needed. However, it takes initiative on the part of the student or someone close to the student to move toward what is available to help students feel as if they belong at this college.

Many students genuinely don’t want to be involved in any prescribed activity. However they do want to be in a warm and friendly environment.

I think colleges and universities with students on campus ought to require everyone to do their part in making the environment welcoming. In short, everyone should contribute to an Aloha Spirit throughout the community.

I’ve seen the idea of creating an aloha environment work. Dr. Doris Ching, a highly respected administrator for years at the University of Hawaii, was president of the NASPA Board of Directors during 1999-2000. Traditionally, the annual conference is the culmination of the term of the board president and a showcase for their leadership. How well the conference was attended and feedback on the quality of the speakers and programs often served as measures of the success. 

Having no control over the conference’s location, which often drives attendance, Dr. Ching decided that the conference marking the end of her term would be one where every person attending would feel more welcomed than they had ever felt at any conference before.

Dr. Ching made it a thing that not just NASPA staff and volunteers, but every single person who attended the conference was given the duty to contribute to the Aloha Spirit. All the nametags had some kind of message such as “Happy You’re Here” or “How can I help you?” Dr. Ching, herself, was the role model, for there simply is no more gracious and welcoming person. She modeled how everyone was to contribute to the spirit of aloha.

In every way possible, Dr. Ching conveyed the message that everyone was responsible for making everyone else feel welcome. People got the message. Although it sometimes seemed that people were self-conscious about their active role in creating this warm and welcoming environment, they wanted to do this because Dr. Ching asked them to.

As we traversed the hallways, it seemed that everyone was smiling, nodding, and in some way greeting others. As we passed one another on escalators, we were waving and smiling as we greeted people. In the conference program spaces, people were introducing themselves to the persons sitting near them. I’d never seen anything like it. I observed and was part of this experiment that proved that an aloha spirit can be created when everyone takes responsibility for making all in the community feel welcome.

At the end of the conference, it didn’t matter how many people had attended. The point Dr. Ching wanted to make was realized. Everyone was an ambassador and felt personally responsible for creating an environment where everyone else could feel that they mattered.

Simple gestures such as looking at someone, perhaps smiling, or saying hello are small acts of kindness when encountering other humans, especially those in your college community.   Speaking and smiling when encountering a fellow human being is not just about manners. It’s all the other things that these gestures represent.

Constant and pervasive messages about everyone’s responsibility to create a positive and welcoming environment is worth a try. I saw it work at a conference where people were only together for a few days.

What effect might it have if the college environment is a mirror that reflects and reinforces the positive self-image that these students have of themselves as they embark on their college careers?

Faith Journey: Who Tells Your Story

Guest blog by Florence Dungy

I was very pleased when Gwen asked me to write a piece on any subject that I wanted for her blog….

When I was younger, I thought life was basically random. I grew up in southern Illinois in Carmi, located on the Little Wabash River. The population was around 5,000 people.

Carmi was my dad’s hometown. He was born in 1914 and grew up attending a segregated school and the segregated Mitchell Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. My mom met my dad when she came to Carmi to visit her uncle who lived in nearby Maunie. My parents married in 1943.

My mother had been born in 1919 and raised in Whiteville, in western Tennessee. She also attended segregated schools and was raised in the Bartlett Colored Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church. The name was changed to Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in 1954.

My brother Charles and I were both born in St. Louis, Missouri—he in 1944 and I in 1947. Our family moved back to Carmi in December 1947.

There were very few Black people in Carmi. Charles would integrate Washington School by going to the first grade at age 6. My mom took Charles to school on the first day. When she went back to pick him up, she said she met him already on the way home, happy and skipping down the street. After Charles passed away, several of his classmates wrote me that they remembered meeting him in the first grade.

Growing up, Charles was much more self-assured than I was. He excelled in math and science and played basketball. He was outgoing and everybody liked him. I was concerned with being nice and polite and modest. I liked reading and writing and English.

Our lives in Carmi were integrated in every way except for church. This was a time when most people went to church, which at that time was largely identified as mainline Protestant denominations. I do remember going to Vacation Bible School, concerts, and programs at the White churches, but on Sunday we went to Mitchell Chapel AME Church.

While the theme of the Civil Rights Movement was “We Shall Overcome,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s oft-repeated observation in 1963 that 11:00 Sunday morning was “the most segregated hour in this nation” was certainly the reality in Carmi.

Mitchell Chapel was located a block off Main Street across the river in East Carmi. The church must have had a guardian angel, for in today’s world it would certainly be condemned as a fire and safety hazard. The church leaned to one side, there was only one entrance, and there was neither running water nor a bathroom. We had an old-fashioned coal stove and one of the men who lived across from the church would go early and make a fire when it was cold.

Not all of the Black people in Carmi attended the church, but they would come to funerals and also to fundraisers. There were probably 15 to 20 of us attending Sunday services, for which I remember getting dressed up and having new outfits for Christmas and Easter programs. We became part of a circuit with two other AME churches in Harrisburg and Carrier Mills, Illinois.

We were pioneers. My mother was the church recording secretary, and my dad was the lay reader and taught Sunday School. On Communion Sunday, we put up the white cloth around the altar and served communion with a chalice, using the silver communion set for the grape juice and wafers.

I remember the Sunday the minister “opened the doors of the church” and Charles walked forward to the altar to join. I followed him, joining the church because he did. Charles was in high school, and I was in junior high. Everybody cried.

We never invited any classmates to the church, and I am sure most people did not know the church existed because of the isolated location. When classmates asked where I went to church, I remember answering in a low voice and not with any pride. I do not remember any of the ministers as being special or giving outstanding sermons. We did not have a choir, but I do remember students from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale coming to sing.

 In the late 1960s, Mitchell Chapel was allowed “to die” with the changing times. My family would be joyfully welcomed into the Carmi First United Methodist Church (FUMC). We had many friends at FUMC and would make new ones. My mom was especially happy and would become very involved in church activities.

When I graduated from Carmi Township High School in 1965, I did not have a plan beyond knowing that I would leave Carmi. I was encouraged and expected to leave by everybody including my parents and teachers. I moved to Champaign, Illinois, to stay with my aunt and attended Illinois Commercial College.

In Champaign, I attended Bethel AME Church. The church had a choir and a good minister, and I could get involved in activities of my own choosing. I knew a few people and made more friends. Most of all I knew the AME liturgy and songs having learned them at Mitchell Chapel AME. I became an usher and taught Sunday School briefly.

Charles was at Eastern Illinois University in nearby Charleston. He would come to Champaign on weekends and practiced teaching math at Champaign Central High School.

There were just a few Black students at the Commercial College. Just before graduation the man who was in charge at the school sent me to talk with the State Director at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Farmers Home Administration State Office in downtown Champaign. He offered me a job and I accepted. I had just turned 19 years old. The office was small and convenient to where I lived, was with the federal government, and the employees were friendly and welcoming.

I would at times have challenges working with USDA but it was very beneficial to me overall. I worked with many smart and helpful supervisors and co-workers and made life-long friends. I felt rewarded and USDA enabled me to transfer from Champaign to St. Louis and Washington, DC. I received training, took business trips, and was able to retire after 41 years of service with a pension and health insurance.

When I moved to St. Louis, I joined Centenary United Methodist Church, which was part of the Plaza Square apartment complex where I lived downtown. Centenary was an elegant and historic church. I became a greeter and served on the church board for a year and participated with other programs and activities.

Charles and Gwen had met in college at Eastern, and married in 1967, when I was 20. They now lived not too far from me in suburban St. Louis with their young son Dan, but would later move to the Washington, DC, area. When an opportunity and encouragement came for me to also move to DC three years after they did, I wanted to move but also felt uncertain about doing so.

It would have been easy to stay in St. Louis. The move would take me away from the Midwest and my family, but I also knew I could easily fly home for vacations. DC was expensive and I wondered if I would be able to find an apartment and live in a safe and nice part of the city. I prayed and knew I wanted the transfer. I found a nice and very small apartment in a pleasant part of the city with the help of a friend. Being on the bus route and convenient to the Metro, it was a short commute downtown to work.

I had read about Metropolitan AME Church before I moved to Washington. The church was convenient to where I lived. It was a beautiful and historic church with a storied history and prominent members. Walking in the church, you feel the ancestors. I would come to understand that the AME Church, which was founded in Philadelphia in 1816 by Richard Allen, was about so much more than just segregation. I joined the church and became involved in many activities including ushering, the Love and Peace Missionary Society, the food bank, and serving as a chaplain for a seniors’ club. I took my co-workers to the church on weekdays when the seniors prepared a soul-food lunch.

I came to feel I was following God’s plan for me, which had always been there from the beginning. I would never have joined Metropolitan AME if I had not been raised in Mitchell Chapel AME Church in Carmi.

Watching the Communion Sunday church service online during Covid, I would use the Mitchell Chapel chalice my mom had given me before she passed and really feel the connection between the two churches.

I had been in Washington for 12 years and Metropolitan AME was going through changes. I was ready for a change also. The Washington National Cathedral was close to where I lived in northwest Washington. I had visited and toured the Cathedral and was awed by the beauty and peacefulness of the church and the grounds.

I liked the idea of the Nation’s Church which welcomed everybody. I did not expect to become a Cathedral volunteer or think it was even possible for me. I was not an Episcopalian. I made friends and met with the volunteer coordinator to find my place. I could volunteer at the Cathedral and still keep my membership and participation at Metropolitan AME. I would start as a greeter and become an usher, a lay reader, and volunteer in the gift shop.

My last time with Charles a week before he passed away would be attending a Sunday morning service in the Cathedral. Most people did not know Charles was seriously ill. When he passed away from a rare disease, I wondered why it had been him instead of me. At the end of the play Hamilton, there is a song “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” I felt I survived to tell Charles’ story. I was the only connection to Carmi and our classmates.

I belong to a grief support group and recently we discussed how we would like to be remembered. I would like to be remembered as a Christian hopefully for kindness and outreach and inclusiveness and for understanding and forgiveness for myself and others. I feel blessed for the ways in which God has led, and I pray he will continue to guide me along my journey. 

 Florence Dungy is Gwen Dungy’s sister-in law.

The Ephemeral Nature of “Leadership”

It is encouraging to see increasing numbers of people from previously underrepresented groups being selected as leaders of colleges and universities.

However, if they feel empowered by the title of leader, they must beware of the trap. Though it has a long history behind it, leadership is a false concept and there are no algorithms for it.

Leadership is ephemeral. It motivates on the one hand and mocks on the other. It’s like a specter. No matter how much one studies and searches for it, it will not materialize. Ghost-like, it floats in front of one’s eyes urging a chase.  

As ubiquitous and as powerful as the idea of leadership is, my wish for these new leaders is that they will experience the incredible lightness of knowing that leadership should never be an end in itself.

Who We Are

When a dear and trusted friend who has been super cautious regarding COVID said that she would risk dying to see this film, I decided that I had to see it as well.

Who We Are movie poster with Black man looking at American flag

Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in Americais a documentary written and told by Jeffrey Robinson and directed by Emily and Sarah Kunstler.

Without hyperbole, Robinson makes the case that since Africans were brought to the shores of the Americas, there have been conscious and deliberate efforts to keep people with black skin enslaved in one way or another.

The film uses a graphic to show what continues to occur. A small ball climbs slowly up one side of a curve and when it reaches the very top of the curve, instead of continuing to move forward, it slides back down the curve to where it began. Though I don’t know much about physics, I think that the climb up to the top of the curve was slow and hard, but the descent, with the force of gravity, was swift and strong.

Though disappointed that more people didn’t choose to see this documentary with the word “racism” in the title, I was glad that I was the only person in the theater, alone with my feelings. I left the theater thinking that the nature and culture of our country is the same old song. Some of the lyrics are re-arranged, but the chorus stays the same.

In Spite of It All

If you were asked to describe yourself—regardless of the circumstances or situations—as generally optimistic or pessimistic, what would be your honest assessment? Would your personal emoji be the upturned or downturned smile? When you’re shown the glass with water, is it half full or half empty?

Asked if she was an optimist, Stacey Abrams, responded, “No I’m an amelliorist which is something I made up. I believe that the glass is half full. It’s just probably poisoned. And so my job is always to be on the hunt for the antidote” (“The Story Behind Stacey Abrams’s Fiction Career,” The Atlantic, June 2021).

The idea of being an amelliorist has stuck with me. Would an amelliorist be…

  • one who, in spite of having been betrayed, dares to trust again?
  • one who has seen and experienced injustice and in spite of it continues to fight for justice?
  • one who sees that nothing has changed and in spite of it continues to hope that things will change?
  • one who exhibits a spiritual strength that inspires and unites in spite of the emotional toll?
  • one who, in spite of having one’s own hopes dashed, shares a sense of hopefulness with and for others?
  • one who finds something to learn in spite of the worst of circumstances?

Am I an amelliorist? The mnemonic FIRE that defines my life’s values begins with two words for the letter “F.” Faith and Fate.

Fate has caused me to experience situations that I would rather have avoided, and in spite of it, I have had faith that I will get to the other side of whatever uncomfortable circumstance I’m currently experiencing. Fate makes me understand that life is a crapshoot; sometimes I get the poisoned water but, through my faith, magical thinking, or divine intervention, I’m not thirsty and don’t have to drink the poisoned water. 

Or fate has found me in a situation where quenching my thirst with this particular half glass of water is my only option for survival. In spite of the threat of death, I drink the poisoned water and because of my faith, the poison has no negative effect on me.

As one calendar year ends and another begins for optimists and pessimists (and amelliorists) alike, perhaps this is the optimum time to be mindful of our individual and collective efforts to search for a synthesis of our optimistic and pessimistic selves in order to discover and maintain the equilibrium necessary for us to find meaning and purpose in our lives in spite of external circumstances over which we have no control.

All My Sisters and Me

In March 1992, my Black sisters and I were in San Antonio attending the annual conference of a professional women’s organization. Historically, the organization’s membership had been virtually all White, except for a couple of notable Black women who were the best in their field. By 1992, our coterie of Black sisters had increased to a small minority with some status.

During a free afternoon, five of my sisters and I decided to shop for pottery and jewelry while enjoying the sights along the River Walk. 

Not too far from the hotel, we encountered an Asian American colleague who was usually in solidarity with us because the same issues and concerns Black members raised also plagued other nonmajority members. The number of Asian American and Pacific Islander women in this organization could be counted on one hand.

My sisters and I greeted our colleague warmly and we embraced all around. A fellow member of the program committee, I asked if she knew what time the meeting was that evening. Expressing dismay that I didn’t get the notice, she let me know it was to be at 7:30 p.m. After more hugs, she moved on. 

Now knowing the time of the committee meeting, I suggested to my sisters that we get something to eat while we were out during the afternoon so I could eat with them.

We continued to meander down the River Walk, stopping to look in shops along the way. In one of the shops, “Diva” expresses great admiration and interest in a lovely bracelet. I encouraged her to buy it, going so far as to ask the clerk if he would give her a discount because she really liked the bracelet. He agreed to give the discount and she bought the bracelet. I felt happy for her, and I’m sure I beamed with satisfaction.

As we continued our shopping, it seemed that Diva was determined that I also buy something, no matter what it was. Eventually, I became annoyed. My motive in encouraging her to buy came from a good place. I did not feel that her motive was the same.   

Sometime after I had suggested that we eat while we were out, a couple of my sisters began making comments such as, “Gwen is hungry, so we better get something to eat.” I was accustomed to the teasing, so their comments didn’t bother me.

We chose a Thai restaurant. During the latter part of what was an amiable dinner, Diva, who was new in the organization, apparently feeling comfortable with us, said that she felt unwelcome when she first joined, feeling that the organization was “cliquish.”

“Elegant “responded in a friendly tone, “I was friendly with you.” I followed up her comment with, “I also befriended you. Do you remember that I invited you to lunch?”

Diva responded in a less than friendly tone, “Yeah, but that was business.”

Taken aback, I mused, “I thought I was being friendly; how did you get the idea that it was business?”

Two of my sisters said nothing and just stared as “Admiral” and Elegant tried to convince Diva that things were not as she perceived them. When I sensed that Diva felt strongly about her initial feelings and seemed to want to be able to express them and be heard, I wanted us to empathize with her and give her experience the respect it deserved.

Sage that I must have thought I was, I said, “You know, Diva, you really might have felt a chilliness toward you because it’s not uncommon for people as strikingly attractive as you are to cause some people, perhaps unconsciously, to wait and see before they extend a welcome and acceptance.”

Diva’s lips turned down and her eyes seemed to float out of their sockets as she responded, “Yes! I’ve experienced this before, and I think people who put themselves up as important and as ‘sisters’ are just hypocrites because they usually do this kind of thing.”

I had apparently touched a nerve. I tried to close this box of snakes that I had opened, saying, “People are human, and this can be a natural and unconscious reaction….,” but Admiral cut me off, declaring, “This is not true in this group. Maybe when males are in the group, the competition is there but not in this group of women professionals.”

The mood definitely changed, and I could smell the stink of anger in the air. 

When we are outside the restaurant, Admiral got in my face, saying, “Gwen, I can’t believe you said that!” “How can you think that?” I’m a part of this organization and I know this is not true.”

I felt apologetic and tried to explain that I was just trying to make Diva feel better. Admiral cut her eyes away from me and walked ahead with Elegant. From their postures and movements, I gathered that they were talking about me and rejecting me for my comment.

In the meantime, Diva fell in step with me, saying, “I believe what you said, and I want to talk with you further about this.” Not wanting to keep this line of conversation going, I escaped from Diva and began walking in step with the silent sisters. Diva kept talking with anyone who came near her. My other four sisters got very interested in the pottery we passed along the way, ignoring what Diva was saying.

I deliberately walked next to Admiral and said, “I know you want to kill me for making that comment, but when you think about human behavior, what I said could be a possible motive for the chilliness that Diva felt. Jealousy and envy are real.”

“I’m not going to kill you,” responded Admiral, “but you have so much going for you—you have this nice little shape, shapely legs…. You don’t have any reason to feel as you do.”

“I’m not feeling that way!” I protested. “I’m speaking generally!”

Admiral ignored my comment and told me that I wouldn’t be late for my meeting because we’re only a couple of blocks away. I had no idea how to get back, and told her so, but she only said, “It’s easy,” and turned away. 

No one said goodbye to me. With a sigh of exasperation, I began my search for the right direction to return to the hotel for the 7:30 p.m. program committee meeting.

Mixed Emotions

Zaila Avant-garde holding national spelling bee trophy with confetti coming down

I wasn’t surprised by my mixed emotions, several weeks ago, when headline after headline and several television stations were hailing the accomplishments of Zaila Avant-garde, the first African American champion of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee. My feelings were complicated to say the least:

  • Elation for Zaila and her family and what this means for her future.
  • Collective pride, along with other Black Americans, that her hard work was rewarded.
  • Shame that the screaming headlines that highlighted the fact that Zaila is Black may cause some to draw the illogical conclusion that what Zaila did was extraordinary because Black Americans don’t usually have the intellectual capacity for such a feat.
  • Resentment that the United States is still recognizing “the first” among Black Americans.
  • Anger because “until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Black children were routinely banned from participating in spelling bees. All winners were White until Puerto Rican Hugh Tosteson Garcia was named champion in 1975.” (Shalini Shankar, “Zaila Avant-garde’s Spelling Bee win sends exuberant message,” Opinion, CNN online, July 9, 2021)
  • Disheartened that “Indian American winners who have steadily won since 1998 have endured a litany of racism on broadcast and social media for not being ‘American’—code for not being White. Seen by many as outsiders, and as part of communities subjected to waves of anti-Asian violence, they are left to make sense of negative reactions to their success in the form of calls for ‘real Americans’ to regain control of this contest.” (Shankar, “Zaila Avant-garde’s Spelling Bee”)

Despite my mixed emotions, I’m glad that Zaila received so much attention because her success will alert other families and their children that they, too, can have the kind of success that Zaila, the scholar-athlete, has achieved.

Clothes: Uplift and Downer

Luevinia, Altoria, and Vidella were my best friends in the sixth grade at Melrose School in Memphis.

The scene was on the playground at recess after lunch. I won’t go into the pretend marriage between a boy I liked and myself, but it was on this occasion that my three friends—who were getting me ready for the pretend wedding—decided that the clothes that I was wearing were just “too ugly” for the “wedding.”

Vidella decided to lend me her pink sweater to cover up what I was wearing. I had never had such a soft lovely piece of clothing that I could remember. I felt beautiful in the sweater. The photo that resulted showed me posing as if I were a movie star, with head thrown back to highlight the grin on my face and one hand behind my head for good measure.

Another photo that reminds me of how clothes can be an uplift or a downer was taken when I was fourteen. Although I had moved to live with my mother in Chicago two years earlier, my brother had stayed with my dad. So, on the occasion of my brother’s seventh birthday, my mother and I traveled back to Memphis. 

The birthday party was something of a reunion, in that the kids I had played with when I lived in that neighborhood were there. My living in Chicago would have been something to increase my status among the kids if it had not been for what I was wearing.

Cute shorts and tops with sandals were the expected standard for the girls. Why, then, was I wearing my one-piece green gym suit from school with the elastic waist and elastic mid-thigh? I had no cute shorts and tops. The gym suit was my only option to keep cool in the heat of August in Memphis. Needless to say, I tried to stay out of sight as much as possible.

During the time when I was applying to colleges, my mother was losing jobs. She told me that there was no money to pay for my senior pictures. Understanding the situation, I told her that I would take the pictures and, if there was money when it was time to pay for the pictures, we would buy them.

The instructions for the photos was that the girls were to wear a black sweater and white pearls. My only sweater was a drab, olive-green, nubby-like sweater that looked as if it needed a clothes shaver. It was totally wrong for the picture. I didn’t have pearls either. My mother had some gold-painted beads that I paired with the ugly sweater.

When it was time to buy the pictures, my mother had the needed money. It was later that I found out that she had pawned the treasured wedding rings that my stepfather had given her in order to have the money for my senior pictures. With new eyes, I not only felt bad that she had pawned the rings; I felt even worse than bad because I had complained about not having a black sweater and white pearls.

Clothing, Confidence, and ‘ccomplishment

Clothes don’t make the person.
It’s not what you wear it’s who you are.

My mother’s parents probably used similar words and sentiments when she asked for new clothes.

My mother and a boy named Wesley Lee were the only students in the school that the teachers thought were ready to take the exams required to graduate from the eighth grade. The exams were given at the Sunflower County Seat in Mississippi (M-i-crooked letter-crooked letter-i-crooked letter-crooked letter-i-humpback-humpback-i) rather than at the school.

This trip was a very special occasion and a testament to the accomplishments of these students.   My mother’s Aunt Alma (by way of marriage to my mother’s daddy’s brother) promised to get her the white dress and shoes that girl graduates were required to wear. Instead of buying new clothes and shoes, Aunt Alma gave my mother one of her old white dresses that she often wore to church and a pair of her white, old-lady, blocky-heeled shoes. The shoes were so much larger than my mother’s feet that she had to wear them with socks instead of nylons.

My mother was so embarrassed about how she looked in Aunt Alma’s clothes that, for the first time that she could remember, she was nervous and scared. Thinking about how awful she looked caused her baking soda deodorant to stop working. She could smell her sweaty underarms and was sure everyone else could too. Although she passed the exams, the memory of the shame about how she looked and felt in those clothes lasted.

Words and sentiments thought to teach and appease get passed down through generations when parents can’t afford or won’t buy their children the clothes they need and want.

I was living with my dad; my mother was living in Chicago. When my dad didn’t buy me clothes, I would write to my mother to ask her to buy me what I wanted or needed.

When all the other kids in fourth and fifth grades were wearing penny loafers, I was still wearing the scuffed white and black Oxford shoes that had been popular in previous years. The really cool kids put a nickel or dime in the slot where the penny was supposed to go. I really wanted penny loafers! I even sent my mother a picture of the shoes in case she didn’t know what they were. I never did wear penny loafers. I didn’t feel that I belonged.

When it was time for school pictures, I wrote my mother to ask her to please send me a new coat. I told her that when I took school pictures the year before, the sleeves on my coat were too short and kids laughed at how I looked. My sleeves were even shorter in the next pictures since I was wearing the same coat. I was ashamed and felt ugly.

Clothes may or may not make the person. Clothes may or may not cause others to prejudge based on what one is wearing. Clothes may or may not have an effect on one’s behavior and level of confidence. However, from my personal experience, how I think about myself in particular clothes impacts my feelings of self-confidence and ultimately how I perform the task at hand.