Category Archives: reflection

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. 

Amazing Grace

Patricia Telles-Irving

Dr. Patricia Telles-Irvin assumed her position as vice president for student affairs at Northwestern University in 2011—the same year that she began her term as president of the NASPA Board of Directors. As executive director of NASPA, I was aware of the difficult decisions that she had to make and the many responsibilities that she carried ever-so-thoughtfully and gracefully in both of her leadership positions.

When I think of the year that I spent close to her as a colleague, friend, and confidant, I realize even more in retrospect that she was the epitome of love, kindness, and compassion. She was amazing grace, a gift to the world. I am privileged and honored to have known her and to call her friend.

RIP PTI 2019

A Pie in the Face

Sometimes you can have your cake and eat it too.

Other times, you get a pie in the face when you think that you can tell your boss and colleagues that you’re ready to seek other employment.

Things start to happen…sort of like eating pie outside at a picnic table. Like a fly buzzing your pie, you fan away the rumors you hear about why you’re really looking for another job.

Then there are a few more flies, but you think you can still swat them away because your boss has just given you an evaluation so flattering about your accomplishments that you’re embarrassed.

Because of the increasing number of flies, you cover your pie carefully and put it in a safe place.

You tell your boss that you are a finalist in your search for a new position. You are asked to withdraw your application and stay one more year because you are needed. Your boss – who said that they would help in your search – tells you that the higher-ups are questioning your commitment to the institution.

You forget about the pie completely.

You make an appointment with the higher-ups. When you enter the office to attest to your commitment – WHAM! The pie you forgot about smacks you right in the face.

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The “selective” nature of memory

It’s a funny thing about memory. I’m not talking about when you find yourself in a room and can’t remember why you’re there. I’m referring to what might be called selective memory.

It was 1967 or 1968, and Charles and I were newlyweds living in our own place. We were feeling quite grownup when we extended a dinner invitation to former college classmates who were now engaged.

It might have been the cheap Chianti that we were drinking, Aretha’s Respect on the stereo, or the fact that my girlfriend had a new bright yellow Dodge Charger. For whatever reason, during the course of the evening we set a date to drive from Chicago to Florida, get on a ship, and take the short sail to the Bahamas. This would not be anything of note to remember if we had been making a well-thought-out decision.

The four of us were all beginning teachers off for the summer, and we had no money. What we had were gas credit cards that could be used at restaurants as well as gas stations. In our thinking at the time, these credit cards were all we needed. We would take turns driving the Charger and eliminate the need for a hotel on the trips to and from Florida.

I have no memory of the long drive or how we paid for the hotel in the Bahamas. What I remember is how horrified we were when we could not use our gas credit cards at restaurants in the Bahamas. We ate a lot of hot dogs in Nassau.

On the way back to Chicago, we stopped at a nice restaurant in a small hotel in Georgia. Now that we were back in the United States, we planned to use our gas credit cards to pay for our meals. I don’t recall what the rest of us ordered, but I remember that Charles ordered the most expensive entrée on the menu, “Duck a la Orange.” Seemingly pleased about the expensive selection, the server told us that this dish was a special order and would take extra time.

While we waited for our meals to be prepared, we laughed a lot and it seemed that anything any one of us said was hilarious. We were probably giddy at the prospect of a good meal. At some point, one of us noticed a sign at the reception counter that we had not seen upon entering. It read “No credit cards.”

We only had a few dollars among us. It was too late to stop the kitchen from preparing the food we had ordered. We whispered among ourselves about what we should do, all the while keeping a fearful eye on the door to the kitchen. Moving as if we were one single unit, we calmly exited the restaurant, jumped into the Charger and drove away as fast as we could.

We were scared because we thought we might be pursued by the police and hauled into jail for making that order and running out. But at the time, we knew of no other alternative than to flee.

Although we had not experienced any overt racism at the restaurant, we were uncomfortable because we were Black people in Georgia in the late 1960s. Perhaps we were hypersensitive because, on our drive to Florida, a clerk in a service station had sprayed disinfectant or something when we exited the store. So out of character for him, Charles had gone back into the store and made a confrontational comment to the clerk about what we saw as a racist gesture.

I didn’t remember this—Charles’ sister told me that we told her about this incident upon our return. If I didn’t remember this rather significant incident, I wondered what else I might have forgotten, so I called my longtime girlfriend whose Dodge Charger we’d driven to and from Florida. When I asked her what details she remembered about our trip to the Bahamas, she responded, “What trip to the Bahamas? I don’t remember taking any such trip!”

I began to relay numerous details about the trip. Then I asked, “Do you remember anything now?” She said, “No, but we were very irresponsible to take such a trip with no money!”

It’s funny how people can have the same experience and recall it differently or sometimes not at all. Perhaps most puzzling is that I recalled many aspects of the trip, but not the incident about the store clerk and Charles’ uncharacteristic reaction.  

Thinking about the selective nature of memory, perhaps my sister-in-law remembered the episode because her brother, Charles, could have been in danger. Perhaps I didn’t recall it because my mind was sparing me the trauma of what I might have been experiencing as the incident was occurring. Perhaps my girlfriend’s brain suppressed the entire trip because of some memories that involved her and her fiancé.

We say memory is selective, but it seems that the selection of what memories to recall and which ones to bury are beyond our control. We don’t consciously decide to remember this and not that, or this part and not that part. What does our brain know that we don’t know? Is our brain protecting us? If so, why do some memories cause us trauma over and over again and others make for a good story?   

It’s a funny thing about memory.

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“Old-School Selfie”

“Old-school selfie” one month before the wedding…

Doing the Best We Can

It’s Tuesday, December 16, and I’m not in a good mood because I had only five hours of sleep last night, missed my exercise, no time for any kind of breakfast, and my schedule is packed with back-to-back meetings and appointments.

 Driving to work on a familiar road as if on autopilot, my mind takes over and makes me anxious about all that I have to do before the holiday break:

  • Faculty evaluations have to be completed!
  • Search Committee for the Dean’s position has to wrap up!
  • Deadline for my follow-up response to the Middle States Report!
  • Reviews of journal articles due!  

After I arrive at the office, encounters with colleagues throughout the day put my previous worrisome thoughts into perspective. As I speak with colleagues, I feel as if I’m opening a series of doors, and behind each door there is a human being coping as best they can with every ounce of strength they have. These realities make my worries seem small and self-absorbed.

  • Door number one: Not getting along with spouse, fear that the holidays may be the time when things come to a head regarding their union.
  • Door number two: Seeing psychologist after loss of a beloved dog.
  • Door number three: Finding it too difficult to work and continue with doctoral program; will have to discontinue program.
  • Door number four: Hates the holidays; depression is an issue.
  • Door number five: Husband had an accident and may lose an eye.
  • Door number six: Husband shot in the hand, victim of a robbery.
  • Door number seven: Favorite cousin died; will be hard on the family during the holidays.
  • Door number eight: Sister will have cancer surgery after the holidays.

As I listen to each person, I become increasingly aware of our connection and the flow of feelings between us as I physically sense my colleagues’ deep distress. I feel as if we are joined together in these moments by a salve of empathy and a balm of solace.

On my drive home, I reflect on what I heard from colleagues during the day. 

Realizing the emotional burdens that each is carrying makes me wonder how they could have the spiritual strength to show up and keep moving forward.

And then I know how they—and all of us—keep moving forward:

Because we cannot allow random tricks of chance to crush our spirit.

Because sometimes our only option is to live through it.

Because, with faith, we can find the determination and resilience we need.

Because we all have to play the hand we’ve been dealt.

Because we’re all doing the best that we can with what we have.

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If Only She Had Someone To Talk To…

Work and paperwork brought home from the office meant she didn’t get to bed until around midnight most nights. Reeling from exhaustion, she would fall into bed only to have her sleep disturbed by strange dreams. There were only a handful of days in a month that she didn’t wake up with a headache, nausea, backache, and/or stomach pain. Yet, she pushed through the sick feelings to do what was expected at home and at work. During an entire year, she missed only one day of work because of sickness, and she used this as an “opportunity” to catch up on paperwork. If only she had someone to talk to.

She drove herself to do more than required on her job and in her volunteer work. She was like a robot doing what she was programmed to do. But she was not a robot, and her body kept telling her that. If only she had someone to talk to.

Why the struggle? She was a mid-level administrator. From her perspective, being mid-level in the hierarchy of administrators explained the purgatory in which she lived. If only she had someone to talk to.

Though she could see the positive results of her efforts, she was denied a sense of accomplishment or satisfaction because, before the good feelings could register, someone would do or say something that would cause her to push back in anger or retreat into a lonely shell of self-doubt. If only she had someone to talk to.

She could not understand why people resisted doing their jobs. Her attention to this would bring on accusations that she was micromanaging, and that she was managing rather than leading. If only she had someone to talk to.

Whatever staff needed for resources, she fought to get. If they had ideas about how to improve support to students, she was all in. She encouraged innovations and saw more than a few of them become successful. No one could give more to the job than she did. If only she had someone to talk to.

When particularly antagonistic staff began to misquote her and tell her that she had said things that she had not said or—even more mystifying—that they, themselves, had said, she felt incensed. If only she had someone to talk to.

When her mind seemed to be becoming a mess of tangled ends, she began to ruminate on the Joseph Heller quote from Catch 22, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” She thought, if only I had someone to talk to, someone who could see in me what I can’t see for myself.

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