Once, when I was a sophomore, I wore clothing to school that had come from one of the charity shops.
Okay, I think friends of my parents may have stolen a box of donations from a Salvation Army drop box and given them to us. I don’t really know the story of all of it, but Dad had been off and on work for some time and there was no money for everyone to have new clothes for school.
I hadn’t really changed in size since the year before. My sisters needed new clothing more than I did. There just weren’t enough hand-me-downs to cover them because there had been too many years between me and my closest in age sister.
I volunteered to make do because of the box and because my sisters needed things and we all had to make sacrifices.
There were all kinds of adult sized things in that box and I was an adult sized person. I picked out things that fit that I could have fun wearing, pretending that I was like the Sex Pistols I secretly listened to on the radio. Fuck the man! Fuck the strictures of fashion! Fuck the popularity police that roamed the halls of JFK High!
None of it was the Preppy style that was popular then, the style I really desperately wanted to fit in with the popular kids at school. What it was, however, was the right price and my size. Some of it was kind of hippie chic. Most of it was pretty generic. Oxford shirts, t-shirts, and some old jeans I was lucky enough to fit into.
One of the things was this brown pantsuit and vest. It had a very Mary Tyler Moore vibe with flared bottom pants. It was amazing. I wanted to be Mary Tyler Moore. Mary Tyler Moore was always so confident and smart and beautiful. No one called her a freak because she knew the capital of Syria is Damascus. More importantly, I needed a suit for debate, so I asked to keep it.
I loved debate. In debate, people who argued logically and presented more evidence from better sources actually won. Mostly, though, debate tended to happen during the school week and I didn’t have to beg for rides to participate. At least no one expected your mom and dad to show up to debate tournaments so I didn’t have to make excuses why they weren’t there.
Dad, when he had work in the on again off again iron industry of the 80s, worked during the day. Mom worked nights so the family didn’t have to pay for child care. They couldn’t go to my orchestra concerts. At the time, I thought it was because they secretly didn’t love me. Now I know they were doing the best they could with what they had to give. Also, neither one really liked orchestral music, so it worked out for them.
Dress nicely, the coach said. Wear a suit if you have one. I wore the amazing brown pantsuit because it was the only suit I had. For about half the day I felt powerful and beautiful.
Then someone recognized their mom’s old suit and called me out for it in the middle of the hallway during passing time. It was important at the time, but I don’t remember who now.
There was laughing and pointing and name calling. Salvation Army Shopper wearing hand-me-down clothes that weren’t good enough for her mother anymore. Someone called me a dumpster diver. Someone else said that Oscar the Grouch lived in my closet full of garbage clothing. I was the Garbage Girl and I dressed in other people’s garbage.
If embarrassment could kill, I would have died right then. At the very least I wanted to crawl into my closet and shut the door. This wasn’t the most embarrassing part of this story, though. Not by half.
The thing is, I really admired the punk music movement as much as I admired the hippies. I loved the idea that there were these iconoclasts out there who weren’t going to bow to a craven system. They were going to break it and make it better, or at the very least just live like they wanted to live. I wanted to pretend I was like Allison from the Breakfast Club and that I didn’t care what anyone thought of me.
But I wasn’t. I was like Claire. I didn’t fit in with my family. I didn’t fit in with my friends. All I wanted was to fit in. I cared very deeply about the opinions of people who ultimately meant nothing to me.
I came home crying, but I tried not to talk about what happened. It was always something. If I wasn’t being torn down because I was one of “the brains” and who wants to know all the answers anyway, I was teased by boys and girls alike for being busty (or later for being fat and busty). Or someone was telling me how ugly I am. It really never ended.
All of those things bothered me, but being called Garbage Girl got to me more than any of it. When Mama finally got out of me what had happened at school, I think she cried, too. Not in front of me. She tried never to cry in front of me. She told me not to worry about it, that teenagers were ugly and mean. I think it resonated very much with her and getting teased because she literally had only one dress to wear to school. Then we folded the amazing brown suit up and donated it.
Somehow Mama came up with money to buy me my own brand new navy blue suit.
We were getting food from the food bank. I think we might have been getting additional food assistance as well. I’m sure that Dad’s unemployment checks weren’t covering the bills. I know that in part she gave eating lunch to save the money she spent on it. I know that everyone lost out to some degree so I could have the suit. I knew it then, too. I pretended not to know what it really cost, but I did.
My pride caused my family to struggle even more that year. Everyone in my family sacrificed something that year so I could have a brand new navy blue suit.
That was the most embarrassing thing to me: My weakness. My inability to suck it up.