Thursday, July 18, 2013

Love, Loss, and What I Wore the title of a play currently running in Philly. It's basically a collection of stories, told by actresses, that share the common thread (pun intended) of clothes.

I am definitely not a clotheshorse or fashionista by any means. Part of that is dictated by time and finances--a teacher's budget and parent's schedule does not make for long, leisurely trips to the outlets (half-hour jaunts to Kohl's or TJ Maxx are more my speed). Part of that is I always think I was born in the wrong era--I love the slingback pumps and tailored suits my Grandmom sported in her engagement pictures, and I'm convinced that my wiry curls were meant to be slicked back with pomade under a smart little cloche hat.

But if I had to choose a couple of pieces from my nostalgia closet, I guess it would go something like this...

1) My prom dress. I got it at Lancaster Dress Company with my mom; it was probably the second one I tried on. Cream-colored lace, off-the-shoulder, long sleeved, with a tiered skirt. It was comfortable, beautiful, and I felt like a fairy princess in it. I loved it so much that I wore it to 2 proms--my own, escorted by Bobby, a short, sweet little sophomore, and my friend Jim's. I had met Jim doing shows at a local boys' school, which closed after his junior year. I convinced him to try out for my own school's play senior year, and introduced him to my circle of friends. Although we were never romantically attached (he is now happily partnered up with a great guy), he later told me that he asked me to his prom to thank him for saving his senior year. "Without you," he said, "I never would have been 'in'."

2) My red suede Marcia Brady vest. I spent many a paycheck in high school and college at the Lansdowne Thrift Shop. "Vintage" style was starting to take off, and I found some fantastic pieces which, after several rounds in the washer, no longer reeked of mothballs--true bell-bottom jeans, retro skirts, old-man cardigans (which Kurt Cobain had made cool), and the odd piece of grandma jewelry to funkify any outfit. But my best find was a form-fitting maroon suede vest with big toggle buttons. I wore it to numerous college parties and bars, always garnering compliments. "I got it at the THRIFT SHOP!" I would crow. Macklemore would be proud.

3) My grey high school jumper. Going to a Catholic school, we had a choice of uniforms--grey or plaid kilt with a white blouse and maroon sweater, or jumper with a Peter Pan collar, finished off with penny loafers and maroon tights or socks (always pushed down around the ankle, even in the dead of winter). After suffering through freshman year in the kilt combination (which got hotter and itchier as summer approached), I opted for the jumper. The jumper also required an emblem sewn over the heart, with different colors representing which year you were in. Senior year, I wore the same emblem my mom had worn on her jumper years before (in addition to the very important badges I had earned as a senior, such as "Chorus Treasurer" and "Spanish Honor Society President"). Many a morning I still wish I could just throw on that jumper, instead of rooting around the closet.

4) My khaki "safari style" dress. One hot summer day in 2001, I was wandering around Century 21 in Manhattan's financial district and happened upon this simple khaki dress. As a teacher, I was always looking for cute and comfortable dresses, and this was perfect. Plus, it had multiple pockets (great for sticking my MetroCard in a jiffy). On the first day of school that year, I donned my new dress and went off to meet my freshmen. Little did I know I would wind up spending almost 36 hours in that dress, and how much it would reek of smoke by the time I took it off. Every year since, on 9/11, I wear that same dress.

5) My wedding dress. Although it wasn't my first choice, it was still a beautiful dress--cap sleeves, beaded bodice, and a fabulous train that bustled up under a bow. My veil was a "Juliet-style" coronet, and I wore NR's grandmother's pearls. The day was long and hot, but I savored every moment in that dress, knowing I would never wear it again.

6) My first maternity shirt. Practically the minute I found out I was pregnant, I ran out to Target and bought a maternity top--a blue Liz Lange wraparound shirt. I wouldn't be showing for another five months, but I proudly wore that shirt as a badge of honor, convinced that everyone could tell. I was also so terrified of doing anything "wrong" during my first pregnancy, including wearing a too-tight shirt, so I felt like I was giving my little baby plenty of room to stretch and grow (although he had nothing to stretch for a while!).

7) My Levis. Yup, just a plain old pair of flare jeans that I bought right off the shelf without trying on. They're probably about ten years old now, and every time I do a closet cleanout I mean to throw them away, but I just can't. They have served me well on mission trips, auditions, movie dates, maternity leaves, you name it. I can't let them go. They are tragically out of date now in this skinny-jean world, but I love them and they love me. Case closed.

8) My navy Calvin Klein dress. Several years ago, I was called in for a third interview for a job I desperately wanted. I knew I needed a killer outfit to seal the deal. I got my hair and nails done, and combed through multiple stores until I landed at Marshall's for something else. And there it was--a navy button-down CK dress with a smart little tie belt. I tried it on and felt like a million bucks--it was flattering and gave me a sophisticated confidence. Although it was an oppressively hot day, I marched into that interview feeling terrific...only to not get the job. I was devastated. The dress hung in my closet for a year, a pathetic reminder of my crushing disappointment. And then...I was called in to interview for my current job. I got the dress dry-cleaned, donned it again, and on another hot day, strode in with all the confidence my bruised ego could muster. And I nailed it.

There have been others in the grad-school uniform of tank top/floral skirt/flip-flops, my retro polka-dot bathing suit from high school, the red wool coat trimmed with fake cheetah fur I found at Andy's Chee-Pees in the East Village...all artifacts from vastly different times in my life, all worn with a purpose, all costumes for who I was, when I was, where I was. Perhaps not all attached to love and loss, but definitely what I wore was what I was.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Dream Achieved.

Okay. I'm not THAT bad.

My very first drama teacher was a fabulous woman named Rhonda. She wore fabulous scarves, had fabulous hair, and played fabulous music by Stevie Wonder. She made us all feel like the special little snowflakes we thought we were. Every time I entered her theater classroom, with the soft spotlights and air-conditioning blasting, I felt safe and secure enough to take risks and push myself.

I had other terrific drama teachers throughout middle school (Lenny, Terry), theater programs (Colleen, Tina, Rob), and college/grad school (Theresa, Peg, Frank, Joe, Vincent). And all along, I hoped to one day be in their ranks.

But it wasn't enough to just teach drama. I had spent my formative years at a Quaker school. And while I certainly had my share of adolescent woes, Quaker education laid the foundation for my open mind and social conscience.

Senior year of college (before the days of Facebook), a friend sent around one of those chain email surveys that were totally inane (favorite ice-cream flavor! favorite Saturday morning cartoon!) but suddenly fascinating when you were supposed to be studying for finals. One of the questions was "dream job". I quickly typed in "Teaching Drama in a Quaker school."

I knew the chances were slim to none. While there are a number of Quaker schools in the Northeast (specifically the Philly area), teaching jobs there are highly coveted. Drama teaching jobs are even more coveted (since often there is just one teacher at a school--you are a lonely department of one).

So I got certified to teach English, and used that to build up my teaching resume--directing and teaching theater whenever I could squeeze it in. Entering the drama classroom or rehearsal room was always, ALWAYS the highlight of my teaching day. I remember so clearly directing a scene in the mini-theater at Cathedral High School (in midtown Manhattan), probably in my mid-twenties, and catching myself so alive and energized. "This is it," I realized. "I am GOOD at this. I LOVE this."

Upon moving back to PA, I used that old English certification to snap up a job teaching English at a private girls' school. "This will be better," I convinced myself. "I'll have more time for my baby now that I'm not directing." But after 5 years of mountains of essays, a breakneck monotonous schedule, philosophical differences, broken promises of actually allowing me to teach a drama class or start a legit theater program at the school, and another baby, I could feel the slow burn...of burning out. I had another a-ha moment...but not quite as lovely as my previous one. I was walking across the beautiful campus one day, and just felt my spirit sort of...slipping away. "Why aren't I happy?" I asked myself. "Why can't I just appreciate that this is a perfectly good job?" But I was a drama teacher trapped in an English teacher's body...and everyone knew it. I started going on interviews for something more in my field, always coming right down to the finish line...only to be told "we're going with someone else." My friends and family patiently listened to each disappointing story, only to pat my hand and tell me, "Something better will come along."

And then...some sunlight started to peek through the clouds. I applied for a "part-time English position; theater experience preferred" at--ding ding ding!--a Quaker school. I was to teach 2 English classes and produce the school shows. They hired me the day of my interview, and I just finished a blissfully satisfying, joyful, energizing first year. I can't tell you how many times I caught myself saying "Yes, THIS. This is exactly where I'm supposed to be."

Last month, I signed my contract for next year. I'll be teaching 2 English classes, 3 Drama classes, and still steering the entire theater program (I opted not to direct for the time being, which will allow me more "Mommy time").

"Hold fast to dreams," Langston Hughes wrote. I was beginning to think that was futile and, perhaps, selfish. But I did hold fast. And this is no longer a dream deferred, but a dream achieved.