Can’t Buy Me Love

Teaching about clothes, class, and consumption

By Linda Christensen

Illustrator: Katherine Streeter

Anne challenged a group of girls during my senior year at Eureka High School to see who could go the longest without wearing the same outfit twice. Anne and her friends had attended Zane Junior High School. Most of their parents were doctors and lawyers; they either lived in the old lumber baron homes or the fancy new houses that hugged the sides of gullies filled with redwood trees and small streams. My friends and I attended Jacobs Junior High School. Our parents were mostly working-class folks, who toiled as electricians, butchers, or pulled the green chain at the lumber mills. We lived in modest ranch-style homes or rented on the side of town where the stink of the pulp mill became a perfume we wore on windy days.

Anne’s challenge wasn’t realistic from the get-go. The Zane girls bought clothes at Daly’s and Bistrin’s, or their mothers took them on shopping trips to Santa Rosa or San Francisco. Janet’s mother made most of her clothes, and Janice sewed her own dresses and skirts. I took jobs washing dishes or babysitting to buy a few outfits from Daly’s. My mom sewed as well, but not with the finesse of Janet’s mother. I learned to make long skirts that required only two seams and to wear a shirt long enough to cover my problematic zipper installation. I ran out of clothes after the first week. Anne won. Did she go four weeks? Seven weeks?

Clothes are class markers. And coming from my class background, I wanted desperately to fit into Anne’s world, a world where people bought clothes at department stores and went to beauty shops for haircuts and permanents.

I’ve watched this same drama play out daily in my classrooms at Jefferson and Grant High Schools in Portland, Ore.; a cruel world of one-liner jokes fly across hallways and locker rooms. “Where did you buy those shoes? Volume?” Teenagers spend nights and weekends deep-frying French fries, scooping ice cream, and selling clothing dreams to other teens so they can buy shoes or a pair of jeans that might pay a good chunk of their parents’ rent. Some risk stealing from Macy’s or Nike Town so that they can look like they have money. School becomes a preparation for a lifelong job of consumption, buying the next television, the next phone, the next house, ever bigger and ever better, to compete, to be successful, to be OK.

Equating success with wealth starts early — think of Cinderella’s magical transformation. Through clothes we can move from scullery maid to princess. With the right clothes we will be accepted and loved. The prince will fall in love with us, we’ll dance all night, and we’ll live happily ever after. The story is told again and again in cartoons, literature, television shows, movies, lotto games, and advertisements.

Students play out this story on a daily basis. Children begin ranking and sorting each other based on those material possessions: clothes, toys, electronic gear, cars. Whose is best? Who has the most? They make jokes about each other’s clothes, shoes, hair. They brag about how much they paid for their shoes or hats. For a while, my students even wore the sales tags on their hats and coats. Students purchase social cachet by wearing the right clothes, the right styles, as if they are imbued with magical power. If they have the thing, they have the status. But even if they don’t gain acceptance in the inner circle, wearing the right clothes guards them from peers’ humiliating judgments.

I realized when I first stumbled on this writing assignment that I touched a place of pain and shame that needed to be explored more fully. Students knew they hurt, but they didn’t have a social critique to help them understand their humiliation. They internalized the shame of poverty and blamed themselves or their families instead of criticizing a society that places more value on what we own than on our capacity for compassion or good work. In every lesson I construct, I want to puncture holes in the myths that make my students feel shame and doubt about themselves and their families.

Working in a high-poverty high school like Jefferson or a high school like Grant, where rich and poor rub elbows, I needed to help students shape a critique of that insistent voice that says, “Buy more,” so students could understand the origins of both the shame and the need to equate success with money.

William Stafford, Oregon’s poet laureate, wrote: “Poetry is the kind of thing you have to see from the corner of your eye . . . It’s like a very faint star. If you look straight at it you can’t see it, but if you look a little to one side it is there.” Stafford’s image holds true for prying open tough conversations in the classrooms. Sometimes I feel that I can get to more honest discussions if I initiate the conversation “a little to one side,” by extracting the lesson from student stories. When I come in with pronouncements instead of engaging students in discovering, students resist. They fight back against the idea that the web of advertising and consumption has snared them, even though they sport name brand shoes, shirts, pants, and bags. By using literature and their lives, I set the scene for them to make their own discoveries, to learn their own lessons without teacher lectures about how they are pawns in a society so consumed with consumption that after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush encouraged citizens to show their patriotism by going shopping.

Despite having serious themes that I want students to confront, this lesson leads to lots of laughter as students recall their own stories about their brushes with clothes or class. Of course, the lesson also teaches students how to read and write more effectively.

Reading Langston Hughes

We begin by reading Langston Hughes’ powerful story, “Thank You, Ma’am.” Hughes’ story tells about Roger, a young man who attempted to snatch a woman’s purse so he could buy a pair of blue suede shoes. Mrs. Louella Bates Jones caught Roger, “put a half nelson about his neck,” and took him home to her apartment where he learned a valuable lesson about compassion and forgiveness. The story prompts our discussion about why we buy—or steal— things we can’t afford.

Hughes constructs his story through a series of small scenes. As we read, I ask students to note how Hughes shows the toughness and compassion of Mrs. Louella Bates Jones. Mrs. Jones surprised Roger with her actions, maternal banter, and generosity. Through short dialogue sequences, Mrs. Jones also uncovers Roger’s living situations:

“Are you going to take me to jail?” asked the boy, bending over the sink.

“Not with that face, I would not take you nowhere,” said the woman. “Here I am trying to get home to cook me a bite to eat and you snatch my pocketbook! Maybe you ain’t been to your supper either, late as it is. Have you?”

“There’s nobody home at my house,” said the boy.

“Then we’ll eat,” said the woman. “I believe you’re hungry — or been hungry — to try to snatch my pocketbook.”

When Roger confesses that he wanted a pair of blue suede shoes, Mrs. Jones surprises him by saying, “Well, you didn’t have to snatch my pocketbook to get some suede shoes…You could have asked me…I was young once and wanted things I could not get.”

In this exchange, Hughes shows Mrs. Jones’s understanding that Roger’s poverty, not a character defect, played a role in his aborted attempt at purse snatching. This admission opens the door for student discussion about why someone would risk stealing for a pair of shoes. But the dialogue and actions also show students the art of developing characters through small scenes.

After reading this story, a student I’ll call Randy talked about stealing jewelry at Meier & Frank, a local department store, because he couldn’t afford to buy the gold chains he wanted. To move the story beyond clothes and accessories to the bigger story of class, I told the story about how I made Judd, a family friend who took me to school on rainy days, drop me off on the other side of school so no one would see me arrive in his beat-up car. Judd, being stubborn and proud, refused. He always stopped right in front of the double doors leading to the main hall of Eureka High School. This story opened up Jessica to talk about her mother’s old car, and how she asked her mother to drop her off two blocks from her school so no one would see the car and make fun of her. Felicia told the story of being stuck without a ride after school. A wealthy student from the other side of town offered her a ride home. Felicia took it, but had the student drop her off in front of a big house down the street from her small, sagging house, then waited until they drove off to walk the rest of the way home.

Reading Gary Soto

To “prime the pump” before writing our clothing narratives, we also read Gary Soto’s short story, “The Jacket,” which offers another example of a young man who believes that clothes will help him gain acceptance with his peers. In this story, a boy tells his mother that he wants a jacket “something like bikers wear: black leather and silver studs, with enough belts to hold down a small town.” Instead his mother gets him a jacket “the color of day-old guacamole.” Soto’s story prompts discussion about those clothes we’ve been forced to wear that make us feel like outcasts.

Soto’s is the anti-Cinderella story. Instead of love and acceptance, his ugly coat brings him shame and humiliation:

The next day I wore it to sixth grade and got a D on a math quiz. During the morning recess Frankie T., the playground terrorist, pushed me to the ground and told me to stay there until recess was over. My best friend,    Steve Negrete, ate an apple while looking at me, and the girls turned away to whisper on the monkey bars. The teachers were no help: they looked my way and talked about how foolish I looked in my new jacket. I saw their heads bob with laughter, their hands half covering their mouths.

Soto endows the coat with a miraculous ability to harm him. “So embarrassed, so hurt, I couldn’t even do my homework. I received C’s on quizzes and forgot the state capitals and the rivers of South America . . . Even the girls who had been friendly blew away like loose flowers to follow the boys in neat jackets.” Soto’s use of hyperbole loosens the students up to talk about their own fashion disasters.

Each of these stories prompt clothing memories—not all bad. Because the students are the same age, unless they are immigrant students, they share some common memories. While I remember days-of-the-week panties, they remember Underoos. I talk about Buster Brown shoes that Mom bought to last—and they did. They laugh about “jellies,” a common plastic shoe that girls wore for a period of time. I loved my Annie Oakley skirt and vest, and they loved their superhero capes or pajamas.

But we also talk about the clothes that failed us. Frank talked about the day he was forced to wear grey leather pants. “I had to go to school looking like a moving couch.” He described how one boy mocked him, “Hey, Frank, your legs look like two old bananas.” Andrew wrote about the bell bottoms that made him the target of student laughter: “‘I hate these clothes,’ I said to myself as I looked in the mirror. The thought of the day ahead was the most dreaded thing of all: classroom ridicule was my worst enemy.”

Soto also models the use of metaphorical language in narratives that I want my students to attempt in their writing. In the first line Soto writes, “My clothes had failed me. I remember the green coat that I wore in fifth and sixth grade when you either danced like a champ or pressed yourself against a greasy wall, bitter as a penny toward the happy couples.” As students read the story, I ask them to watch for his use of language and to track their own clothing memories for discussion.

Talk Time: Filling the Well

After reading the stories by Hughes and Soto, I tell students I want them to write narratives from their lives about clothing, shoes, or haircuts. The story might reveal something about the significance of the clothes: Did we believe they would give us magical power, like the Cinderella story? Did they shame us like the Soto story? Did the clothes show something about class, like my story about the competition with the senior girls or Hughes’ story? Because a prompt sometimes elicits blank stares rather than furious writing, I use student and published models, as well as a piece I’ve written on the topic, to show how different writers addressed the topic.

As we continue our discussion of clothes, class, buying clothes to fit in, as well as writing styles, we return to Hughes’ and Soto’s stories to examine the narrative characteristics each writer uses in his piece. Students highlight the dialogue in one color, and the blocking in another. I explain that blocking is a term I learned from author Reginald McKnight. In theater, blocking tells actors where to stand or how to deliver their lines. In literature, it serves a similar function. In the section of “Thank You, Ma’am” I quoted earlier, when Roger bends over the sink as he asks a question, his action is blocking. We also look at the ways both authors develop character through physical description, but also through dialogue and actions.

We read “Pro Wings,” written by my student Sarah LePage, to examine the way she details the humiliation she suffered when her mother bought her shoes from a discount store, through a series of short scenes. (See www.rethinkingschools.org/archive/19_02/stud192.shtml) We learn about both Sarah and her mother through their dialogue and blocking. I ask students to notice what the blocking tells us about both characters, how Sarah’s mother snaps and grabs her arm, how Sarah crosses her arms, and shakes her head:

“I’m not getting any shoes from here,” I announced, as my mother leads the way down the aisle crammed with my size shoes.

“You’ll do what you’re told or else!” she snapped back.

I crossed my arms, planted my feet, narrowed my eyes, and shook my head in defiance. “I said I want Jellies!”

She stopped cold, whirled around and grabbed me by the arm. She dragged me within inches of her beet red face and spoke in a hard terrifying voice, “I said you’ll do what you are told! Now go sit down and take off your shoes, ’cause these are the ones that you are getting.” She forced a pair of gray Pro Wings with matching Velcro into my clenched fists.

Sarah also uses an extended personification throughout her narrative when she describes her shoes as “wounded soldiers.”

After color-highlighting the pieces for literary devices, I distribute a clothing chart and ask students to make a list of stories that have surfaced for them, including how they got the clothes, the significance of the clothing, and a story connected to the item. At the beginning of the year, I use retrieval charts to help students collect the details of their stories. I’m not concerned if students fill this out completely; it provides a way for them to get quiet and start remembering details.

As I tell my stories from the chart, I encourage students to begin listing their stories on the chart. When students have filled out their charts, they continue to talk about their stories. This time for talk is important. Our conversations not only stir up stories for those who are stuck; our talk helps create community in the classroom.

Guided Visualization

After students find a story they want to write about, I move into the visualization. I find the visualizations provide a good segue from one activity to another. For some students, the visualization helps them collect sensory details from their memories. One student, Larry, who had slow neurological processing, told me that the visualization made him understand that the movies of his memory were the stories he needed to write. It was a breakthrough for his writing. For other students, the visualization slows down the class, clears away the previous activity, and prepares them for quiet writing time.

I close the blinds and tell students that I am going to turn out the lights as a way of helping them “see and hear” the story in their heads. After I turn out the lights, I ask them to put their heads on the desk. This requires some trust. Usually I joke around with them, ask them to stretch, take big breath; I try to put them at ease. I ask questions and leave about 60 seconds between them so that students have time to visualize. My monologue goes something like this: “You are going to be both the videographer and the actor in the scene. I want you to remember the place where the story happened. Think of the setting. [Pause for 60 seconds] Now bring on the actors. Who was there? Visualize their faces. Remember details about them: Glasses, apron, a pipe. [Pause for sixty seconds.] Now, put the scene in motion. Try to remember the dialogue and your feelings.”

After I finish the questions, I tell them to keep their heads down until I turn on the lights. When the lights go on, it signals quiet writing time. I say, “I want to hear only the sound of writing instruments for the next twenty minutes.” They finish the pieces that night and return the next day ready to read.

Sharing Stories

These stories aren’t written simply for me to read, grade, mark off, and return. The stories comprise part of the literature we read in class. Students need real audiences for their writing. Reading the narratives out loud brings those private moments of shame or humiliation, of humanity, into the open, so we can take away the pain and examine why we believed we needed to have the latest jeans to be accepted. It is the public airing of these stories that helps us excavate those private feelings of doubt, that helps develop the ability to question why our society pushes us to look a certain way, to question why we believe that the right clothes or shoes or address will make us a better person.

Before we begin our read-around, I say, “Your classmates are sharing their lives, and some incidents might be painful, so you need to listen with your hearts as well as your minds.” I also speak about the importance of positive feedback: “We want people to keep writing. If we criticized them instead of praised them, they might not want to write or share again.”

But I also want my students to consider their classmates as teachers, and to learn from each other’s stories and their storytelling techniques. So while each student reads, I tell them to listen and take notes about how the story illuminates injustice, the need to buy acceptance, and the use of language, dialogue, blocking, metaphor, or characterization. For example, Deshawn Holden’s story, “Shoes,” provides an example of redemption, of an ally who steps forward, offering refuge from the onslaught of criticism, as well as a great model for the use of humorous interior monologue also found in Gary Soto’s piece. When DeShawn’s sister leaves a pair of cheap, white shoes from Volume on his desk instead of the Nikes he hoped for, he is saved from humiliation by another student:

The most popular boy in the school, the boy who had the three F’s—fashions, friends, and fans—came up to me. Everybody looked up to him, including me.

“Those shoes are fresh, man. Here, let me lace them up for you.” He said this with such sincerity that no one else could laugh. I took him for his word as he laced those shoes up.

Chetan Patel’s story, “Baby Oil,” pushes the story beyond consumption to look at how students abandon cultural ties to assimilate into school culture. Throughout his childhood, Chetan’s mother put baby oil in his black hair as a daily ritual.

In 3rd grade, a fellow student, Anh, asked the teacher, “Why do Nimesh and Chetan have shiny heads?”

“I put baby oil in my hair,” Nimesh announced without hesitation.

“What about you, Chetan?” Anh asked, her eyes taunting me. What she really wanted was for me to say that I used baby oil. She wanted me to be humiliated in front of the class. I wasn’t going to let her have that pleasure.

“I used water,” I lied.

“And it gets that shiny?” Mrs. Todd asked frowning.

“Yup.” Mrs. Todd stared at me, trying to pry the truth out of me.

When Chetan reaches 6th grade, he abandons his morning baby oil ritual and instead, “squirted out my brother’s LA Looks gel and ran it through my hair… I marched to school and held my head up high in Ockley Green’s crowded hallways.”

Kanaan’s story about the Chuck Taylor high tops his mother kept buying him demonstrates children’s fear of being taunted for their clothes: “I hated to put them on. I was already little. They looked like they covered up my whole calf. They were too flexible. High tops were supposed to support my ankle, but these didn’t. I was embarrassed to go out in those old Chuck Taylors….Nobody ever talked about them, but I still didn’t feel comfortable. If I’d a been them kids, and I seen someone wear those same red Chuck Taylor’s everyday, I would have talked about them. They probably did talk behind my back because little kids don’t let anything go past without speaking on it.”

Jessica’s piece directly confronts the class aspect of clothes. She is a poor student at a wealthy middle school, desperate to fit in. She wants a pair of jeans like the other girls at school, but after her mother sees the price of the jeans, she tells Jessica, “I’m sorry, honey, but I really can’t afford these.” Her mother takes her to Value Village, a used clothing store, to find a pair. Jessica’s interior monologue shows her fear of ridicule:

Value Village? I was appalled. Obviously, she understood nothing and did not care about me or how I felt. Value Village was the place the popular kids ridiculed. They yelled at kids in the halls with insults, “You buy your clothes at Value Village!” They said it was place for homeless people and welfare recipients.

These stories open students to talk about similar issues: going to the welfare office with their mothers, using food stamps to buy food at the grocery stores, the humiliation of being the kid who receives the Thanksgiving basket of food. When I open my class to talk about real issues that affect my students’ lives, we can get to real learning.

This lesson on class and clothes doesn’t stand alone; it is part of a yearlong campaign to get students to examine what is taken for granted and normalized. Writing stories about clothes, hair, or fitting in becomes part of our study of literature, advertising, cartoons, and history where we ask questions about race, class and power. As a language arts teacher, I want to shine a light on the places in my students’ lives that make them feel small and vulnerable.

Too often, school allows students to stay isolated in their private feelings and observations. Their emotions and interpretations of those emotions are at the mercy of advertisers and a culture industry that rarely have young people’s best interests at heart. Writing about and discussing personal issues that have social ramifications can help overcome this isolation. As they listen to one another’s stories, students begin to recognize how they often chase dreams and compete in ways that may make some people lots of money, but leave them feeling empty.

Linda Christensen is a Rethinking Schools editor. Her students’ stories can be read at www.rethinkingschools.org.