Dressed for Success

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Teaching and Learning and Caring Blog

EL PASO — I began thinking about how people dressed and how much money they had when I lived in East Oakland.  I kept thinking about it for many more years.

I lived in East Oakland for about a year with a husband who just returned from Vietnam and had some months left to serve at the Oakland Induction Center, least favorite hangout of young men in northern California at the time. The neighborhood we lived in was almost as crazy and rough. On Sundays I swept condoms and hypodermic needles from the sidewalk. Sly and the Family Stone practiced until all hours within earshot, and a badass motorcycle gang roared up and down east 14th. I worked mornings at the School of Public Health in Berkeley and was one of the few young adults in the hood when the kids got home from school. Did I mention that by age twelve, they were all felons?  Most of them hadn’t been caught … yet. Eventually we made friends with each other. It was a rocky start; they pulled up all the flowers I planted in a 4’ by 4’ “yard.” I think we worked through our mutual suspicions because we were the only sane ones there. I taught the older ones to drive in the empty parking lot of the Oakland A’s stadium and all of them to swim at Lake Merritt. Even thinking about parental permission slips would have been a joke.

One of the things I noticed about living in East Oakland was how rich everyone looked even though they weren’t. They wore the threads and bling [a perfect word not yet invented], drove fancy cars, and had the most gigantic boomboxes. It was 1970-71. Their houses had cardboard in some windows and nobody in the family had been to a dentist in over a year.  Some stuff, lots of stuff, was stolen. Did I mention the young felons? No books, no art.  All street, all strut.

Later I started paying attention to people who were rich. I didn’t know any myself, but my brother went to an Ivy League school where the rich ones rarely washed their clothes and picked them up off the floor only to wear them. I visited once. Years later, a few groups of mostly rich kids came from small Midwestern colleges to UTEP for a “border” semester. My daughter went to a liberal arts college in Oregon where, much to her disbelief, students actually bought new jeans with holes already in them.

Kids went to classes in their pajamas and when they did dress for school, they could have been standing in line at a soup kitchen. But when they really cleaned up, you could notice the labels, the fashionable labels. It has always surprised me that people pay money to advertise for companies. The border kids were curious about our UTEP students.  “Why do the girls wear high heels to class?”  “Why is everyone so dressed up?”  I gave them the “they have to go to work afterward” line.

But the more I thought about it, I decided it was more than that. Here, education is a ticket to a destination, not a “hitchhike through the universe.” El Paso is not rough like East Oakland and it isn’t as black as East Oakland, but it is poor like East Oakland. The kids in East Oakland didn’t want an education. They wanted to be pimps or stevedores. In our consumer and success driven society, poverty is a crime, and if not a crime, then at the very least a cause for shame. It would defy logic to present oneself as poor on purpose. Because the way you present yourself is important. Even the sociologist Erving Goffman thought so. People make judgments about us, based on our appearances. And we have a way of believing that what other people think about us is true. If you are poor, poor is the last way you want to look. Bob Dylan had it wrong:  “When you ain’t got nothin’” you got everything to lose.

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  1. Wow how great to read this story — especially since Cheryl told me some of these Oakland stories back when we were both students at the University of New Mexico in the 1970s.

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