Monday, November 15, 2010

Dressing Teens in Hard Times

So this is the year that has the potential to break the budget at our house. The clothing budget that is. Such is the case in the houses of all fast growing teens not including those independently wealthy ones. Gone are the days when I could expect my son’s clothes to fit him long enough to wear out. Following my endeavors to update his wardrobe I am shocked to observe the speed with which the floor of his bedroom is not just carpeted with dirty clothes, but with outgrown dirty clothes. Yes, he has a dresser and of course he has a very nice closet and a laundry basket. I’m not going to go into the particulars surrounding his clothes organization system. Suffice it to say that there are some areas in which a young person can safely exert independence and although I do get invasive and insist on the full laundry clean-up project on a frequent basis, the rest of the time I stay clear of the laundry-specific independence stance. I pick my battles.

Anyway, having been especially busy for a couple weeks, I had not observed just how desperate was the situation in Clothing Land for my fast growing teen. Perhaps all that candy he’s enjoyed since Halloween had contributed, but in general I knew I had a problem when he actually brought up the subject of “not-enough-pants-that-fit”. He even threw in a little something suggesting issues with underwear. Let me tell you, teenaged boys never, never, never bring up the subject of underwear with their mothers unless they’re desperate. Of course this made me wonder about all his grumpy moments over the last few weeks and whether, you know, he had been uncomfortable somehow, and whether this problem might have contributed. Something like that would make me cranky certainly. Obviously we had a problem that needed immediate attention.

Unfortunately, our clothing budget, like the rest of the planet’s budget right now, is not so very plush. This situation compels clever parents to be especially clever. Social awareness can be a huge problem with regard to options in such situations though. Teens can hold to an especially unforgiving and expensive social dress code. I myself recall my parent’s effort to fulfill my desire to have a down jacket such as what “everybody else” wore in High School. You know, nylon taffeta shell, dark color, horizontal sewn-through casings, makes you look like the “Michelin Man”. Imagine my horror when, on Christmas day in 1975, I opened the so-promising box and discovered what was technically a down jacket, but which I couldn’t be caught dead in. With a canary yellow broadcloth outer shell with down-filled taffeta lining, not at all sewn through, this jacket had come at an excellent price and was in fact a very warm and serviceable garment. It fulfilled all of my parent’s requirements, but would have been a huge red flag at my school that I was a bigger dork than anyone had previously suspected. I know my parents felt hurt when I was so disappointed and refused to wear it. My dad wore the jacket himself from time to time after that. Some kids would prefer nothing to wearing the best bargains if the bargains don’t permit them to dress in accordance with the social code.

Lucky for us we have a forgiving school for my son to be seen in. We’re fortunate too, in the fact that our son is more relaxed about his appearance than was I. He’s so relaxed that while he might indicate a need, he feels no need to participate in the process of fulfilling that need. Therefore, when I suggested that we head over to Savers together, he argued with me. In his mind, I was perfectly capable of selecting great clothes for him while he stayed at home and played video games. For the sake of brevity I will say that I found a way to explain why this didn’t work, we negotiated a plan and he came along. Of course I took a risk with this. When his older brother was of a similar age, I once tried taking him shopping for shoes in a large sporting goods store. Having gone in search of a salesperson and actually found one, I discovered that my son had disappeared. I scoured the store, not finding him anywhere. Finally I stood in the center of the store and said calmly; in a carrying voice “If Brian Hallesy does not present himself to me right now, he will have no video time this afternoon”. Brian decided to come out of the tent he’d zipped himself into and we found him shoes. Clearly he’d been overwhelmed by what must have felt like a pretty chaotic environment and took practical steps to manage the situation.

Fast forward to last week, when his younger brother found himself inside of Savers, obviously enjoying himself, picking out pants and dress shirts and very willingly trying them on. As I had found out previously that Savers was having a fifty-percent-off sale, we were able to find plenty of acceptable garments (except for the underwear which I later bought new from Target) and kept the entire tab under fifty bucks. This for three nice shirts, three pairs of jeans, a pair of trousers, a pair of sweat pants and I threw in a couple of dresses for myself too.

Next time we find our selves in a similar pinch (in two weeks?) you know what we’ll be doing…

Saturday, November 6, 2010

On Being Special

The word “special” has more than one meaning. If we say it in a positive tone, in a sentence such as “This is going to be a very special occasion!” it means something very different than when spoken in a mocking tone with air quotes “Oh, you’re so special!” as a teen might mock another.

My high school, years ago, had a “special” alternative program that general ed. students referred to as “Apple Pie High”. Of course this title was a form of mocking, suggesting that the students who attended were not intellectually or emotionally capable and to be discounted in some way. I never knew well anyone who attended there and I certainly would never have wanted to attend such a program had I had access. My attitude reflected what existed then as does still today, a de facto stigma against differences and particularly with regard to mental health issues. We haven’t in reality made much progress in the last 35 years.

In order to avoid the social stigma directed at students attending the alternative program, I worked hard to hide my own undiagnosed learning disability. Through heroic efforts, I was able to maintain reasonable grades and make it through my classes. My knowledge of the degree of effort I had to expend, contributed to my low self-esteem, which I lived with for years as I clawed my way to my bachelor’s degree and into my first jobs.

My saving grace in high school came in the form of “The Lunch Group”, a sweet, quirky, geeky group of kids to whom the students at Bridge bear a remarkable resemblance. These were the social outcasts. They were also the kids who would later become physicists, engineers, doctors, research scientists, musicians, etc. I found that although they could be very silly, and awkward, they tended to be incredibly intelligent and creative and I enjoyed their company immensely. I didn’t need them to dress according to the mid-70’s social convention for high schoolers. They didn’t need to act like the herd to earn my respect. With them I found acceptance and discovered a little self-appreciation because they appreciated me. To me, these kids were special indeed.

I bring all this up because I see Bridge as a very special place. Poorly understood, quirky, awkward, bright, creative sweet kids, come together for education and for the solace that comes from being with others who understand. Maybe some or perhaps all have suffered at the hands of others who’ve missed their qualities- haven’t seen beyond the awkwardness or missing social polish or the anxiety of being overwhelmed or bullied. Why do these kids need a small school of their own? Maybe the students at Bridge are more sensitive than the kids in “The Lunch Group”. Perhaps the local school programs here and now are less inclusive and supportive of such students than was my school. It could be that my high school was much smaller than are current middle schools and high schools. Certainly we now have large classes and overcrowded schools. Whatever combination of factors contribute to the problem, the students at Bridge need an educational home and place to be socially accepted just as much as I did.

To me a special school like Bridge is a place where kids who might otherwise be denied an academic and a social education elsewhere, have a fighting chance.