Approximately 2:30 am Monday, Driving from Atlanta to Louisville
Approximately 8:40 am, Arrive at Kentucky Juvenile Facility and begin unloading car
1st Young Man: Morning Ms. Allison!
Me: Morning Guys!
2nd Young Man: Can we help you with the equipment?
Me: Sure sweetie. I’ll bring the things in from the car and I’ll need you to take them on into the classroom. Y’all know how to set everything up, just be careful.
Group of Young Men: Ok! Yes, M’am!
(Another young man joins the group)
3rd Young Man: MS. ALLISON!!!
3rd young man: Where did you get that fit? It’s tight! If I give you some money would you get me some? Man, that is the bomb!
Me: Hang on guys, let’s talk after I finish getting everything out of the car.
(I leave the building heading back to my car. Immediately, I grab my phone and call my stepson who is home sick.)
Me: Sweetie, what’s a “fit”? One of the boys just said he loved my “fit” but I have no idea what he’s talking about.
Me: Ohhhhh. Okay, thanks sweetie.
(I re-enter the building.)
Me: So you like my fit guys? I got it from the flea market.
Young Men: Continue to talk to me about my fit as we set up the recording equipment.
For years, I was anemic. If it was anything less than 75 degrees outside I was freezing and I wore sweat suits all the time. My husband, at the time, finally got fed up with the Walmart sweats that I wore and took me to the local flea market. He insisted that if I was determined to wear them the least I could do was be fashionable. We bought thick sweat suits with hoods and some had stripes down the sides. I bought sneakers and some of them even matched the sweat suits. Finally I was warm! But, it never occurred to me to think of my clothes as a way to reach my young juvenile delinquents.
When the young men saw me in these sweat suits, it was as if I’d won the “cool points” lottery. They loved making music and recording CDs with me but seeing me in these hooded sweat suits somehow changed their perception of how they could interact with me. They began to share things about their “outside” lives in ways that they never did before. They always wanted to stay and play on the equipment but now they also wanted to stay and talk to me. It was an eye opening experience for me to say the least.
After that experience I began to pay more attention to the outer me that my students meet. Many times, I’d dress to be taken seriously as a professional for the principal and teacher but realized that that could be a barrier in getting younger people to trust me enough to make art with me. Again, I began looking for common ground and this is where I’ve found it for me. It’s all in the fit.
When I’m working in a middle school or high school, I make sure that the first day I share my love of shoes. Whether it’s my zebra striped boots or my pink plaid peep toes, the teenage girls LOVE them. They talk to me because they want to know where I shop. They stop me in hallways to chat about shoes and ask when I’m coming to their class. They want to know what I do and it allows me to begin a dialogue. I can tell the difference in their initial perceptions of me because sometimes my arthritis flares up and I can’t wear my high heels and then it seems that I have to work harder for their acceptance because they perceive me as old and out of touch.
Sometimes, my clothes actually become part of my lesson plan. Just recently, while teaching an 8th grade unit on the ancient civilizations of Mali, Ghana, and Songhai, I wore a caftan with an Adinkra symbol of Sankofa printed front and back. It’s the image of a bird flying backward with an egg in its mouth. It means “to go back and get it”, the “it” being wisdom. The students and I were able to talk about the Ghanaian traditions of using fabric and symbols to communicate and we did an art project that allowed them to create their own Adinkra inspired fabrics. As we worked, we began to speculate about enslaved Africans continuing the traditions here in the US during slavery and what meaning that could possibly have held.
Those young men crossed my mind again as I chose to wear all African clothing while teaching 3rd and 4th graders in a remote area of Alabama. The children asked me if I was from Africa, why did I wear those clothes, what was that in my hair (beads), etc. In Alabama, I didn’t choose to use my clothing in a direct lesson this time, but I wanted to subtly expose them to the idea that people who dress or look differently that you are not the enemy. They can love you and be nice, they just look different. If not for that long ago experience in a Kentucky juvenile facility, I would never have thought to use my clothing choices as a way of finding common ground in the classroom. Now, in addition to my planning time, I always spend time looking for the perfect fit.
Allison Upshaw is also known as “MzOpera”, and for the last 13 years she’s worked as a Performing Arts Integration Consultant/ Teaching Artist in AL, AR, GA, TN and SC. Her background includes two degrees in Voice Performance from Oberlin Conservatory and Louisiana State University, a union card from the Actor’s Equity Association, years of studying African influenced dance, and a stint as a college instructor of voice and acting. Allison provides residencies, workshops and professional development in arts integration. In 2012, she had the privilege of being selected to present at the 1st International Teaching Artist Conference in Oslo, Norway.
Also by Allison Upshaw in ALT/space:
Finding Common Ground