“Mrs. Feyen, you’re wearing the same thing you wore the last time we saw you!”
The observation comes from a little girl who’s sitting cross-legged on the library floor. She’s wearing what looks like an Easter dress: lace, and tulle, and roses, and a pair of princess gym shoes. It would’ve been the outfit of my dreams when I was her age.
“Yes, I remember those shoes,” says her friend. The friend is rocking a pair of colorful leggings and a sequined shirt.
I look at my shoes, a pair of black and white flats I found in the clearance section of Express one rainy weekend when my husband Jesse and I were shopping. Lately, I’ve been having trouble deciding what to wear, a problem I’ve never had. As a matter of fact, it used to be that there wasn’t a store where I couldn’t find something to try on. From 5 Below, to J. Crew, I’d pick up garments with ease and say, “I could totally wear this!” And I would. Something is changing though, and I’m not sure what fits, or how it should fit, or whether I should be wearing it at all.
This probably shouldn’t be a big deal, but it is. Deciding what to wear has always been a form of creativity and fun for me, a chance to play with and express a bolder side of my personality. I’ve been afraid lately, and unsure, and there’s a voice that says, “Forget that side of yourself. That side causes too much trouble. That side doesn’t know what she’s doing.”
Sometimes I listen. A few months ago, I shoved all my twirly skirts and dresses, and anything I believed was too colorful and too bold, into a garbage bag and hid it downstairs in a corner of our basement. “I will forget about them,” I thought, stomping up the basement stairs. “I will forget about that childish, whimsical, ridiculous part of myself.”
Jesse hasn’t forgotten. He still treats me like that side of me is still alive and twirling in a cream skirt with florescent orange roses that I convinced him one warm spring afternoon I had to have.
I took Jesse shopping with me at Express that rainy weekend because he doesn’t let me forget.
The day I found the black and white striped flats, I was supposed to be looking for basics. That’s how Jesse does it – he’ll buy a pair of grey or khaki pants, for example, and build from there. This is so utterly dull to me, and exactly the opposite of how I shop. I go for what attracts and delights me, and move towards it, foundation be damned.
And this is how I get myself into trouble. I have a ton of bright, delightful pieces that go with nothing, but Jesse says, “khaki,” and he may as well tell me about the latest development in hydraulics.
However, flats were on my “basics” list, so I moved towards this pair because I’ve been attracted by those stripes, while Jesse looked through a pile of pants, trying to find my size.
“Don’t pick up that size,” I muttered as I walked away, “I’m bigger now. That size doesn’t fit.”
“We’ll try both, “ he said, “just to see.”
I picked the shoes up. They were so friendly and spunky with their stripes and pointy toes.
“What about these?” I asked Jesse.
Jesse looked at the shoes and then at me. I could tell he wanted to laugh. I could tell he wanted to say, “Remember, basic,” and I could tell he was looking at a gal he’s known since he was 20. She was friendly and spunky, and it was all so easy, wasn’t it? He wants that girl back, and I was holding these shoes because I want her back, too. I could tell when I looked at Jesse, that he would help me get her back.
“What will you wear with them?” he challenged, smiling.
Two months ago, I would’ve never picked these out. Two months ago, I wouldn’t have been standing in the mall with him. Two months ago, I was yanking clothes off hangers and shoving them into a garbage bag, giving up. Jesse was smiling on this day because he knew I was beginning to give myself a chance again.
“Jeans,” I blurted.
“Duh,” he said back.
I put my hands on my hip, and leaned to the side. “I have a pair of black pencil pants. They’ll look good with these.”
“OK,” he said, and waited for more.
“What about those olive green capris?”
“Sure,” he said, “they’d look good with those.”
“Maybe a white t-shirt and silver jewelry?” I added, and then I remembered: in the garbage bag is a florescent green eyelet mini skirt. My shoes would be perfect with that skirt, and I reminded Jesse of this.
I raised the shoes above my head and shook them. “These are basic! These are a foundation!” Jesse laughed and said, “They’re your basic. They’re your foundation.”
I’m an At-Risk Literacy Specialist. The job is relatively new in many ways; I work in a library and not a classroom. The students I see are Kindergarten – 2nd grade, and I’m used to middle school students. The position itself is brand new. Nobody really knows what I’m supposed to do, nor do they know what I am able to do. It’s a perfect fit for me because my best teaching comes from using little to no curriculum. I teach from stories. They are my foundation. They are the basics.
Still, sometimes I get overwhelmed. I second guess. I think about that garbage bag with crumpled clothes on the floor of my basement and wonder if this kind of living – the kind where you move toward something that’s delightful and see what you can do with it – is too much of a hassle. Rules, guidelines, standards – they’re safe. Sometimes I wonder why I don’t fit into that kind of world. Maybe it’s because I don’t try hard enough. Maybe it’s because I’m not smart enough. Maybe I have an attitude problem. This kind of thinking isn’t just trouble. It’s dangerous. Soon, I begin thinking in “shoulds,” and I pull more clothes from their hangers. I stuff and shove and toss delight into a corner.
“You’re right,” I tell my little friends who are waiting for a story. “I was wearing these last time you saw me.” I lean towards them from my rocking chair, and whisper, “I really love these shoes. I think they might be magic.” The girls’ eyes widen, and their mouths open slightly, and they smile. They know what I’m talking about. They’re wearing magic, too.
“This is a story about an alphabet that does not want to go to sleep,” I say to the Kindergarteners. I hold up Judy Sierra’s The Sleepy Little Alphabet.
“Yes!” most of them say.
“I’m never tired!”
“I stay up ’til 400 o’clock!”
“That is late!” I exclaim. “I can’t stay up that late, but I bet some of these letters would love to stay up and hang out with you!”
I begin to read, and the book works its magic. These letters are characters, and these characters, who still need to take a bath (b), who are being naughty (n), who yell, “Don’t turn off the light!” (l), are real. The kids are quiet, or they gasp, or they whisper, “Me, too! Me, too! I do that, too!” They see themselves on the page, and all it took was the alphabet in pajamas.
The best page is the page where U shows up, and takes off his underpants.
“AAAA!” the kids scream.
“Put your underwear back on, U!”
I find you can’t go wrong with a well-placed underpants joke.
At the end of the book, the letters are all asleep, snuggled up in bed and I say, “Look at their blankets. What do you notice?” I hold the book in front of me and pass it around slowly.
“That’s notebook paper!”
Each letter has its own piece of three-hole punched, loose-leaf notebook paper for a blanket.
“What I thought we could do,” I say, putting the book on my lap, “is each make a blanket for one of the letters.” I hold up a piece of notebook paper and show them how to fold it so it’s tucked, like a letter could snuggle under.
“Or, maybe you want to make a sleeping bag,” I say, and fold another piece of paper the long way, adding a triangular fold at the top.
“Think of a letter, and think of how you would design a blanket for that letter.” I go back to the book and show the students how each letter is doing something that begins with who they are.
Because, these kids might be in Kindergarten, but isn’t that a good lesson to teach? Begin with who you are.
“So what if you choose B? What will you draw on your blanket?”
That’s what they do. Their little hands take a piece of notebook paper and turn it into a blanket for a letter of the alphabet. I walk around the library and admire their work, leaning in to listen as a little boy explains what he drew for Z, or help a little girl make a block letter S (those are tough).
The little girls are not completely right about my outfit. I did have the same shirt and shoes on, but I’m wearing a royal blue pencil skirt that was stuffed in the garbage bag until a few days ago when I remembered and decided maybe I could try again.
I pulled it out of the bag and put it on, waiting for it to feel wrong like it had a few months earlier. It fit perfectly. It was comfortable. It felt friendly, and spunky—just like my flats.
“Mrs. Feyen,” the little girl asks, handing me a Fancy Nancy book to check out. “Next week, will you wear a dress with those same shoes?”
“I would love to wear a dress next week,” I say, while I zap the barcode and hand the book back to her.
“Do you have one that twirls?” she asks, holding the book to her belly.
“Oh, those are my favorite. Yes, I believe I have one that twirls.”
I do. It’s cobalt blue, and when I run down the stairs it billows out, just like a twirl dress ought to. I have a blue and black necklace, too, and with the shoes it’ll all come together nicely.
The dress is in the basement, stuffed in the garbage bag. I will go downstairs tonight to look for it. I will fish it out of the bag. I will give it a good shake. I will see what there is to be done with this dress.
I will find my basic.
I will find my foundation.
Sleepy Little Alphabet Activity
This book not only provides a delightful introduction to the letter Bb, and the sound it makes, but loads of other literacy skills including exposure and repeated practice with high-frequency words, games to play, and guidance for grown-ups that is grounded, humorous, relaxed, and supportive. The illustrations will bring lots of smiles, and give lots of cues, all along the way! I can’t wait to send this book to the beginning readers in my life!
—Donna Z. Falcone, early childhood educator