My wardrobe is looking a little worse for wear, but I hate clothes shopping, especially during Covid when so many shops would rather you didn’t try anything on. It’s no fun getting something home only to discover my new pants make my backside look like two pit bulls fighting in my underwear. Returning the offending clothing creates another errand, meaning that one miserable shopping trip commits mitosis and turns into two, or even three if my second try accentuates the ice cream that’s taken up residence on my belly. I’ve known for a while my closet was getting a bit threadbare, but now that I have to look all teachery every day, it’s getting a rather obvious. Mostly I camouflage the dearth by wearing basic pieces that I spice up with a scarf or jewelry, the same way I can travel weeks with just a carryon bag. The other day one of my students got curious about my accessories.

“Why is your scarf so thin? I thought they were supposed to be thick.”

I tried to explain the difference between a fashion scarf and a winter scarf, but he didn’t look convinced and began to pepper me with questions. Finally, I disentangled the scarf from my neck and held it out flat, a green figured wisp of translucent silk about the size of a throw. “Oh, so it’s a blanket,” he said. The category had been defined, and just like that he was satisfied. What I didn’t say was that Suzhou, where I lived in China, was famous for producing silk, and I took full advantage. One end of my walk-in closet is fully striped with tension rods holding rows and rows of wispy silk, all arranged by color, solid, or pattern, and every one of them could tell a little story.

Last year I was tutoring another student who was reading a book about President Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address, you know, November 19, 1863. “I’ve been to the battlefield and cemetery where that speech was given,” I said, thinking to describe it to her, but her eyes went wide. “Did you hear it, were you there?” she asked excitedly.

Geesh, and I had dyed my grays and everything.

She loved reading history books, but at the time it struck me that she had no context, just lists of events with no understanding of how they fit together. She too was looking for a category, a filing system for all the information cluttering the ground before her. I actually understand how she feels.

The last two weeks have been a wind tunnel of information, all of it ranging from critical to redlining. My wardrobe is truly the least of my worries, and won’t be dealt with until I have a number of far more important things under control, like lesson plans, and learning new programs, as well as teaching both in person and distance students. It’s scary, honestly, and yet I wouldn’t give it up for anything. I wanted this job badly, and now that I have it, I have a whole new set of problems.

My favorite poem is “IF” by Rudyard Kipling, in fact I taught it this last week, breaking it down to make it accessible because I believe it belongs in my students’ repertoire. I love this poem because I have lived it, and though I’ve introduced it, I know it will likely be years before any of my students fully comprehend the meaning.

I read them my favorite line, “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two imposters just the same.”

We talked and talked, and I pointed out that nothing is either all good or all bad, that even the pandemic which has brought so much misery to some, has brought unexpected opportunities to others. We discussed both the upside and the downside of being beautiful, and the potential pitfalls of winning the lottery and suddenly becoming rich. They nodded sagely, writing notes on their papers, some version of what I had put on the board, “Every gift or event is a two-sided coin.” But most of the truth remained unspoken. I couldn’t describe the horror and devastation of divorce, coupled with the sweet closeness of God who refused to abandon me, insisting on proving his love, when he truly had nothing to prove. I couldn’t talk about all the kind people I met as I learned to receive for the first time in my life. I couldn’t tell them about the day I lay on the couch entirely empty and defeated, with absolutely nothing left to give, and feeling myself picked up in the Lord’s hand and gifted the will to go on because I had depleted all my own. Instead I taught my students a nice neat set of words, and hopefully they’ll pass my quiz. I merely introduced a concept that only time can truly teach.

My experience is like my collection of scarves, vivid and colorful, saving me from the dismal reality of my tatty wardrobe, and each holding a story of how I collected it or why it caught my eye. I wish I could show it all to my students, but they would probably look at me rather uncomprehending, “Wow, you have a lot of blankets.”



If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;

If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

One Comment on “IF

  1. That is a very deep poem, and indicates the experience of the author with each topic. It’s interesting to draw parallels between this poem and the topics J.K. Rowling puts into the Harry Potter series, like those related to Rita Skeeter or the minister of magic.

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