I just came back from a trip down to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I took down 22 high school students with my organization, Jewish Student Union, with the intent of exploring opportunities for Jewish life on a college campus.
U of I also happens to be my alma mater. When I was there this past weekend, I was asked if anything had changed since I left the spacious grounds five years ago to transfer to an East Coast location at Rutgers University. Looking around at fraternity brothers casually tossing a football outside their territory, I drank in the calm but slightly eerie Pleasantville existence where everyone has nice, young legs and shuffles around nonchalantly in cozy, college branded apparel. No, I shook my head amused, not much has changed. I realized then that though U of I hasn’t changed significantly, I certainly am not the same.
I enjoyed visiting U of I to remember nostalgically a critical transition period of my past. I enjoyed even more, however, the opportunity to feel so acutely the person I have become in the ever unfolding and challenging present.
One of the most external changes in my life in the past 10 years has been my style of dress. If you knew me at Highland Park High School, you would not be surprised to see me walking through the halls in my Dr. Seuss boxer shorts, socks pulled up to my knees, loud mismatched ensembles, tie dyed color robe, and blue face paint on any school spirit day. For our annual Charity Drive, I advertised for Dress Marcy Days, in which people paid me money to dress up in any type of clothing (appropriate enough) they handed me. In one instance, I dressed for an entire day in full Gumby apparel, mask included. I continued these antics in the first couple of years of my college career, sauntering around the Illini quad in assorted regalia, reveling in being alternative.
In hindsight, I believe I made these conscious clothing decisions for an assortment of reasons. I wanted to test my peers for their acceptance—would my friends support my decisions or pretend they didn’t know me? I wanted to test my own strength in defying social norms. I was searching for identity, and if nothing else, I could bank on being known as The Girl Who Dressed Up As Gumby. In a sense, I used my external appearance as a validation for my shakier hold on internal self worth.
Now, if you see me on Devon Avenue in Rogers Park weaving in between black hatters, do not look for boxer shorts. Certainly, I still have an affinity for colors, funk, and short hair cuts. But I also find something comforting on the days when I wear clothing that blends in with the toned down safe colors which often times surround me. This comfort arises from a strikingly similar objective, though diametrically opposed tactic, to my previous elaborate clothing decisions of my youth; I want others to look beyond my façade and see the depth within.
For me, the last seven years since high school have been a dramatic paradigm shift, into attempting to keep what is within me, within. Is this related to my spiritual journey since I left home? Absolutely. Jewish laws have quite a lot to say about ideas of self respect through utilizing the external as a way of housing the internal soul. Nowadays, I only wear skirts to my knees, shirts to my elbows and high necklines.
Has U of I changed in the five years since I had the privilege of paying in state public school tuition?
Not in a way that I care to find significant.
Have I changed?
I feel in some ways that I am a revamped purified city, constantly breaking new ground to construct a stronger, more elaborate, intimate home within.
I am glad I no longer wear Dr. Seuss boxers.
I love who I was, but I love even more who I am becoming.